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Academic Writing

Academic Writing: Tips to Succeed and Pitfalls to Avoid

Dec 18, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
When writing an academic paper - whether it is an essay, a research paper, a report, or some other type of formal paper - there are certain steps you can take to help ensure your success. It is equally important, however, to avoid activities that will slow your progress or degrade your final product. Below your will find some of the tips and techniques to get you going in the right direction, as well as some of the pitfalls to avoid when writing the academic paper.

Write About What You Like

One of the very first actions you take in the process of writing an academic paper is the most crucial: selecting a topic for your paper. While it may be tempting to delve into the realm of the unknown in order to expand your knowledge (or impress your professor) - don't take that risk! Unless you are prepared for the very real possibility of failure, you will most likely be better off picking a topic you have at least some familiarity with. That way, you will already have some direction to lean towards when conducting research. Another advantage is that choosing a topic that you are somewhat familiar with will allow you to better narrow your topic so that you'll be able to fully develop your ideas within the limited space of your paper. After all, it's better to present a fully developed, thorough analysis of your topic than it is to explore a complex, unfamiliar topic that wanders about in all directions.
It is also a good idea to choose a topic that genuinely interests you or that you have a strong opinion about. For example, if you feel strongly that smoking should be banned in public gathering places because of the associated health risks, you will find it much easier to generate ideas and present a persuasive argument within your paper. On the other hand, if you know and/or care little about the topic, you will find it difficult to present with any degree of passion your main points and arguments, and so your support will be weaker and less convincing.

Understand the Process of Writing

The first pitfall that many writers of academic papers encounter is the urge to sit and write the paper, start to finish, in one draft and/or in one sitting. Often, this is the result of waiting too long to begin the writing process - and, yes, writing should be considered a process.
Consider starting with some prewriting activities: For example, you may have difficulty getting started or generating ideas, and staring at a blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration, will likely not help. Instead, begin by doing some free-writing, make a list or cluster to brainstorm for ideas, and/or make an outline of what you intend to write about. All of the aforementioned activities are excellent ways to overcome that initial hesitation to get started. Additionally, they are great ways to generate ideas, gather support, and find interrelated content that will later be included in your paper when you begin the drafting process. Similarly, you may also find that some of your initial ideas do not fit or support your main points. This is a good time to eliminate extraneous information as well.
Then next step in the process is to begin your first draft. Keep in mind that is will be a draft, and by definition you should feel freer in the knowledge that you still have room for revisions and editing. In fact, you may find through the process of your draft that your thesis statement needs to be modified to better fit the support of your paper. Content revisions are likely and will lead to a stronger and more unified overall paper. During this stage, you may want to avoid doing much editing (that comes next!); instead, focus mainly on revising your main concepts and check for areas of weakness that would benefit from going back to conduct additional research.
During the next step of the writing process is where you'll perform most of your edits in preparation for your final draft. By this point, your paper should be mostly solid in terms of your development of thesis and its support. Here is where you will check for errors in grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, and usage. If you're not the world's greatest grammarian (and even if you are) it always helps to get a second set of eyes on your work, someone who has the ability to spot errors that you might have missed.

Go for Help!

Often, because writing is typically a solitary, lonely act, it is easy to overlook the benefits that seeking help from other people can produce in your work. As mentioned above, if you can have someone proofread your paper for errors, your work will look much more professional.
Besides editing, however, whenever possible, have someone you trust take a really close look at the content of your paper. Tell that person to do their best at poking holes in your arguments. Challenge your reader to find errors in your reasoning or inconsistencies in your logic. Of course, you will need to keep an open mind during the peer review process. Be willing to accept that your paper may not be perfect, and make changes accordingly. However, realize that not all advice is on-target; you may need to be selective in terms of what feedback you implement. After all, you may be more of an authority on your topic than your reader.
Do not hesitate to consult with your instructor during the writing process. Before you dive headfirst into your topic, run it by your instructor to see what he or she thinks. You may find that it is not something particularly appropriate for the type of paper he or she is after. Your instructor will likely also be able to point you in the right direction in terms of locating resources for your research, too. Another benefit is that your instructor will see firsthand that you are interested in the topic, which should portray you in a positive manner.

Keep Up!

How can you do your paper justice if you haven't been keeping up with your coursework? The simple answer is that you can't. Attend your classes regularly, and take good notes. Keep up with the reading and other related work so that you don't have to spend that time making up the work that could otherwise have been devoted to working on your paper.
Time management is crucial. Prepare a calendar and a schedule, considering the important dates for your paper in coordination with the rest of your time necessities. This will allow you to make accommodations for unforeseen circumstances that could hinder your paper's progress.

What to Avoid

Concentration is critical, and procrastination is the killer! You can't concentrate if you're mentally unprepared for the task at hand. Avoid things that sap your ability to concentrate: hunger, fatigue, and mentally and emotionally consuming aspects that diminish your ability to concentrate.
Besides making sure you have adequate time to produce quality work, take steps to ensure you have an environment (both mentally and physically) that promotes concentration. Attitude is critical. Avoid a negative attitude. If you keep a positive attitude, your work will not seem so much like work. Keep a realistic attitude, a positive attitude, an open-minded attitude.
Avoid distractions. (This is easier said than done.) If your cellular phone, the Internet, the television, your pet, or some other potential temptation is going to be too difficult for you to ignore, take the necessary steps to find the time or place to isolate yourself from those distractions. Schedule time and communicate with people the importance of your paper, and, chances are, they will aid you in reaching your goal.

Just Do It!

Finally, but possibly the most important action you can take, is to just start writing. That's it; just start writing. It may sound elementary, but it is critical that you get the flow of ideas onto paper as soon as possible. Staring at a blank screen, allowing yourself to become distracted - even focusing too much on research rather than writing - can all be very counter-productive.
The proactive act of writing has an almost magical effect on the thinking process in that it will aid in generating ideas, help to organize your thoughts, and above all else, get you thinking critically about your topic. As your thoughts move from your mind to your fingers to your paper, the task of writing your paper will seem less daunting, and before you know it, you will work your way to a well written paper.
Following the aforementioned tips will not guarantee an "A" grade on your paper - but it sure won't hurt. The thing is, it's easy to read about them, but not so easy to abide by them. Since some may seem obvious or impractical, you might be tempted to skip them. However, if you adhere to these tips and avoid the pitfalls, you'll attain greater success when writing your academic paper.
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