5 Top Tips for Academic Paper Success

{This is not my typewriter. But it’s awesome.}

If you need a paper done well and you need it done fast, you’ve come to the right place.

We’ve all gotten that one assignment that makes you scratch your head, try to push down sobs of defeat, and drop your head on your desk in agony at the trials of life.

But no matter what the subject is, how ambiguously the instructions are worded, and how clueless you are on where to begin, here are a few basic tips that will take you from “Say what?” to “Done and done”. And by the way, if you’ve procrastinated more than you thought humanly possible, this is doable in a matter of hours.

1. Determine Your Mission

This can be difficult initially, especially if the prof is nebulous in his wording. However, every paper needs a mission. And if you can define yours, you’re halfway there.

First, figure out what kind of paper it’s supposed to be. If your instructor didn’t tell you this much, you can definitely ask for clarification. The basic types will be informative, research, persuasive, etc.

Look at the assignment with this in mind: what do I have to accomplish? This will give you an angle and help you figure out your approach. Determining your mission will determine the process to achieve it.

Pro tip: keep an eye out for words like “compare”, “describe”, “explain”, “tell”, “in your opinion”, “defend”, etc. These are clues to what your teacher is looking for in the assignment.

2. Create Your Outline

Let’s say our mission is to inform the reader of the dangers of banana peels to the college-age demographic. Like with many assignments, you’re probably thinking, “Who cares?” Well, somebody does, and it has become your mission to dig deep and tell everyone what those dangers are. Go get ’em.

Even if you don’t have any sources yet (that’s coming right up), you can still create a rough outline, which will actually help you figure out what sources you need.

The simplest outlines (for you to write and for the reader to follow) look something like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body paragraph — Danger #1
  3. Body paragraph — Danger #2
  4. Body paragraph — Danger #3
  5. Conclusion

The great thing about these outlines is that they are 100% flexible depending on length requirements, subject matter, etc. In fact, this flexible outline idea is something I learned from Andrew Pudewa and the Institute for Excellence in Writing.

Pudewa explains how this flexible outline format can be easily adapted and lengthened for much longer papers. Check out this one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Danger Category #1 — While They’re Still on the Banana
  3. Danger #1 — Choking
  4. Danger #2 — Broken nails during removal process
  5. Danger #3 — Possible stomach problems if ingested
  6. Summary & transition to second category
  7. Danger Category #2 — After They’ve Been Removed from the Banana
  8. Danger #1 — Choking
  9. Danger #2 — Damage to untreated wooden surfaces
  10. Danger #3 — Damage to open textbooks
  11. Summary & transition to third category
  12. Danger Category #3 — The Trip from the Table to the Trashcan
  13. Danger #1 — Choking (I mean, it’s always a danger, right?)
  14. Danger #2 — Tripping
  15. Danger #3 — Slipping (Ah, the culminating danger you had in mind all along)
  16. Summary of third category and recap of all information
  17. Conclusion

Look at that. Bet you didn’t think it was possible to write a 1700+ word paper on the dangers of banana peels to the college-age demographic! Well, anything’s possible, as they say.

3. Find Some Sources

Now it’s time to hunt up some meat for your paper. Depending on the length and source requirements, you may or may not have an idea where to start.

The Internet is an incredible resource, but you have to be very careful. Definitely do NOT use Wikipedia. I’m not going to get into that–just take my word for it and stay away. When using the Internet, check the url. This will be a good indicator of whether or not a site is valid and accurate. Here is a *legit* website that explains how to determine the validity of online sources.

The library is a close second. It’s definitely not as convenient, but there is still plenty of quality information to be found. Plus, physical books are much more fun to dive into, and it’ll look impressive. Just think: you’ll stand out from the masses as a student who chooses to read physical books. Teachers like that.

Academic databases are pretty cool. Not everyone has access to them, but if you are so fortunate, they have a lot of hidden gems you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re not sure whether you have access to one in your school, or you have no idea how to use it, talk to an advisor or your professor. They’ll be more than happy to point you in the right direction.

4. Fill in the Cracks

This is where you take all your source info and plug it into your outline. It really is that simple.

I like to type up my outline in “essay form”, meaning without all the numbers. I type all the outline headers where the actual paragraphs will be, and then I type each source quote next to the header. When I’m done, it looks like this:

Introduction: “inspiring quote on the dangers of banana peels to the college-age demographic” (citation).

Danger Category #1 — While They’re Still on the Banana: “quote from banana peel expert” (citation). “quote from research article on different fruit dangers” (citation).

Danger #1 — Choking: “definition of choking” (citation). “quote on texture of banana peels” (citation).

You get the picture. I go all the way down the outline like this, just plugging in all the direct quotes and summaries from my notes with their respective citations. When I’m done, as long as I find it to be clear, I remove the outline headers, and I’m left with the first skeletal draft! And it is skeletal. But it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Next, I go through and add my own thoughts to each paragraph. Since I have the quotes and the summaries in place, I can now build off them with topic sentences, concluding phrases, and my own opinions and interpretations of the information.

Note: the interpretations part is important. You don’t just want to say, “I think Dr. Peel is correct”. First of all, you want to sound sure and confident, so don’t include “I think” or “I believe” phrases. Second, add an intelligent comment instead of just stating you agree.

After adding my thoughts, here’s what the paragraphs start to look like:

“definition of choking” (citation). Since choking happens when an object obstructs the windpipe, it causes one to wonder if such an event could happen as the result of a banana peel. The answer is yes. “quote on texture of banana peels” (citation). Because banana peels have a rubbery, unforgiving, and indissoluble nature, they are ripe cause for obstructing the malleable windpipes of college-age people when they are placed in the mouth.

When I’m done going through the paper and adding my own content to the source info, I have a completed first/second draft (whatever you want to call it).

5. Polish it Up

Now is when you read through with your red pen, keeping your word count in mind. My problem was always going too long. I often had to remove large chunks (an extremely painful process, let me tell you).

But I understand that a lot of people struggle with not having enough to say. The nice thing about this process is that if you come up short, you can look at your outline and figure out where you could add a topic (in our case, an additional danger or even a category of danger if you’re that short), or just a source.

One other thing to keep in mind when doing your read-throughs is to avoid wordiness. You may have noticed that the example paragraph about choking is WAY too wordy. I did that on purpose because the first draft of something is never pretty. Just cross out the unnecessary, superfluous, unneeded, extra (get the idea?) adjectives to keep things interesting, fresh, and moving along.

This is also the point you’ll need a title if you don’t have one already. I was always a title-procrastinator. But you don’t have to figure out the title first thing. Often it can come at the end.

Pro tip: tie the title in to your last sentence. Something dramatic or memorable that makes the reader go, “Oh, that’s why it’s called (fill in the blank)!” Leave an impression. Make it ap-peel-ing. Yes, I just made a banana peel pun. And I’m proud of it.

Ta-da!

There you have it–a simple outline of how to tackle a difficult assignment, told in 1500-ish words (yikes! See, told you I have trouble going long…and removing pieces of writing…).

Want more posts like this one? Stop by my blog for all things writing-, travel-, college-, and life-related!

If this wasn’t enough for you, or you feel you need a bit of extra help, I offer editing and coaching services! I would absolutely love to hash out educational stuff with you. And the best part? I offer special student rates. So definitely drop by if you’re interested.

What tips do you have from your college or high school experience? Which tip did you find most helpful? Leave a comment, email me (grace.rightingyourwriting@gmail.com), or drop a post on our FaceBook page! I love hearing from you all.

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