Over the past few years I have written many, many academic papers. I think with all the practice, I can finally say I really know how to write one. Today, I’m going to tell you how to write an academic paper (or article) like a boss. Writing a paper is all about the preparation. It doesn’t matter what kind of piece you’re writing – a review, an essay, a research report, thesis, dissertation – proper preparation will help you write the thing in a jiffy.
Preparation #1: Look for Good Sources
Start with searching for good sources for your paper. Not only is the actual content important, also make sure to look for sources that show you how to write an article such as the one you will be writing. It will give you an idea of what to include (and perhaps even more important: what not to include). Don’t read them just yet, just scan them.
Preparation #2: Create an Outline
What I usually do is, after I’ve checked out source material, is create chapter and paragraph headings in the order I want to write them. Note: at this stage, this is not set in stone at all – if during the writing you feel you need to change the order around or that you’re not happy with some of the paragraphs or chapters, don’t hesitate to ditch them. This is an outline – a guideline, not a rule. What is especially important is that – for most papers and articles, you include the following:
- introduction of the topic
- your research question
- an outline of the contents of the rest of the paper
- further introduction and outlining of the topic
- your arguments
- research results
- et cetera
- a short summary of the introduction and middle
- your conclusion
- very important, something you should never forget: a concise answer to the research question you posed in the intro
- a final thought or comment or recommendation to end the paper
Fill in this outline to your needs, and you’ll have a great guideline while writing later on.
Preparation #3: Do the Reading & Researching
Read all the things! Read your articles, books, and all the other sources you gathered. Make notes, mark passages. This can be a lot of work, especially with thick, wordy books. If you need a little help on how to get through this quickly, read this blog post: “How to Gut a Book“. Also, while you’re working through these sources, jot down the references (name(s) of author(s) and year) beneath each paragraph/chapter in your outline so you know which sources to use when. Also, if you haven’t started it already, this is the stage you’ll have to start your research.
Writing #1: Go!
Start writing. It doesn’t matter what part you start with, since you already have your guideline. To get the writing juices flowing, I usually start with the part that interests me the most – once you’re writing, the rest usually comes more easily too.
Writing #2: Keep Your Personal Opinion Close, But Your Sources Closer
Arguments for and against your statement
Yes, a personal opinion is important. But whomever will be grading your paper will not be overly impressed if that’s all you use to build your argument. While you shouldn’t be afraid to state your own opinion, make sure to use – good – sources to support your argument. However, if you want to sound like an academic professional, avoid pronouns – some teachers/professors don’t mind if you use them but I’ve been hit on the nose for it too many times to not get nervous of the pronouns – hurray for conditioning! Don’t just use sources that support your argument! Search for sources that don’t agree with your statement, and do your best to counter their arguments – also with the help of other sources. Keep in mind that the phrases “on the one hand (-> your argument)” and “on the other hand (-> an argument that counters your that you’ll counter)” are praise-worthy to many a professor.
Writing #3: Keep Track of Sources
What has always helped me greatly to save time is to keep track of my references during writing, especially when I use a big pile of sources. So whenever you jot down an in-text reference, make sure you type out the entire source in your sources section after the end of your paper. This is something you’ll want to accustom yourself to, because there’s nothing professors like less than plagiarism, even if you didn’t intend it to be plagiarism. It’ll cost you points, trust me. No matter what kind of reference style you use (I’ve always used APA), make sure you get the style right. I’ve never actually had points deducted for it myself, but former fellow students of mine have: they just didn’t italicize a title or journal name, or forgot a period somewhere. Don’t just depend on the reference generators you can find online either – I’ve found they make too many mistakes (and I know because I know about every APA rule by heart).
Editing #1: The Big Picture
Read the entire thing through. Check the order of your paragraphs – is it logical? If not, change it around. Are your arguments decent and convincing? Have you presented enough for/against arguments? Have you answered your research question properly? Have you fulfilled all of your professor’s requirements for this assignment? Make sure your big picture is right, that you’ve covered everything you wanted to cover. If not, get back to writing.
Editing #2: Copy-edits & Grammar
One of the most useful tools I’ve ever used in my entire academic career is Paperrater.com. This little tool gives you so much more info than your average document processing software. You can select the type of paper you’re writing, the academic level you’re at, and it will generate info on how you scored on grammar, vocab use, transitional words use, spelling, and will even grade all this. I wrote a review about this great tool – you can read it here. I personally never settle for anything less than an A.
Editing #3: Sources, sources, sources
Yes, more about sources. It’s important, people! Check one final time if your in-text references are all decently presented, and that your list of sources is perfect. Look closely – I usually pick out a few tiny mistakes (i.e. I used a comma instead of a period, or I forgot to italicize something). It’s a hateful job, but it needs to be done.
Final Round of Perfectionism
If you’re a perfectionist like I am, your last bit of work on your paper will pertain to the physical looks of your paper. Give your paper a nice layout, don’t use Comic Sans but use a font that’s plain and easy to read, make sure you have a shiny, yet professional looking title page and don’t forget page numbers. Or your name. Or the date. Or the number of words, if your professor requires it. Usually font size 12 and line spacing of 1,5 and is required. Justify the text – it looks nicer and less chaotic. And don’t forget to indent the first sentences of paragraphs.
A Last Tip: Use Google Drive
I have one final tip for you: USE GOOGLE DRIVE. It saves your document every few seconds, which is a blessing. I have lost much work because a pc crashed (which luckily is a little less common these days, but you can never be too careful), or because I accidentally closed Word (I get twitchy fingers after hours of working), or just because I was hungry, got distracted, closed my laptop and it went to sleep on its own, and destroyed all my work in the process. Loss of work looms around every corner, seriously. The only thing with Drive is that it doesn’t allow for many layout options, so to make it look nice I usually download the doc when I’m done, pimp it in Word and save the completed work as PDF (and upload it back on Drive to back it up). It’s a bit more work, but a lot less than if you’d lose your work.
Also, many universities and colleges require you to work on group assignments – this is also where Drive comes in really handily. Nothing is more annoying than working on a Word document, having to send it around, downloading new docs again with tiny edits, and then eventually have someone hand in an old version by accident (it happened to me before). In Drive, you can work with a group of people on one doc, it even has a chat, it keeps track of edits, and you can use comments in the text to highlight and make a note to tell people to change it around. It works splendidly. It made my life so much easier when I was working on my bachelor thesis. So, just do it.
That’s all I have for now! I hope this helps you – now go write that paper, you can do it! If you have any more tips and ideas for my readers, please feel free to share in the comments. Questions are also always welcome .