by Carsten Christensen
Let’s face it, writing a paper is not easy, especially if it’s the first paper in Writing 150, you’re writing in a new language, you haven’t written anything longer than a text message in three years, or you’re tackling a 30 page research report.
Well, welcome to the great and terrible situation in which we all find ourselves at some point during our college careers. Writing can be intimidating and frustrating, especially if you don’t know where to start. Perhaps I can offer some advice.
The most important part of writing a paper of any size is the planning stage. Without a solid plan, an outline, no writer, regardless or talent or intelligence, can create a great piece of writing. Without a plan, you’re sunk. Following the four steps I outline below will set you solidly on the path to creating a good plan and, consequently, a good paper.
- Identify both audience and context
Who are you writing to? About what are you writing? These are the first two questions that you have to answer.
Understanding audience is perhaps the most important thing that you can do as a writer. They will determine the way that you approach your paper. What are their needs? What are their expectations? How will they respond to your argument and to the way you make it? Your goal, relative to audience, is to maintain the integrity of your message while making it as appealing as possible to your readers.
Related to audience is context. Your paper is likely a detailed snapshot of a much larger issue. As you write, you are introducing your audience into a larger conversation, and they need to understand what has already been said. Do your audience a favor by helping them understand the larger issue behind your argument.
- Identify purpose relative to audience
In order to create a strong paper, you must understand why you are creating it.
Beyond just understanding your own motives, you also need to understand them relative to audience. What do you want your audience to do or learn because they read your paper?
- Generate a thesis relative to your purpose
The next step is to create a primary claim, a thesis, based on your purpose relative to both audience and context. Your thesis is generally composed of your main argument and a brief explanation of its supporting points. Thesis statements explain to readers what you are writing about and why you are writing about it.
Just a quick note: thesis statements are not always limited to one sentence. Concision is key, so be as brief and clear as possible in presenting your thesis, but make sure that, in trying to cram as much information as possible into one sentence, you are not obscuring your argument. It’s perfectly acceptable to write a thesis statement several sentences long.
- Generate supporting points for the thesis
Now that you have established a foundation for your paper, you can begin to create its main substance. Brainstorm logical points that support your primary claim (thesis statement). Make sure that each point, like a support column in a large building, anchors your argument by adding meaning and clarity to it.
The next step in the process is to organize each of the supporting points in a logical progression to create an outline for your paper. Then, flesh things out, make connections, find and explain evidences!
This is not the only way to begin writing a paper, but it is a good one. Be patient with yourself and your writing. Writing takes time. You can’t complete this process in twenty minutes while watching an episode of Parks and Rec—it requires a bit more time and effort. If you work through these steps with some dedication, however, you will save yourself a lot of pain and anguish later when you actually write your paper. You’ll know who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about, what to say about it, and how to say it. Those things understood, you’ve already won most of the battle!