Three Tips For Students Writing Academic Papers

Jotting notes with a moleskine

I was just emailed by a friend (and fellow Fuller student) who asked me to name my top two or three writing mistakes I see while grading papers and what can be done about it. He’s doing a speech on the topic and wanted to get some feedback from other teacher’s assistants. Here are my three and I am wondering if anyone else has anything they’d like to add?

First, I can’t over stress the importance of academic writing while in grad school. With the dawning of the internet, blogging, and instant messaging, it is very easy to slip in to casual-writing-mode for final papers. Avoid this at all cost by writing a really strong thesis, making and framing your arguments well, using headings and sub-headings, avoiding flowery and unnecessary verbiage, and jamming your footnotes full of academic jargon helps to show you are someone who apparently knows what they are talking about.

Second, I would say you can’t spend too much time on mechanics, other than of course spending so much time that you never turn the paper in. But I have seen many papers that have never been edited, hardly had the spelling checked, and seemed to be missing some of the basic uses of grammar necessary for a strong paper. If you’re not a strong writer like me, then find someone who will help you edit your paper, fortunately I am married to an English teacher. Luckily there are many starving students who will do just about anything for a Spudaritto at Rick’s.

Third, writing should be fun, and the papers you write for your class should be focused on something that interests you. This is where creativity comes in handy, you will sometimes need to be very creative in the way you spin the paper topic in order to keep it interesting, but trust me it can be done. For instance, I have been interested in Quaker history and theology since I left undergrad. While I was working on my MA at Fuller I literally wrote something about Quakers in every single paper of mine except for one. Sure, sometimes it was a stretch to fit George Fox’s ideas into my Hebrew intensive but it’s always worth a shot! Professors and TA’s love to see you engage the material in a creative way, it not only helps the paper stand out but in the process you will learn how to apply useable content to any number of academic questions and concerns.

Also related to grammar is the use of quotation marks, you’ll definitely want to check out this website for some tips on what not to do.

4 responses to “Three Tips For Students Writing Academic Papers”

  1. Excellent tips. I’ve marked so many papers that were little more than disorganised regurgitation. Writing good essays involves managing resources and articulating ideas. That demands the creative and literary skills you’ve outlined together with the ability to organise one’s research and schedule.

    Time and space can play a big role in consistently good writing. It’s hard to write well if one is always struggling to find misplaced resources and it’s impossible to edit in enough depth if one is consistently pressed up hard against deadlines.

  2. As an undergrad, the two best things I did were buy a big (cheap) desk and get in the habit of keeping separate folders for all the notes from each essay. A big desk lets you keep books and notes open for days at a time, while also doing other tasks, saving packing up time and the chances to misplace papers, or loose train of thought. Folders sound obvious, but like a lot of undergrads, I wasted time early on searching through piles of notes.

    These days the biggest tool I use is a brought forward file (as described in GTD). It catches everything I’m doing, not just research, and saves me having to chase and track. I just wish someone had shown me that approach 20 years ago!