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So, You’ve Got To Write A Paper – Part 2: Writing And Editing

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed how the heck you deal with a professor assigning you a 1000 word essay on a poem. I covered how to read a poem or work of literature closely and how to find sources for your paper.

Today, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of writing this paper. Get pumped!

Before You Begin

I’m a big believer in the power of your environment to affect your productivity and creative output, and I know Thomas is as well. With that said, before you do any writing, I’m going to show you how to create an environment that will set you up for success.

Here are the 3 steps I use to create my ideal writing environment:

1. Gather your weapons

It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are if you don’t have the materials you need. Make sure you have the following items:

  • Your computer (unless you still type your papers on a typewriter, in which case mad props to you),
  • Computer charger if using a laptop
  • Any books you need (this would include sources for your paper and other relevant reference books)
  • If using online sources, make sure you have the links saved or written down somewhere (even better is to save the sources as PDFs to your computer, if possible. JSTOR usually lets you do this)
  • (optional) Your favorite study beverage (preferably not alcohol) and perhaps a light snack (writing is hungry work)
  • Your head, your mind, and your brain, too.

2. Build your batcave

This concept is taken from a post on Nerd Fitness discussing the importance of your environment in helping you to get healthy. Eliminating junk food from your house, for example, makes it impossible for you to eat it. This helps save your willpower for more important tasks, such as exercising.

The same concept applies to writing. In order to do your best work, you need to create an optimal space. As Thomas discusses in his book 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades, environment matters:

“Studying in your dorm while your roommates play Guitar Hero is probably not going to go as well as if you chose the library.”

The best way to avoid distractions is to go somewhere that they don’t exist. For many people, this may be the school library, although it could be any place that you can work undisturbed. Personally, I prefer to write in near total silence, so I opt for the “Silent” study area in one of my school’s libraries. Some people like having a bit of noise while they write, in which case a coffee shop is a good option. Cal Newport has some further thoughts on working undistracted.

Find a place where you can work without interruption, and the writing process becomes a lot less daunting.


Our mobile devices are wonderful, and used correctly they can be huge boosters to productivity, allowing you to do things such as taking down ideas via quick capture. The internet can be equally valuable – this blog post is proof of that.

When it comes to writing a paper, however, your phone and the internet are the bane of your existence. So that you don’t have to waste willpower overcoming the temptation to use or check them, make these distractions irrelevant.

Turn. off. your. phone. (or throw it in the ocean, as Austin Kleon suggests). Not just silent, but OFF! Whatever it is can wait for an hour or two.

With regards to the internet, many options exist to keep it from distracting you. Personally, I just disconnect my laptop from the wi-fi, but if that’s not enough, there are dozens of programs and browser extensions you can install that make it impossible for you to open your web browser or to access certain distracting sites (helpful if you need to do online research).

Self Control is a popular one among Mac users, and if you’re using Chrome there’s a browser extension called StayFocusd. Tom gives a comprehensive list in Chapter 5 of his book.

In summary, gather your materials, find the right workspace, and eliminate all distractions.

You now have everything you need to start writing. Let’s do it!

Do You Even Write?

A lot of students approach writing the wrong way. Either they wait till the absolute last minute and produce something sloppy and full of typos, or they treat writing a paper as something that you can achieve with a precise formula such as the Schaffer Method.

Both of these approaches are ultimately unproductive. The first one leads to lost sleep, bad grades, and frustration. The second one produces papers that sound like a robot wrote them, usually resulting in bad grades, wasted time, and no improvement in writing ability.

I’m going to show you an approach that strikes a good balance between planning and spontaneity. This method assumes that you have already done your research and gathered your sources, as discussed in the last post. Ideally, you would do that far enough in advance so that you have 2-3 days to focus solely on writing the paper before it’s due. This is the method I use; in fact, it’s how I wrote this post.

I find that I do my best work when under a little bit of pressure. This forces me to write quickly and effectively. By giving myself 2-3 days, however, I plan for any inevitable setbacks/distractions (what if your laptop crashes, for example?) and give myself enough time to write and edit the paper.

In this way, you’re using Parkinson’s Law to your advantage. You’ll have to experiment to find the right amount of time for you, and of course the amount of time changes depending on the size of the project (you wouldn’t want to start writing your doctoral thesis the night before it’s due).

My method has five main steps.

1. Get Specific With Your Thesis

In the last post, I briefly mentioned the idea of the thesis statement. Basically, the thesis is the main “issue” your paper addresses, the primary argument it makes. Without a thesis, it’s hard to know what exactly you’re writing about, which makes it difficult to write anything. Craft even a basic thesis, and writing a paper becomes much easier.

But what exactly is a thesis statement? And, more importantly, how do you create one?

In the first English class I took in college, one of my professors explained that a strong thesis has three parts: a What, a How, and a Why.

Let’s break down these three components:

What– The What of your thesis is fairly straightforward. It states states the point of the work in question. Why do we care about it? What is the author trying to say, as best you can tell? (This is somewhat subjective, of course).

How– After you’ve said What the work is about, you need to briefly state How the author conveys her message. Are there any special techniques she uses? How is the way he chooses to convey his message distinct or special? This will usually be the second sentence of the thesis statement.

Why– Finally, Why does the author convey her specific message? Reasons could include: social commentary (think The Jungle or Oliver Twist), to teach a moral lesson (most children’s fairy tales), to reveal some deeper truth about the universe (Moby Dick, for instance) or simply to entertain (anything by Dan Brown). In a great book or other work, it’s usually a combination of these factors. You can choose pretty much any Why, so long as you can support it with evidence and a good argument.

Applying This Method To Our Poem

Going back to the poem we dealt with in the last post, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” we had decided, in general, to write about why Dickinson is using bird imagery, why she is comparing hope to “the thing with feathers.”

Let’s get more specific and apply the above What, How, and Why questions to create a thesis we can use.

Here’s the poem text again, just for reference:

“Hope is the thing with feathers”
by Emily Dickinson

1 “Hope” is the thing with feathers –
2 That perches in the soul –
3 And sings the tune without the words –
4 And never stops – at all –

5 And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
6 And sore must be the storm –
7 That could abash the little Bird
8 That kept so many warm –

9 I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
10 And on the strangest Sea –
11 Yet – never – in Extremity,
12 It asked a crumb – of me.

First, What is Dickinson trying to say? What is the general message of this poem? It seems to me that she’s talking about how hope is a constant friend and companion, something that never stops encouraging you, even in the darkest of times (feel free to disagree, of course).

With those general ideas, I came up with this first sentence of the thesis statement:

“In her poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ Emily Dickinson expresses the constant and unwavering nature of hope.”

That’s not perfect, but we can always refine it later.

Now that we’ve decided What Dickinson is saying, How does she say it? In general, she uses images of a bird in bad weather/climates, but we want to be more specific than that.

Looking at the text of the poem, I see that, specifically, hope has feathers (ln. 1), “perches” (ln. 2), sings without stopping (ln. 3-4), is heard even over a Gale (ln. 5-7), keeps a lot of people warm (ln. 8), is heard even in extreme climates (ln. 9-10), and doesn’t ask anything of the speaker, no matter what (ln. 11-12).

With all that info, my How would be something like this:

“Dickinson expresses hope’s constancy by comparing it to a bird’s features and actions.”

I might even combine this with my What sentence so that it reads,

“In her poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ Emily Dickinson expresses the constant and unwavering nature of hope by comparing it to a bird’s features and actions.”

Still a bit vague, perhaps, but good enough for now.

Finally, Why is Dickinson writing this poem at all? It’s easy to get Why confused with What, so I like to think of What as “the thing the poem says” and Why as “the thing the author intended.” The What is the experience your have in reading; the Why is the author’s intent in writing it.

I’m going to say something along these lines for my Why:

“Dickinson asserts that hope is constant and unwavering in order to reassure the reader that, just as the little bird remains even in the worst of conditions, so hope will endure as a source of comfort no matter how bleak the circumstances seem.”

Taken all together, then, here’s our working thesis:

“In her poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ Emily Dickinson expresses the constant and unwavering nature of hope by comparing it to a bird’s features and actions. Dickinson asserts that hope is constant and unwavering in order to reassure the reader that, just as the little bird remains even in the worst of conditions, so hope will endure as a source of comfort no matter how bleak the circumstances seem.”

That’s pretty wordy, and it could be more specific. That’s okay. It will change as I write the paper and refine my argument.

2. Find Quotes/Evidence to Support Your Thesis

In all academic writing, it’s important to be able to support what you say with specific evidence. If the first person to come up with the theory of gravity had explained it by saying “that’s just the way it is,” no one would have believed him. In making scientific conclusions, you have to present solid evidence for your claims, or no one will give your ideas a second thought.

The same is true in disciplines such as English. While the “evidence” may not be as straightforward or tangible as in disciplines such as science, the need for evidence to back your claims is just as important. I’ve proofread plenty of papers where the writer made outrageous claims and then defended them by essentially saying, “that’s just the way it is.”

You don’t want to be that student. Your professor will massacre your essay grade if you use faulty or nonexistent evidence.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to assemble your specific evidence from the start. Luckily, with a paper such as the one we’re writing, all the evidence you need is in the poem and your three secondary sources. Using your thesis as a guide, go through the sources and find quotes that you think could be useful. It’s okay to have a lot of quotes – in fact, I would recommend it. You can decide later which ones are the most essential and then eliminate irrelevant ones.

I’ll show you how to do this with the poem, but the procedure is the same for any secondary source you would use.

Here are some potentially relevant quotes:

  • “the thing with feathers” (1)
  • “perches in the soul” (2)
  • “sings the tune without the words” (3)
  • “sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -” (5)
  • “the little Bird / That kept so many warm -” (7-8)
  • “in the chillest land – / And on the strangest Sea” (9-10)
  • “Yet – never – in Extremity, / It asked a crumb – of me.” (11-12)

These quotes are relevant because they either focus on physical features or actions of the bird (part of our How) or because they focus on the constancy of hope even in dire conditions (part of our Why).

Note how I have used forward slashes ( / ) to indicate line breaks. This is the appropriate procedure when citing short lines of poetry. I’m also just using plain numbers in parentheses to indicate the line numbers – in MLA, there’s no need to write “line” or to use the abbreviation “ln.”

When going through your secondary sources, look for similarly relevant quotes, particularly ones that help support the Why part of your thesis, as that’s often the most subjective portion, meaning that respected secondary sources are especially helpful in improving your credibility.

If you need a hard number, aim for 3-5 relevant quotes from each secondary source. You won’t use that many in the final paper, but again, it’s much easier to remove quotes than to find more.

As you’re gathering quotes from these sources, make sure to note the page numbers where you find each quote. I would also recommend physically bookmarking those pages so that you can refer to them later without a lot of riffling. Riffling leads to paper cuts.

Type all of your relevant quotes in your word processor of choice, so that you can easily incorporate them into your essay.

Now, it’s time to write.

3. Write A Shitty First Draft

You’re ready. You have your materials. You’ve formulated a strong thesis. You’ve gathered your evidence. You’ve optimized your environment. You’ve destroyed all distractions. You sit down in the chair, open up your word processor, and…nothing.

You’re mind is blank, and you can’t remember any of your good ideas. Your cursor is blinking on the blank screen, taunting you.

Whatever do you do?

Simple. Just start typing. You heard me, just get your ideas out there. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, any of that. Just put the words on the page. That’s more than half the battle. Some people refer to this as “word vomit,” but I like Anne Lamott’s term better. She refers to this process as creating a “shitty first draft.”

In Chapter 9 of his book, Thomas shares some similar wisdom:

“Relegate yourself to knowing that your first attempt at writing something will yield a result that’s less than stellar. Be okay with that; you’ll be editing and revising later.”

If you look at the first draft of a paper this way, then it becomes okay to make mistakes, okay to write without worrying about perfection. Remember, a half-written paper is better than no paper at all.

If you need any more inspiration, check out this quote from Van Gogh. He’s talking about painting, but the same philosophy applies to writing:

“Just dash something down if you see a blank canvas staring at you with a certain imbecility. You do not know how paralyzing it is, that staring of a blank canvas which says to a painter, ‘You don’t know anything.'”

Put some words on the page and shut that blinking cursor up. Don’t let the blank screen tell you, “You don’t know anything.”

If you need more specific guidelines, write until you have at least 3/4 the number of words you need for the paper. In the process of editing and clarifying, you can certainly get to the target word count.

Once you’ve done that, take a short break of 10-20 minutes. Go for a walk. Have a snack. I usually stroll around the library and browse the stacks or go for a short walk outside in order to clear my head. Just don’t get so distracted that you never come back.

Need more help writing your draft? Learn how to deal with writer’s block.

4. The Clarification Pass

After your break, come back to the paper. Don’t freak out if it looks like a complete mess. That’s okay. You’ve accomplished the hardest part, which was getting started. Now we’re going to make this draft into something awesome.

Before you do anything, save a new document titled something like “Essay Revision 1” or something like that. This way, you’ll feel free to make even drastic changes without worrying about deleting quality content (thank you to Professor Aguilar for this helpful tip).

Tip from Thomas: You can also write with an app like Draft, which has built-in version control.

After I’ve saved the new document, I like to reread what I’ve written and fix any glaring errors. I look for strong ideas that I can expand on and anything that can bolster my thesis and argument as a whole. Often, I’ll find that I’ve written a somewhat or even completely different paper than my original thesis described. That’s okay, so long as I edit the thesis to reflect the change in topic or argument.

In particular, focus on clarifying your thesis. Make it more specific, more relevant to the writing you have on the page.

After I’ve strengthened the thesis, I go through the paper line by line and ruthlessly cut anything that’s vague or irrelevant. If it doesn’t contribute to making a great paper, it gets deleted.

Read the paragraphs individually. Could each one stand relatively on its own? If the answer is no, rewrite them until you can answer yes.

Make sure that you’re using quotes sparingly yet sufficiently. A good rule of thumb is that for every quote you use, you should provide at least two sentences of your own commentary.

Commentary relates the quote back to the thesis–it tells you why that quote matters. With every sentence you write, always keep in mind What, How, and Why.

For a paper of this length, if you have 3-4 decently long paragraphs at this point, you’re on the right track to having enough writing. The reason professors give word or page counts is to make sure you cover the topic adequately, not just to make you cry.

5. The Final Polish

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.” – C.J. Cherryh

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. You’re so close to being finished. It can be tempting to quit right here, and if you did you’d probably have a better paper than the majority of your classmates.

But you’re a CIG reader. You don’t settle for “okay” or “good enough.” You go all the way.

Put in just a little extra work, and you’ll have a paper you can be seriously proud of (and your grade won’t be too shabby, either).

Save another copy of your document called “Essay Final Revision” or whatever makes sense to you.

The first step in polishing the paper is to add introductory and concluding paragraphs. Most students approach these the wrong way; they end up sounding like total BS and lowering the paper’s overall quality.

Think of it like a job interview: if you come into the room with messy hair, dragon breath, and a tie that looks like the work of a drunken sailor, your chances are shot before the interview even begins. It doesn’t matter if you nail the questions and have done every single one of the 97 things you can do to be the person a company wants to hire – a sloppy first impression makes all that worthless.

The same is true of your introduction. You want it to draw your reader into the paper. You want to intrigue and hopefully surprise them in some way.

Look at it from you professor’s perspective: each time she assigns a paper, that’s easily one hundred separate documents of 4-5 pages that she has to grade. If you have an introduction that’s interesting or provocative, she’s already going to view your paper favorably compared to the others that sport mindless, formulaic introductions.

Great, you say, but…

“How do I write an intro like that?”

You have to strike a balance. You don’t want to say anything too informal (a reference to Super Smash Bros, awesome as it might be, would not be appropriate for an academic paper), but you want to be intriguing. You also don’t want to be too specific and give away your paper’s topic before your professor has even read it.

Your secondary sources can really help you here. If you came across some interesting quote about how Emily Dickinson is controversial, for example (which is true, especially in light of new scholarship), you could use that along with your own commentary to craft a compelling introduction.

Here’s an example. It’s rather off the cuff and not grounded in specific sources (which you should always use), but it gives you a general idea:

Emily Dickinson has always captivated readers. Her poetry ranges from exultant to despairing, covering the full range of human emotions. As [Dr. Example] said in [His/Her Awesome Book], [something relevant yet interesting or surprising about the author/work in question]. [Your commentary on this quote about why it matters to your topic.] Her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” is an example of this emotional range, addressing the topic of hope through distinctive metaphors and imagery.

After that introductory information, I would add the thesis statement, so that all together it would read something like this:

Emily Dickinson has always captivated readers. Her poetry ranges from exultant to despairing, covering the full range of human emotions. As [Dr. Example] said in [His/Her Awesome Book], [something relevant yet interesting or surprising about the author/work in question]. [Your commentary on this quote about why it matters to your topic.] In her poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Dickinson expresses the constant and unwavering nature of hope by comparing it to a bird’s features and actions. Dickinson asserts that hope is constant and unwavering in order to reassure the reader that, just as the little bird remains even in the worst of conditions, so hope will endure as a source of comfort no matter how bleak the circumstances seem.

In the same way, make sure your conclusion doesn’t suck. Back to the job interview analogy, if you don’t give a firm parting handshake, are rude the the secretary as you leave, and don’t bother to send a thank you note, you’re going to leave the person in charge of hiring you with a sour impression, making your chances of getting the job slim.

A lot of students confuse a conclusion with a summary. As Thomas discusses in Chapter 3 of his book, summarizing is a great way to help you comprehend and retain information you read.

Your professor, however, does not want to read a summary of your paper after having already read it. That’s boring.

Instead, aim to bring together all the evidence you’ve presented and arguments you’ve made in order to conclude something about your topic. Ideally, you’ll leave the reader with something thought-provoking.

Again, your secondary sources can help you here as well. Why work to come up with profound statements when a credible source is already full of them? (I kid, of course.)

Whatever you do, don’t just restate the thesis. You can and should use ideas from it, but don’t rewrite it verbatim. That just makes you look lazy.

In Transition

Now, read through all those paragraphs one more time. You’ve made them work in isolation, so now it’s time to make them flow smoothly from one to another. I could write a whole post just on transitions between paragraphs, but here’s an extensive list of transition words and phrases broken down into different categories based on when you would use them. Reading your paper out loud helps to determine how well the paragraphs transition from one to the next.

Now that you’ve finished writing the actual paper, you’ll want to give the sources you used proper credit by listing them in either a Works Cited or Bibliography page. The difference between the two is slight but important: Works Cited lists only the sources quoted or cited in the paper, whereas a Bibliography lists every source consulted.

For a short paper, the professor will usually request a Works Cited, but don’t hesitate to ask and be sure. There are even programs such as EasyBib that will create this page for you, but if you go this route you should still proofread it for accuracy or consult a knowledgeable friend…

Which brings me to my last suggestion: get someone else to read your work for you.

Even the greatest authors have editors, and you should be no different. This is where your school’s writing center can be a huge asset to you (of course, they can help you with all parts of the writing process). Take them what you’ve written and get them to proofread it for you. At the very least, print it out and look it over yourself.

Note from Tom: This is excellent advice. I’ve been writing professionally for years, and even my book launched with a good amount of spelling and grammar mistakes. Ransom was awesome enough to go through the whole book and point me to a ton of them, which I probably would have missed!

Concluding Thoughts

How to write a great paper in college - tips from an English major
Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image if you’d like to share this post there.

Whew! That was a lot of words. If you stuck with me through all of this, thank you. If writing this post taught me one thing, it’s that writing a paper is no simple feat.

Don’t be intimidated by all the words, though. You can write a paper, and with enough work and the right help, you can write an awesome one.

If you ever have any editing or writing questions, or if you just want to chat, feel free to tweet me @RansomPatterson.

Write on!

Featured Image: Startup Stock Photos