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An English Major’s Guide to Writing Papers

An English Major’s Guide to Writing Papers

Remember, words are powerful, but so are you!

Kristen Lemaster

February 14, 2013

One of my favorite things about language is that no two people have exactly the same arsenal of diction and syntax from which they can pull and construct their writing and everyday conversations.

There are words I do not know but that other people use on a daily basis, and there are words that, to me, have a slightly different connotation from what they mean to someone else. This translates into each of us having a unique style of writing, which is definitely something to be celebrated.

However, when it comes to writing papers, especially those in college, your style of writing will necessarily be challenged. Writers have to make certain concessions in order to be understood by readers (and obtain that elusive A+ from the grader).

If you find that you have great ideas but often struggle with articulating them into a logical and cohesive argument, that is completely normal, but your problems might be solved by following these paper-writing tips.

1. Pick your quotes first.

As you read, mark passages that seem significant and jot down lines that express an important idea or sentiment. If there is a phrase that especially captures your attention, because it is so true or so well worded or so beautiful, it is probably worth looking at more in depth.

Afterwards, review all those quotes you selected and think about why they stuck out to you or why they are important to the piece as a whole; that way, whether you are writing on a novel or only a short essay, you have an arsenal of direct quotations from the primary source.

Also, instead of cherry-picking ideas to fit an arbitrary thesis, you will uncover the true meaning of the text.

2. Make connections, comparisons or criticisms.

How are the ideas related, similar or different, or incomplete? How do they fit into the literary canon or the larger topic at hand? How can likening this idea to a similar one, or pointing out the discrepancies between this idea and a different one, change the way we perceive it? How could the idea be challenged, improved, or considered more holistically? Rather than simply laying out your point, make sure readers understand why it matters.

3. Organize your paper.

Read it aloud, or to someone who does not know the material, in order to gauge where you make too big a jump between thoughts or do not provide enough evidence to support your claim. Use transitions to make your paper read more smoothly and logically.

When you have finished writing, double-check your introduction and conclusion; both of them should be narrowed down to focus only on what you have written, but these two paragraphs alone should be able to chart the course your argument has taken.

Lastly, give yourself enoughtime to edit – a lot – so that no sentence seems superfluous and no ideas are repeated just for length’s sake.

4. Proofread for common mistakes and poor writing habits.

Always check for grammatical errors. “Less” where it should be “few” or “between” where it should be “among” are examples of small errors that can be fixed when you remember for look for them.

Know your own weaknesses. For example, I tend to be long-winded in writing, so I might ultimately split the majority of my sentences in two to make them easier to follow.

Avoid anything that will weaken your authority, from passive voice to first person to too many qualifiers.

Above everything else, you want your paper to sound like you – the intelligent, eloquent you who invested so much time and energy into the planning, research, and writing of the paper.

If you get stuck or need extra help, meet with your professor during his or her office hours, make an appointment with a tutor or seek guidance free of charge at the university writing center.

Remember, words are powerful, but so are you!


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