Five Tips for Writing an Academic Paper

A few weeks ago, I corresponded with a friend who is preparing to write her master’s thesis. To encourage her in the writing process, I gave her a few tips that always help me when writing an academic paper:

  1. Outline first. As a major in both writing and English in college, I wrote nearly two or three papers a week in some semesters. The topics ranged from personal essay and grant writing to literary criticism and composition theory. To keep my thoughts straight, I often outlined ideas while listening to professors in class. Later, in graduate school, I drafted outlines on the computer and mulled them over for several days before even starting a first draft. I can’t tell you the number of times I shifted focus during this outlining process. It may seem like one of those annoying things (even like busy work) that some professors force you to do before composing a paper, but it’s a great first step in the writing process.
  2. Work on several drafts. Like outlining, this can seem like a waste of time, especially to those who procrastinate. However, it’s helpful to leave a paper and return to it a day or two (or even a week) later. If you are writing a good paper that’s presenting a new idea (which is the ideal), it’s going to take you awhile to get your thoughts straight, not to mention your prose coherent.
  3. Form a writing group with one or more people in your program to collaborate with during the writing process. Most of us hate group work. It’s sometimes a torture device when you’re paired with people who you don’t connect with or when your schedule is overpacked as is. However, working with a partner or a group of people during your writing process can prove to be a big benefit. Your peers can provide you with constructive feedback, as they are saturated with the same content you studied in your program, helping you avoid writer’s block and turning over the same segmented ideas again and again in front of your computer screen.
  4. Start paragraphs with topic sentences. I credit a history professor in an elective course in college with teaching me the value of topic sentences. While writing is nuanced, delivering ideas and supporting evidence is the main aspect of writing an academic paper, so using topic sentences helps you get to the point fast. Like the simple five-paragraph essay where you state your thesis in the first paragraph, follow with three paragraphs supporting it, and finish with a conclusion, a topic sentence can be a launching point to make sure each paragraph in your paper has value. Consider utilizing sections as well for better coherence.
  5. Read aloud to yourself or a willing friend/family member. While I didn’t mention this tip to my friend, I am a strong advocate for reading a paper to him. My loyal and patient husband sat in our office on many occasions while I read papers for my master’s program aloud (it was a master’s in public administration, so think about the topics he had to sit through!). During each session, I corrected myself and rewrote. This is something you could do with your writing group or with someone who loves you unconditionally!

I hope these few tips can help you write an exceptional academic paper. If you need further help, I can assist you in polishing a draft, formatting references, and copyediting — whatever you need! Good luck with your paper!

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