How To Write A College Paper – A 10 Step Plan

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student girl holding a stack of books and papers

Composing a well-rounded college paper doesn’t have to be difficult. But it can be scary at first.

 

Looking at the blank page is enough already. But what to do if you need to write at least 30 (my Master’s Degree paper was actually 90 pages long)?

 

Simple, you break it down into smaller chunks and get them done one by one over the course of a few weeks.

 

After reading this article you’ll have all the knowledge you need to get this thing done with a perfect score. Below you’ll find some of the best ideas that’ll help you to approach your task in a structured way and accomplish your task like a pro. Take 15 minutes and read the whole thing. It will be worth it.

 

Also, if you’re preparing to pass a test like GRE/GMAT/LSAT and want to improve your writing skills, you should check out the courses from Princeton Review to max out your score.

 

“You’d be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever.” ― Ernest Cline

 

The whole process will look like this:

  • Step 1 – Choose your topic (come up with at least 2)
  • Step 2 – Get your topic approved by your professor
  • Step 3 – Come up with a great thesis statement
  • Step 4 – Go to the library (and online) and gather as many sources about your topic as possible
  • Step 5 – Consult your sources and clip out the information that might be useful for your paper
  • Step 6 – Create an outline for your paper and construct a table of contents
  • Step 7 – Get your plan approved by your professor
  • Step 8 – Actually start writing – fill out your outline with valuable content
  • Step 9 – Keep a steady pace till you have your first draft (200-400 words a day is enough)
  • Step 10 – Proofread the whole thing and polish it till it shines

 

Of course, this is not a set formula and everything depends on the type of assignment you receive.

students pointing at a laptop

There are two main types of academic research papers:

  • Analytical paper – here you analyze an event, a situation, a work of literature, a scientific theory etc.
  • Argumentative paper – here you argue for or against a cause, an opinion, a political decision, etc.

 

There are also other types of papers you may need to write (but this won’t be covered in detail here):

  • Analysis Essays
  • Argumentative (Persuasive) Essays
  • Cause and Effect Essays
  • Comparison and Contrast Essays
  • Definition Essays
  • Narrative & Descriptive Essays
  • Division & Classification Essays

 

The two main types of academic research

 

There are two main ways in which you’ll gather data for your paper. It all depends on your assignment, but here’s a quick summary.

 

Armchair research

 

This is the one you’ll most likely be conducting when writing your paper. It involves analyzing the current research material available in your library and on the internet. Your job is to gather as much information as possible, collate it, and then and draw new and valuable conclusions.

 

Field research, observational research, and creating your own sets of data

Here things get a bit more complicated. You actually need to go into the field, and get your hands dirty. If you’re testing a scientific hypothesis, you’ll need to prove it or disprove it, by collecting a statistically relevant amount of data. To gather this data you may need to conduct interviews, send out surveys, observe behavior, or measure phenomena in real-time.

 

General tips for writing your college paper

  • Keep in touch (schedule regular meetings) with your professor. They already saw a bazillion college papers so they’ll help you by offering you their expert advice.
  • Ensure you keep your grammar and syntax in check. For that, I recommend using Grammarly.
  • Make sure you and your professor are on the same page. Don’t start on something that wasn’t approved. This could lead to a lot of frustration and wasted work.
  • Write something original. Don’t work on the same ideas someone covered before.
  • Avoid plagiarism at all cost. Your paper will be compared with thousands of others works in youruniversity database so don’t even try it. You can borrow from other sources but in a reasonable manner. Again, if you can use Grammarly to check if your paper is fully legit.
  • Don’t treat your assignment as a necessary evil. By writing it, you will learn a great deal about your subject. Believe it or not, this can be helpful in your future.
  • Keep a day planner and put the parts of your assignments there. This will help you to keep organized.

 

Weekly steps you should cover to complete your paper

 

aerial view of student graduates wearing hats

Step 1 – Choose your topic (come up with at least two)

 

The topic you choose will determine the rest of your project. So choose wisely.

 

Of course, it all depends on the faculty you’re in, and your scholarly interests. The idea is to come up with at least two potential topics, because it will give you some room to maneuver in case one of them doesn’t work out or is shot down by your instructor.

 

Whichever topic you select, make sure:

  • It’s original and non-cliche (you can check your college database to see if you aren’t duplicating someone else’s work).
  • It is interesting to you personally.
  • If covered in a successful way, it will enhance the current body of knowledge about the subject.
  • You start broad and then go deeper.
  • You will be able to gather enough information to cover it in detail.

 

Here are some great examples of topics:

  • Can using the blockchain technology help to protect online users from identity theft?
  • What are the practical uses of AI technology in digital marketing?
  • The impact of climate change on international politics.
  • How will bio-engineering affect the future of humanity?

 

And here you can find 50 more ideas for research paper topics.

Step 2 – Get your topic approved by your professor

 

After you come up with a fascinating topic, it’s time to run it by your instructor and make sure you both agree on what exactly you’re going to cover and in how much detail.

 

Your teacher has many years of experience and knows which topics are most widely covered, so trust their opinion.

 

You need at least two potential topics, because your current favorite may already been covered by other students in previous years.

 

Be receptive to feedback, and treat your professor as a partner, not an adversary. If you need more information on working under supervision, please read this article.

 

Step 3 – Come up with a great thesis statement

 

In academic terms, the word “thesis” has many meanings. It can be a paper written by a high-school student, or more commonly a dissertation written by a graduate candidate.

 

You have to write the thesis (paper) at the end of your studies (grad or undergrad, or even Ph.D.). The length can vary according to the level of education, starting with 10 or 15 pages and going up to hundreds of pages.

 

Formal definition:

A treatise advancing a new point of view resulting from research; usually a requirement for an advanced academic degree.

 

But a thesis can also mean something different in the academic context:

An unproved statement put forward as a premise in an argument.

 

In other words, a thesis is a statement of a hypothesis that will come forward from your overall topic.

 

Let’s see how can you create your thesis based on a few topics:

 

Topic: Family bonds between chimpanzees

Thesis for that topic: In packs of chimps, the bastard members of the group receive the least amount of attention which often causes them to be socially maladjusted.

 

Topic: The American Civil War

Thesis for that topic: While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.

 

As you can see the thesis has to be:

  • Answering a question
  • Taking a position in the argument
  • Specific
  • Relevant

 

This is just an introduction to the concept of a thesis. If you need an in-depth guide, I recommend reading this helpful guide from the University of North Carolina.

person putting a pen on a book

Step 4 – Go to the library (and online) and gather as many sources about your topic as possible

 

Getting a huge amount of information about your topic is absolutely necessary at the beginning. In fact, during the course of your study, you should become an expert in your field.

 

You’re trying to push the boundaries of knowledge, so first, you need to know what’s already available on the market:

  • Get all the relevant (especially new and authoritative) books on your topic.
  • Create a separate folder in your browser where you’ll collect all the web resources.
  • Consult the database of dissertations already written on the topic at your academic institution.

 

Make sure your sources are credible and written by well-established authors. Avoid anything that you’d be doubtful to include in the references at the end of your dissertation.

 

To create a huge resource and reference list, schedule a few solid sessions at your faculty’s library (3 to 5 hours tops – after that you’ll be too exhausted) over a one week period.

 

Step 5 – Consult your sources and clip out the information that will be useful for your paper

 

I once went through a copywriting course by the legendary Gary Bencivenga. He used to write sales letters that would be ten pages long (sometimes more). And people actually read them, and in the end pulled out their credit cards to make a purchase. This produced millions of dollars in sales for his clients.

 

What was his secret?

 

Gathering as much information up front, before committing to writing.

 

He would often spend two months just gathering data, learning about the buyers, and looking for that one big idea that would make all the difference.

 

We’re talking academics, not sales, here – but the analogy holds. First get the data, then distill it to the very essence. Not only because you want to write a great paper, but also because you’ll need to provide citations, to prove that you’re not just making things up.

 

About citations

 

There’s no set amount of citations you’ll need to include in your paper. It all depends on the field you’re writing about, and the requirements of your particular educational establishment. It’s always best to ask your professor for advice in this regard.

 

That said, there are some fields, where you can find an insane amount of reference per single page of text (source):

  • Ecology: highest, ~ 58; average references per page
  • Math and robotics: highest, ~ 28; average references per page
  • Economics: highest, ~ 32; average references per page

In other fields of study, you don’t have to be so scrupulous and you should be fine with 50-100 references for the whole paper.

 

Here’s a useful guide to citing other sources in your paper and using different citation formats.

 

Step 6 – Create an outline for your paper and construct a table of contents

 

Now it’s time to structure your dissertation and ensure that all the information flows in logical sequence. The structure will depend on the type of paper you’re writing about, but it will always have the introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

 

If you’re writing a research paper, however, you’ll need to reserve one chapter to talk about the results of your studies and how you conducted them.

 

Here’s an example of an outline (if you’re doing armchair research):

 

Title

Table of contents

Introduction

  • Statement of the issue you’ll discuss (that’s where your topic and thesis come in)
  • Defining the terms (explaining what do you mean by specific technical terms)
  • Talking about the significance of the study (what are you contributing and why it’s important)

Body

  • This part is split into three chapters (usually) where you methodically break down the most significant elements related to your study.

Conclusion

  • Conclusions coming from your study.
  • Recommendations (here you can argue what should be done in the face of these revelations).
  • References and the sources you used to write your paper.

 

That’s just the basic structure. Your instructor will provide you with more insights about that. Also, if you’re conducting field research for your paper, the outline is going to change (here’s an example).

 

Also, feel free to watch this video about creating an outline:

 

 

Step 7 – Get your plan approved by your professor

 

As a college student, you’ll usually have regular meetings with your professor to talk about the progress with your paper. These meetings are held on a weekly basis, your professors are also available through email and they’ll be happy to help you.

 

Most students writing grad papers will lazily hope that their outline is going to be approved and they’ll start in hopes that the final result is going to be approved.

 

Don’t make that mistake and actively engage with your professor. Even if you don’t like them, swallow your pride and decide that you have something to learn from them.

man in a library studying with mac and headphones

Step 8 – Actually start writing – fill out your outline with valuable content

 

As strange as it seems, by completing all the steps above, you’re already 80% there. Once you have the thesis, the resources, the outline, and the research, all you need to do is write the thing down.

 

Look at your outline and plan the ideas and references you want to include in each section. This pre-writing phase will save you lots of time at the end of the process.

 

A few style tips for writing your paper:

  • Be an objective observer and analyze the phenomena impartially.
  • Write from the third person’s point of view.
  • Be scientific in your approach.
  • Don’t let emotions get in your way.
  • Avoid cliches.

 

For more information on style, please check my article with 15 writing tips from famous authors.

Step 9 – Keep a steady pace till you have your first draft (200-400 words a day is enough)

 

It all depends on a person, but the best way to get the paper done is bit by bit. Let’s say your paper needs to be at least 3000 words long. If you simply write 300 words per day, you’ll have it done in 10 days. That’s much easier than completing the whole assignment by pulling an all-nighter.

 

Slow and steady wins the race. It’s all a matter of habit.

 

To make yourself productive, you can use the Pomodoro technique or a wide range of other writing strategies. Also, recognize the time of the day when you’re most productive and reserve it for your writing sessions. For most people, it’s the early morning.

 

Step 10 – Proofread the whole thing and polish it till it shines

 

Your work is almost ready. Now comes the easy part – just read the whole thing and look for any inconsistencies in terms of logic, style, grammar, and facts. Make sure you’re on point and that you don’t stray from your main topic.

 

These days you can use many online writing tools that will help you to spot any language mistakes (my favorites are Grammarly and the Hemingway Editor).

 

Of course, once your paper is done, you should get a lot of feedback from your instructor. It’s great to keep you paper in a Google doc so that you can comment on it and fix it in real time.

 

Bonus material – a two-hour long presentation on writing an academic paper

 

If you have more time to spare, you may watch this two-hour, in-depth lecture about the topic:

 

 

Now it’s your turn to get your academic juices flowing

 

I’m sure that by now, you have a much clearer understanding of how to deal with your once scary academic assignment. Knowledge is power as far as it gives you the confidence to take the matters in your own hands and produce something of value for other people.

 

Your paper won’t be perfect at first, but as you practice, you’ll finally master this art which will serve you way beyond the confines of your campus. Good luck!

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