Planning is one of the most important parts of the paper writing process
. A lot of us may like to think that we can dash off a great lab report or history essay without doing much research or creating an outline, but it's a simple fact that the more you plan, the better your paper will be. Making sure you're on the right path from the beginning will also help you save time when you're writing: nobody likes to get the end of long paper only to discover that they've missed a key piece of evidence or written in the wrong format. So, next time you sit down to write a paper, start by asking yourself these five questions.
What am I trying to accomplish?
This might seem like a silly question, especially to students. You want to get a good grade, right? But in order to write good papers
you need to think beyond this simple answer and dig a little deeper. You know you want to get a good grade, but how will you do that? In other words, what does your paper need to accomplish in order to get a good grade? It's important you figure out the answer to this question before you start writing so that you can be sure every aspect of your paper is helping you meet this goal. The objective of your work will vary depending on what kind of paper you're writing, but in general most academic work will be trying to accomplish one or more of the following:
- To demonstrate that you understand the material. At its most basic, an academic writing assignment is a way for you to show your teacher that you understand what he or she has spent all that time teaching you. A writing assignment is a way to show off what you've learned, whether it's the plot of a book you were supposed to read for class, a scientific concept covered in a lab, or the importance of a historical event discussed in a lecture.
- To demonstrate that you can build a logical argument. Academic work isn't just about showing off the facts you've learned-it's also about demonstrating that you know how to take what you've learned and apply it. If you're being asked to take a stand in your paper, make sure you're work focuses on your argument and doesn't just summarize.
- To explain your point of view. Personal or persuasive essays are a place to describe your own position on a particular topic. If the point of your paper is to explain what you think, make sure your viewpoint comes through loud and clear in your writing.
- To present original work. If you're doing original investigative work, then the main purpose of your research paper will be to explain your findings in a way that's clear. You'll want to highlight both the conclusions of your work and the importance of your work to the rest of your field.
Are you doing something original?
For most academic writing
projects, developing your own original argument is an important part of the assignment. So, as you're working, ask yourself if what you're writing is something new and interesting. A lot of students can fall into the trap of summarizing plot or just restating other people's arguments instead of building a persuasive argument of their own. It doesn't have to be profound or earth-shattering; what's more important is that you come up with an idea of your own and find the evidence you need to build a sound, persuasive, and logical argument.
Keep in mind though, that research doesn't happen in a vacuum-obviously you'll be citing other people's work in the course of your writing. However, even if you're building on the work of others, you need to make sure that you're adding something new to the discussion. It might seem like in high school or even college that you don't have anything new to say, but putting in the effort to be original will pay off.
Who is my audience?
One of the most important things you need to do before you start writing is identify your audience: who's going to be reading your work and what are they going to be looking for? Every reader is going to have different skills and knowledge, and part of your job as a writer is to make sure that your work matches your audience's needs and abilities. Before you start writing, as yourself:
- Who is your audience? Are you writing for a professor? A journal? a newspaper? In order to analyze your audience, you need to be clear who you're writing for.
- What is the audience's reading level? You should match your writing to the reading level of your audience.
- What does your reader already know? Make sure to explain terms and concepts your audience can't be expected to already know.
- What does your audience care about? Anticipate if your audience is going have a personal or emotional reaction to your work and write accordingly.
When writing in an academic setting, when your audience is your professor, this usually means you need to figure out what your instructor is looking for. Pay attention to the specifics of the assignment, and if you have questions don't hesitate to ask for clarification.
Is this paper formal or informal?
Before you start writing, you need to gauge the level of formality your paper will require. Obviously, academic papers are going to be written in a style that's more formal than, say, an email. But even within academic work there is variation in the style of papers you may be asked to write. In-class essays, for example, do not normally require the same level of organization and sophistication that take-home essays do. Similarly, ten-page research paper
will need to be more formal than a single-page response paper. Here are some issues you need to pay attention to when you're trying to write formally:
- Diction. Choose your words carefully if you're trying to make your work sound professional. Stay away from casual language (for example, the word kids can be replaced with children), cliches, and any phrases that sound conversational (for example, calling a novel a "page turner").
- Style. Avoid personal pronouns (I, we, our, you), contractions, and abbreviations.
- Sentence structure. Formal writing will use concise, well-crafted sentences. Avoid long, meandering sections of text that that read more like a rambling conversation than an organized paper.
What are your limits?
There's one last question you need to ask yourself before you start writing: what can't I do? It's important that you know your limits when it comes to research and writing. Will you have the access to the resources you need to answer a particular research question? Will you be able to provide a clear argument in the space and time you have? Also consider whether you are actually going to be able to prove your thesis with the evidence you have. While you might want to make a grand, sweeping statement or take a stand against a commonly accepted position, make sure before you start that you'll be able to make a convincing argument. If at any point you find that your evidence just doesn't hold up, there's nothing wrong with changing course, but it'll be a whole lot easier if you ask yourself this question before you start writing rather than halfway through your work.