My husband has recently started his undergraduate career and asked me for some tips on writing an essay. What started as a basic how-to list became the 7-page, 4,000+-word monster you see below.
My husband and I both went to the same high school, which was a fairly decent school, but none of our teachers ever gave us clear instructions on how to write essays. There were some basic mumblings about outlines, topic sentences and thesis statements, but we always felt as though we were just flailing about until we found something the teacher didn't say needed to be changed, without ever knowing what we did right or wrong.
This lack of clear instruction continued for me in college until I developed a system for getting A's on my papers every time. It took me until the second semester of my junior year to develop this, and until my final semester to perfect it, so it didn't do me much good overall. I share it in the hope that it will help current and future undergrads who received a similar education.
Obviously, as I majored in English, most of the examples are from English Lit. essays, but this method should be widely applicable. A lot of the steps go against conventional thinking about writing essays. Some run exactly counter to how your teachers will tell you to write essays. If you're taking a class where you have to turn in each step of your writing process (index cards, outline, rough draft, etc.), just do the bullshit your teachers wants, but use this method in the background.
I can't guarantee you'll get an A on every paper if you use this method. I can't guarantee it will work for you. All I can say is that every time I used this method to write a paper, I got an A on that paper. If anyone else has another method that works well for them, please share it in the comments.
Angela's Method for Writing an Undergraduate Research Paper
1. Do a small amount of research, i.e. read a couple Wikipedia articles, search for your topic in JSTOR or whatever to see how many “full text” articles pop up. Don't read them yet, skim them if you must.
2. If your preliminary research shows there will be plenty of info on your topic, great! if not, pick something else unless you're very interested in that area of research. Needle-in-a-haystack papers can be fun, but only if the topic fascinates you. This outline does not cover that type of research paper.
3. Based on titles, abstracts, and skimming, find two articles about the same specific aspect of your topic. Read them carefully and take notes as follows (if doing research with print texts, it may be easier to do this on paper, then transfer those notes to a Word document):
a. Before reading, copy down all the information needed for your citation. If you wait until after reading it, you WILL forget. Even if you don't use the paper, you are saving time in the long-run by making this a habit.
b. In a Word document, type your citation, then below that, type any and all quotes or paraphrases you might remotely consider using from that article, each as their own paragraph. After the quote or paraphrase, type the parenthetical citation, just as you would in your final paper. This habit will save you about 2 hours of time compared with going back through your sources to find page numbers.
c. Repeat a and b for the second article.
4. Now you have a good chunk of notes, all focusing on a single aspect of your topic. This will dictate your thesis statement. Find an over-arching main point from those articles that you will seek to prove. This main point should be backed up by 3-5 supporting facts. Write that in one sentence, and you have your thesis statement. Examples:
a. “In Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” Ophelia suffers a series of traumatic events which lead to a severe case of acute depression, leading to her eventual suicide: Hamlet's apparent madness and breaking off of their relationship, her father's murder, and the extended absence of her beloved brother.”
Here, there is a main point that Ophelia's depression and suicide are caused by events in the play. The supporting facts are Hamlet's behavior, her father's murder, and her brother's absence. You'll notice that this sentence is awkward and could probably be worded better. That did not matter, I still got an A on this paper.
b. “Tennessee Williams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a Postmodern play in that it (a) deals with a psychological meltdown with elements influenced by the author’s own life, (b) is a reflection of the time in which it was written as well as having influenced that time, and (c) contains stylistic elements unique to Postmodernism.”
This one is very explicit about what the main point is and what the supporting facts are. My personal preference is for three supporting facts. I feel that less than three doesn't make for a strong enough argument and more than three just gets unwieldy. As you can see in this example, even just three supporting facts can be difficult to juggle in a single sentence.
c. “This play employs the five main characteristics of literary Absurdism, namely: satire, dark humor, incongruity, apparently purposeless situations, and uncertainty.”
This one is about “Waiting for Godot.” The name of the topic doesn't have to appear in the thesis statement, so long as the topic is clearly identified by name in the opening paragraph. More on that later. I used five supporting facts for this thesis for two reasons: firstly, I didn't have much to say about each individual fact, so only exploring three facts would have made my paper too short (remember, your first loyalty is to your grade, not to the quality of your scholarship); and secondly, my research indicated that Absurdism has five distinct characteristics, all of which are also present in the play. It made no sense to leave two out.
d. “Malory's story of Pelleas and Ettard points out the problems with a non-unanimous observance of courtly love including cruelty of the love interest, emasculation of the lover, and the possibility of less scrupulous knight taking advantage of the situation.”
Three supporting points just seem to flow better in a sentence. This one is about a specific story from Le Morte D'Arthur. Note the typos. That's what happens when you stay up late to write a paper and don't go back to edit it afterward. If I had a pickier teacher, I would not have gotten an A on this paper.
5. Now is time for the bulk of your research. Go through each of these the same way you did the first two articles in step 3: citation, copious notes, parenthetical citations.
a. Start with a reputable popular article, such as one from a newspaper or magazine, with a general overview of your chosen topic. This will be good for those basic facts you might need to cite that you already know about your topic from reading Wikipedia. You still usually can't cite Wikipedia, so find one of these types of articles to cite instead. Find another one to set in a “read later” pile in case you need another basic source. Just stick with taking notes from one for now, though.
b. If you're very lucky, there will be a third article along the same lines as your first two. It is more likely, though, that you will find one or two that are tangentially related to that specific aspect of your topic. Take notes from one or two of these, depending on how many sources you need. If you find others, set them in a "read later" pile.
c. Now that you have a really good handle on the scholarly interpretations of your topic, go for the primary sources. In English Lit, your primary sources would be the actual novel, play, or poem your paper is based on (or the collected works, journals, and letters of a particular author). In history, primary sources would be contemporaneous accounts, archaeological findings, etc. I know, your teachers would probably tell you to read and take notes on the primary sources first, but teachers are often wrong. Depending on your topic, the primary sources can be the hardest part of your research. Obviously, most of the time you want to take a look at the primary sources before digging into the analysis (exceptions to this rule include science, law, and history classes, where primary sources always come last). However, it is a bad idea to spend much time taking notes on or analyzing the primary sources until you know what to look for. (Independent research and analysis is a beautiful thing, but you have a paper to write. Undergraduate papers are not about exploring your own theories, they are about condensing and explaining other people's ideas. Save the independent analysis for your free time, your GPA will thank you.) So, what do you do with those primary sources at this point? Read them (or examine them, if it's not a written work) and pick out quotes (or whatever) that directly support your thesis, your supporting facts, or just bits you might like to quote in your introduction or conclusion.
6. Introductions and conclusions. The bane of the undergrad's existence. If you remember that most teachers like cheesy introductions and sappy conclusions, you can take advantage of the grading halo by impressing them at the beginning and end with little effort on your part.
Open up a second Word document that you will be writing your paper in. Type in your header information, your working title (nothing too fancy, just a headline version of your main point), and your fully written-out thesis statement. By “fully written-out” I mean that you would include, for example, the title of the work and the author in the same sentence as the thesis statement, like in the first two examples in step 4. The exact wording will probably get polished up before you turn your paper in, so don't worry about it sounding good at this point. If you have a sentence or two in mind that you know you'd like to put in your introduction, go ahead and do that now. If not, don't worry about it. In my experience, introductions are awkward beasts until the meat of the paper is finished, and conclusions are after-thoughts hastily tacked-on just before you turn in your paper. So long as you remember “cheese” and “sap” and proofread everything before you turn it in, your grade will not be affected.
Within your document, form a proto-outline. With my method, you will never be writing a complete outline. They are an absolute waste of time. A proto-outline looks like this (from the Ophelia paper):
[DEATH OF POLONIUS]
Each of these “tags” will remain at the beginning of their respective paragraphs until you are ready to proofread your paper. I put them in all-caps in brackets so they are impossible to miss as I'm scrolling through the document. This way, if I want to jump from working on one paragraph to another, I can easily find the paragraph I want without having to skim each paragraph's content. This might seem a small convenience on a short paper, but once your paragraphs start sprouting paragraphs, it will be a godsend. It is also important to make them stand out so you don't forget to remove them before turning in your paper.
Each of your supporting points should have its own topic sentence. This could be something simple, such as “Ettard shows excessive cruelty toward Pelleas because of her disdain for the rules of courtly love,” or it might be a multi-part sentence, like your thesis statement, with supporting points backing up your supporting point. It does not have to be eloquent or detailed at this point. It's just serving as a guidepost.
7. Go back to your notes document. Using either the highlighter or the font color editor, color-code each individual quote or paraphrase based on which part of your essay it will work best in. If you aren't sure how you might use it, leave it black (if you're color-blind, use contrasting fonts to differentiate). If you're absolutely certain at this point that you won't use it, cut and paste it to the bottom of your document. Leave a large gap between the bottom “accepted” quote and the top rejected one to avoid confusion. This gets it out of the way for now, but there's no sense in deleting it yet, as you might change your mind.
8. Paraphrase as many of the quotes in your notes as you can, and build sentences around those quotes that you can't paraphrase, then copy/paste (don't cut and paste, you want the sentences to still be in your notes document) your sentences into the appropriate portion of your essay document, except those that you might use for in the intro/conclusion and ones you aren't sure of how to use. Remember that when you're quoting or heavily paraphrasing a scholarly source, you want to throw a phrase in like “according to [whomever], ...” or “[whoever] wrote in [his/her] article, '[title of article],' ...” Not only will it boost your grade and flesh out your word/page count, it's good scholarship and actually makes quotes less jarring for the reader. It's one of those annoying-to-write-but-easy-to-read things, like writing “s/he said” after every bit of character dialogue in fiction.
When you copy/paste your sentences, it doesn't matter yet what order they go in, so long as they're under the right tag and not before the topic sentence for that paragraph.
If your paper is supposed to be double-spaced, go ahead and hit CTRL-A and double-space the whole thing right now.
Take a look at your page/word count. Ideally, you should be about half a page (~200 words) under or over the minimum your teacher expects for this paper. If you're one-and-a-half to two pages under or one page over the minimum, that's probably fine, depending on the length expected. If you're three or more pages under, you either need to go back take more notes from your sources, or find a few (or a lot) more sources. Just repeat step 5. If you're more than one page over the minimum count, you might be fine or you might end up having to remove some things, depending on how much bulk is added when you flesh it out. If your assignment is 3-5 pages, and you're on page 5 after only copy/pasting your notes, you have too much and need to cut out some. If it's a 5-10 page assignment and you're on page 7 at this point, you'll be fine.
9. Hit CTRL-A again and collapse your document back down to single-spacing, if you double-spaced it earlier. It's easier to edit a document when you can see more of the words on your screen at one time. Focusing on just one paragraph at a time, move your sentences around so they make more sense, adding connecting words or transition sentences as needed, making sure to keep the citations with their respective sentences. You may notice as you're doing this that there are certain areas that need to be fleshed out more, or certain facts you want to include that you don't have citations for. Write these down (either in a notebook you keep on your desk for such purposes, or in your notes document) and come back to them later. Another option would be to put directly into your essay document something along the lines of “[INSERT SENTENCE ABOUT (WHATEVER) HERE].” Again, in all-caps and brackets so you can't miss it while skimming.
10. Now we're going back to the introductory paragraph. There are two options for a good intro: fact-quote-thesis or fact-fact-thesis.
a. Fact-Quote-Thesis: Find a short quote to build your introduction around. It could be from a primary source, or one of your scholarly articles. Do not pick a quote from the popular article, it won't be good enough. Again, remember to build a sentence around it. No one likes free-floating quotes. The basic formula for this type of introductory paragraph is: Fact, Quote, Sentence, Thesis, Transition.
The first sentence is supposed to be something that “pulls your reader in,” but it's usually pretty boring. In English Lit., it might be, “Within the context of the Arthurian Legend, and often outside that context as well, Merlin is known to be the greatest, most powerful wizard who has ever lived or ever will live.” In History, it might be, “Despite its name, the War of 1812 actually lasted from 1812 to 1815.” The first sentence is just some little fact that doesn't need to be cited (common knowledge). The first sentence is one of the six+ sentences that should never have a citation attached to them (the others being your thesis statement, the rewording of your thesis statement in the conclusion, and the topic sentences of each of your supporting paragraphs). You may choose to put the title and author (or whatever) in your first sentence rather than in your thesis statement. Just make sure that if you move this crucial information out of the thesis statement, that your thesis is still clear. I once had a teacher take points off because he "couldn't find the thesis statement." I thought it was pretty clear (and thought he was an idiot), but don't take chances. When in doubt, leave that information in, even if you feel you're repeating yourself.
Then you tack in your quote sentence. You may need a transition sentence or phrase between the fact and the quote for smoother reading, but if you can't figure one out right now, skip it. You can write it during proofreading. You will almost certainly need a transition sentence between your quote and your thesis, and you will want a transition sentence between your thesis and your first supporting paragraph. Again, if you cannot come up with how to word these sentences yet, skip them and write them during proofreading.
b. Fact-Fact-Thesis: This works pretty much the same as F-Q-T, but instead of the quote, include an interesting fact or two. This fact would need to be cited, because interesting facts are rarely common knowledge. F-F-T is my preferred method for intros because I tend to save the quotes for the conclusion. Facts are cheesy, quotes are sappy.
11. Now for the last round of research. All those little things you noted in step 9 you now have to find the answers to. First, look for things to use from your notes document. Anything that didn't get color-coded because you didn't know where to use it is fair game here, as are all those things you thought you definitely wouldn't use. Flesh out everything you can with those, but most likely there will still be some gaps that need to be filled. So bring up those popular articles you set aside for the basic facts, and the extra scholarly articles you didn't use for the more specific facts. Write down their citations. Read through them, but instead of taking notes on anything that might be useful, look specifically for things that will fill holes in your paper. Again, write your quotes and paraphrases in your notes document (you're preserving these notes because you might be able to use them in a future paper), but right after doing that, try to immediately fit your source into your paper. If you can't do it right now without it being clunky, just drop the quote/paraphrase in there gracelessly. You'll pick it up in proofreading. Just make sure to note your citations.
12. Go to the end of your document and insert a page break. Type “Works Cited” at the top (if you're using MLA format). Copy/paste the citations of any sources that you cited in your paper (i.e., any that have color-coded quotes associated with them, or any that have quotes you were just working with in step 11) into your Works Cited page. Put them in alphabetical order by author's last name (or title of work, if author is unknown). Adjust your spacing and indents. Using the highlight function, highlight each author's name (or first word of the title) in a different color. Then, working down the list one author at a time, find every place where you cited that author in your paper and highlight the parenthetical citation in that author's color. If there is an author you didn't find cited in your paper, find out why. If you forgot to move their quotes to your document in step 8, do so now, finding a place for them to fit best into their respective paragraphs. If it's because they didn't have anything worthwhile to cite, delete them from Works Cited. Conversely, if you find a parenthetical citation in your paper that hasn't been highlighted, move that citation to your Works Cited page now and assign the author a color and highlight the parenthetical. Leave it like that for awhile.
13. Now's the best part: Proofreading! I highly recommend that for your first round of proofreading, you should be either a little sleepy or a little drunk. Both do the same thing to your brain. Sleepiness/drunkenness makes one more creative. You want that at this point. But if you're too sleepy/drunk, you just get sloppy. Moderation in all things. So, stay up 'til 1 am or have a couple beers, then sit down to work on your proofreading. Do not get drunk/intentionally sleepy at any other point in this process. Only for step 13.
Firstly you want to delete your tags. Anything in brackets and all-caps gets removed, but be sure you've covered all the research notations if you used that option in step 9. Now, read your paper, focusing on only one paragraph at a time. Obviously, fix typos if you come across them, but what you're really looking for right now is proper flow and rhythm. Any transitions between sentences you couldn't figure out with your fully-awake brain, awkward and dopey topic sentences, etc. Trim it up and make it sing. You'll probably be moving sentences around again, cutting duplications and superfluous facts, and so on, so be sure you're keeping the parentheticals with their respective quotes/paraphrases. I know I've said that a lot, but it's really important.
Then, after making each paragraph pretty, work on your transitions between paragraphs. The key to this is a concept I call “gems.” Each paragraph has a gem – the small morsel of information, usually just a couple words, it's getting at. It's often not the topic sentence concept, either, which I still find surprising. The topic sentence is backed up by all these facts, which coalesce to form another, slightly separate point – the gem. Once you find this gem, you incorporate it into the topic sentence or the sentence after the topic sentence of the next paragraph. This is slightly advanced stuff and takes practice to really get, but once you get it, your teachers will adore you. If you don't get it yet, don't worry about it. Just let each paragraph stand on its own and you'll be fine.
If you don't like your working title, now is the time to change it. Most teachers don't care what you title your paper (I honestly think most don't even look at the title), but those that do care want the title to be short and directly related to your thesis. Don't get too creative here. Err on the side of simplicity.
Lastly, after you've made your paper sing and you're still in a particularly poetic mood, write your concluding paragraph. Throw in a quote, bemoan the fate of the main character/author/historical figure, shine a ray of joyous hope on the future of the topic. Don't lay it on too thick, but tinge your conclusion with emotion somehow. Just make sure that, in doing so, you restate your thesis. That shit's always in the rubric, so you'll lose points if you don't. And your conclusion doesn't have to be too long. A couple sentences will do, if they're longer ones. Here's a couple examples:
a. “In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams portrays a mental breakdown in a uniquely Postmodern way, including surrealist elements, autobiographical references and tying the themes firmly to the times in which he wrote. Though the 1940’s was not a decade that was open to “overt homosexuality,” Williams was able to take “his own tortured searching for sexual and emotional fulfillment” and turn it into “plays with remarkably frank heterosexual themes” (Gardner 1331) which explore “the dynamics of sexuality, violence, and alienation” (Gainor 681) in a way that was embraced by the public at the time and continues to be relevant today.”
b. “Despite the power struggles between Merlin and Nimiane in the Prose Merlin, the story seems to be more focused on simply being a love story of fatal tragedy. Despite her cunning, Merlin's imprisonment is not truly Nimiane's doing: the ending was determined well before her birth by the gods. Tennyson took this story about fate and turned it into a story about the evil possible in women. Written at a time when women still had few rights, but the women's rights movement was just getting started, this poem could easily be read as an allegory of the political situation at the time.”
c. “Pelleas is a knight who lives by the rules of chivalry and courtly love, but steadfastly following these rules does him no good when those around him do not follow the same rules. Ettard – described as “proud” by outside observers three separate times in the story – doesn't care to follow a set of rules which will make her the lover of a man she doesn't like, and Gawain is simply a womanizer who doesn't care to miss an easy opportunity. Here Malory uses Gawain's reputation, created in the French texts, for being a man “with whom no woman was safe” (Hopkins 55) and who only vaguely followed the rules of chivalry, at best (53), to great effect. While the version of this story in the Suite de Merlin has Gawain unexpectedly falling in love with Ettard, Malory removes all mention of Gawain's emotional state (Larrington 115), changing the story into a commentary on the vulnerability of the knight in love.”
Now get some sleep.
14. After getting plenty of rest, read through your paper again, fixing the typos you inevitably made while proofreading. If you have the time, set the paper aside, don't even look at it, for two full days. Then proofread it again, sober and awake. You probably don't have the time, though, so just read it over now and fix the mistakes you see. Again, if you have the time, have someone else look over it for typos and to assess the flow and rhythm of your words. One of your fellow classmates might be willing to trade papers with you for this purpose. Just make sure the person is honest, competent, and can give constructive criticism. Someone who just says, “looks great!” is totally useless to you.
15. If you're using MLA format (and maybe some others too, but MLA is all I have experience in), look for places where you've cited the same author twice (or more) in a row. Delete the author's name (but leave the page number) from each citation except the first one in the chain. See Purdue OWL for more details on MLA citations.
Double-check once again that all sources in your Works Cited have been used in your paper and that all sources used in your paper are included in Works Cited. It's a simple thing, but so easy to fuck up, and you do not want to lose points over something like that.
Remove all the highlighting from your essay and Works Cited pages.
Double-space, if needed. Check your page count. If it's not enough, you need to spend some more time fleshing things out.
16. Now, again, if you have time, we get to the “nit-picky stuff.” These are tiny mistakes that could cost you points on an otherwise well-written paper. Turn on your Nonprinting Characters. Your screen will be filled with dots and arrows and paragraph symbols. Did you tab to indent your paragraphs, or did you format your paragraphs to be indented? Tabbing could mess up the way your paper looks on your teacher's screen, if you're submitting it electronically. Is everything in the same font, or did you switch between Arial and Calibri at some point? Just hit CTRL-A and change it all to one font, with one font size. All the dots are spaces. Is there some place where you hit spacebar twice between words? Get rid of that. Some teachers are surprisingly picky about that sort of thing, though most aren't that insane. Still, if you have the time, don't take chances.