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A Quick and Dirty Guideline to Academic Essay Writing Success (1st and 2nd Year)

This Workshop will take you through a few pointers which will help you better prepare for, audition, edit, review, and submit your academic papers. It will provide some fundamental concepts, counter some bad advice you need to unlearn, and give you some final tips on paper preparation. In the end you should be able to begin thinking about how to write and review your academic research papers.

Welcome to Dr. K's guide to getting better grades on first and second year papers.

Before you begin at the beginning in this beginner's workshop on essay writing, assuming you have a paper due soon, you may want to do some other reading first:

Read your primary materials:
Do this a few times if you have time to do it. The better you know the text/s the easier it will be to come up with ideas about it. Underline things that strike your fancy. Talk about the text with people who have engaged with it. Spend some time with the text and develop opinions on it.

Read your secondary materials:

Start researching your text to see what scholars have to say on it. You will want to look for books, book chapters, and peer-reviewed articles. Google scholar is a good place to get an interdisciplinary cross-section or articles, but Google Web can still be a bit sketchy in that it provides good sources along with bad ones. Engage with these materials; find interesting quotes; look for trends; remark to whoever about how some of those support your views on the primary material and why that is.

Once you are done your research, you need to come up with a main focus for your paper, something very specific, very compelling, and something you can prove within the confine of your word-count.

So how do you figure out what your thesis should be? You first need to get to the "So What"

Getting to “So What”

The most important part of your paper is its thesis. In order to have a paper, you need to have a purpose to write it, beyond it was assigned to you. It can happen that your thesis evolves as you compose your paper, but even then you need to put it somewhere close to the beginning so your professor will know which point in the money idea.

An essay is really about your informed, critical, and original analysis of a text. It is meant to show not only that you really know your stuff, but that you have an insight into the text which will help your reader better understand it.

You may be asking yourself: What is that pesky thesis and how do I know I have one?

The thesis is the essay’s raison d’etre. It is the thing you are trying to prove. The body paragraphs are the proof.

Try this model:

  • In this essay I will prove… by arguing that…. This matters because…

Take out all of the above phrases (they are redundant) phrases and you should be close to a thesis.

In order to stay focused, make your self two post-it note signs and locate them by the computer. They should read as follows:

  •     So what?
  •     Can you prove it?

Refer often to these signs. At a minimum look at them as you review each paragraph, and make each manjor point

Essay Format:

The stack set and the strip set:

  • Map your essay out—consider all of the ideas you will have to integrate to prove your point.
  • After you are finished your final draft, make a 1-2 line summary of each paragraph. Make them into a paragraph – read them out loud – do they make sense as an argument? Do they add up to proving your thesis? Tweak your paper.

The Introduction and the Conclusion:

These fundemental parts of your paper might be meaningfully thought of as an: Aperitif and Digestif.

Your introduction should wet the reader’s appetite. Have you ever picked up a book with a boring first page and put it down? Make your introduction a good, subtle, wind up to the main meal

A digestif is meant to help you digest your meal – a conclusion again is a nice revisiting of the ideas you’ve put forward. It is mean to be a relaxing ending of the meal with a surprisingly pleasant taste. Would you be happy if a book just ended or there was not desert?

How do you know if your paper will be palatable? Do a quick taste test!

Too sweet or too spicy:
At some point in time you may have been praised for finding a thesaurus and using “big words” in your paper. However using a thesaurus with abandon, or using purple prose like you were writing a greeting card, is like putting too much spice in a meal, or sugar in your coffee – it just becomes unpalatable. Use adjectives to give flavor, but use with caution, lest you make a thoroughly indigestible paper.

You will also want to watch carefully for some standard mistakes students make when writing and reviewing thier papers.

A handy check list of some things you should not do:

Do not rely on the five paragraph model:
Think of the 5-paragraph model as training wheels. It will help you learn to do this, but eventually, you’ll need more than five paragraphs. Think pragmatically: what will logically prove my assertions?

Do not start your essay with the concept of life, the universe, and everything.
Rather, start with a very specific topic on a single element you’d like to give a long and  critical reading to. Derive a specific idea about that topic, then form an compelling opinion on it: this is your thesis. Sell me that thesis! Prove your thesis is valid with proof from primary materials (the text) and secondary sources (peer reviewed articles/books).

Do not work down from a concept of a universal truth in a funnel type logic:

One interesting sentence at the beginning is enough to wet the pallet – then get right to work with your topic.

Do not fill me in on all the details of the author’s life before you analyze her text:

You do not have time to write a 800 page biography on your author – so stick to textual analysis and so not keep bringing it back to her life – you simply do not have the time (or necromantic skills) to prove an author-inspired reading

Do not simply tell me what happens in the text:

It is wildly tempting to discuss, at length, what happens in the text. What you need to do is think in terms of why  what happens helps prove your reading. You can differentiate between what and why by asking – would anyone who read this text know that? (it is probably a what) Does this feel like an original take on events? (that may just be a why)

Do not try to cover everything in the text to show you’ve read it:

Think in terms of coming up with a super narrow topic. You do not have time to cover everything which happens without it being a plot summary/character list.
Do not use someone else’s ideas (however great they may be) in place of your own:
Try to begin and end with your own words. Use a frontispiece, or the space before your first paragraph for a quote you think sets the tone

Do not always paraphrase when you could quote: 

Give your source material some respect – integrate quotes directly into your sentences; do something with them. Think introduce, integrate, analyze.

What you should do to do well on your paper: Try using:

Dr. K's top three quick and dirty tips to getting a better grade on first and second year papers:

Write well in advance. Everything sounds brilliant at 2 am:
Make enough time to start thinking about your paper well in advance of writing it. Talk to anyone who will listen to you about your ideas; pester roommates, grandmas, love interests. Have conversations about it all the time. Write your paper. Once it is perfect, all i's dotted and t's crossed set it aside (at least one or two full days. Asking a colleague to peer-review it during this time will make it a good use of time and resources). It will come back to looking a little less brilliant, but with enough time to fix it. This is how it is done in the world of professional publishing.
You need to read this paper out loud to an informed and (constructively) critical audience:
In our own heads we will actually insert missing words, fill in logical blanks, emphasize points so that it seems to make sense. Reading it to someone else will help eliminate those problems because people will challenge you. This will locate you within a long tradition of working through ideas outloud and give you a chance to discuss your paper with someone besides the critics in your head. That is what the Greek philosophers did, and we still think they are clever.


You need to care about this paper. Muster up some enthusiasm:
This is part of what the "so what" is: why you want me to give a care about this work, you need to care about it, history should care about it. If you aren't convinced that you are saying something wholly original (as opposed to giving plot summaries), there is a very good chance your professor wont be convinced either. This is the intimidating part, and is supposed to be. You are building nero-pathways by coming up with new thoughts and adding to the historical record and the knowledge economy. That matters, so work hard and good luck!