Learning how to write well takes time and experience, and is generally learned through a trial and error process. Hoping to save you some common mistakes, here is a general guideline and some helpful tips on how to research effectively, what different essay sections should include, and how to present a strong argument. Keep in mind, that this is most relevant for social science papers. Links are provided throughout to selected handouts from the writing center. For more resources from the Writing Center go to their website.
These statements are absolutely false, and the quicker you can change your mentality away from them the better.
The most important and fundamental thing about writing an essay is to make sure that it answers the question the assignment asks. You should ask yourself this question during your brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing phase to make sure that the answer is always yes! You can write a very well-written paper, but if it doesn’t answer the question in the assignment, you will not receive a good grade. When beginning your assignment you should:
Some general things to keep in mind when doing your research is to be careful to stay on topic and always double check with yourself that the research is relevant to your essay. That means not going too broad, but staying focused on your topic and recognizing that just because something is interesting does not mean that it is necessarily relevant to your argument.
Start with class resources and then move to library resources. Sometimes, using a certain number of class readings is a requirement. Make sure you comply with it. It is also a good idea when defining concepts to use class sources and material. Remember to never… EVER use Wikipedia as a cited source. It is a great way to get a better idea of different topics, concepts, people, and trivia, but not acceptable for an academic paper.
Students also tend to fall in the two categories of doing too much research or too little research. Doing too much research can definitely give you a better understanding of the broader issue of your topic, and this can be noticed in your writing. However, you can fall into the trap of adding things that are not necessarily relevant to your topic, resulting in a larger paper then the assignment requires. Doing too little research on the other hand, might not give you enough information on the topic and make for a shorter paper. Also remember, that not all sources you read will be useful, it takes time to find really good sources you can use for your paper. For a social science paper between 6-8 pages you generally should read at least 10 relatively good sources.
Be prepared to go back and research further while you are writing, in order to fill gaps in your arguments. This arises with the question “but why” with the development of your arguments. You also might need to find more supporting evidence to present a more convincing claim.
Make the best use of your time when selecting resources:
Some ideas and suggestions on taking notes while researching:
Writing an outline is invaluable to help organize your thoughts and the structure of your essay informally, in order to check strengths and relevance of arguments, consistency with thesis, and flow. Your outline doesn’t have to be fully written out, as if you are handing it in to be marked, scribble it on a napkin, carve it into your desk, whatever helps you to outline your arguments and explain the flow to yourself. It will help you to pick up contradictions and weaknesses in your arguments before you start writing and it keeps you from going off-track. This is also a good stage to check with your professor or TA. You can meet with them in person or e-mail them your outline and thesis to get feedback. Check out this outline handout from the Writing Centre.
Essay Structure: Introduction
The main point of an introduction is to capture the attention of the reader and draw them in. This is why your first sentences should be well thought-out to engage and interest the reader. Always think of an introduction as an upside down triangle. It should start broad and become more narrow and specific. There are different things to include in your introduction, depending on the size of your paper. Since many students are confused about what an introduction should include, here is a general guideline to get you started. Also accept that if you write your introduction first, you will probably have to re-write it or at least tweak it depending on how the rest of your paper turns out.
Essay Structure: Body
There are important stylistic guidelines you should follow in the body of your paragraph. For example, you should try and use the same terminology as you find in the literature in order to sound more professional and scholarly. You should also ensure that there is transition and flow between each paragraph and between each argument. Try to explain specifically and clearly how each argument relates to your thesis to make sure your essay sounds more cohesive. Also remember that paragraphs are limited to one idea and should also make a clear point that connects to your argument and thesis. Here is a very useful handout on paragraphs and transition.
Avoid using overly complex language and words. It doesn’t ensure you sound smart or that you’ll get a better grade. Don’t be like Joey from Friends, “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps” instead of “they are warm, nice people with big hearts”.
Building a strong argument
Reading good journal articles will help you write better by observing how academics develop their arguments. Ask your professor or TA to suggest a couple of well-written articles that you can learn from.
Every argument should have the following structure:
Claim (because of) Reason (based on) Evidence (acknowledging & responding to)Objections/Alternatives.
However, to make your argument more clear, you also need warrant. Warrant is a fancy term that basically shows the relevance of the claim. It is the principle that lets you connect reason and claim. It is the logical connection between a claim and a supporting fact (or evidence). Sometimes, that logical connection will be clear and obvious, where no explanation from the writer is needed. More often though, the writer needs to supply the warrant, explain how and why a particular piece of evidence is good support for a specific claim. This will tremendously improve the clarity of your writing and will help people outside your discipline to better follow and understand your arguments.
Addressing counterarguments is also an important part of developing a strong argument. It shows you have done extensive research and you have a good understanding of the topic in question. You should acknowledge existing and possible objections to your arguments and respond to them, discrediting them or showing why they don’t hold true in your case. If relevant and important, you should also address counterargument you cannot refute and concede to them.
Evidence is the last component you need to make a strong argument. Evidence supports your claims and convinces the reader. Evidence should be relevant, reliable, and representative of your reasoning. It is also a good idea to use several pieces of evidence for each argument, rather than just one. It could also be either primary or secondary. Here are some different types of evidence:
For more information, check out this handout on developing a logical argument.
Essay Structure: Conclusion
Remember that the ending matters, just like in the movies. Isn’t it really disappointing when you watch a movie with a great developing, edge-of-your-sear plot line that ends badly and quickly? The same goes for papers. The conclusion should bring it all together, showing that you have proven your thesis. Opposite to the introduction, it should start narrow and become broader. The most important point in a conclusion: do not introduce new arguments! Here are some general guidelines on what conclusions should include:
Editing, Revising, and Proofreading (preferably not at 4am the night before)
Best case scenario is to take some time (a day or two) between finishing your final draft and editing to give you some distance from your work. When editing, you should read slowly and out loud to catch run-on sentences or unclear ideas. Make a checklist for editing and proofreading. Here is an example of one. It is also a good idea to have someone else read your paper. Pretty much anyone will be able to catch small spelling and grammar mistakes that you have missed no matter how many times you have read over your paper. Someone in your class/field will be able to help you with the content, while someone not in your class/field is the best audience to test how well you explain your ideas and concepts. You should also look for someone who isn’t afraid to give you constructive criticism. Having said that, remember that everyone writes differently (i.e. has a different style), so you should also be critical of changes offered to you.
As well, start taking notice of the mistakes you usually make, so you can search out for them specifically. This can also be related to words you usually misspell or commonly confused words (i.e. complement & compliment, then & than, your & you’re).
Plagiarism is the most serious academic offence. If you are found guilty of plagiarism you can fail the assignment or the class, or be suspended or expelled from university. It could even affect your chances of getting into a grad program, as it remains on your record, and you are required to give an explanation as to what happened (even if you have only been investigated). The point is, good citation is really important. You shouldn’t take the risk of being caught of plagiarism and you should give other academics due credit for their work.
The most important thing to remember after selecting your preferred (or required) citation style is that in-text citation must match the work cited list. This means consistency with the author and the year, but also that you cannot have in-text citations that don’t have a full reference in the work cited, just like you cannot have a full reference without citing it throughout the text. Citation style also has to be consistent throughout the paper (i.e. you cannot go from APA to MLA). If you use sourcing engines to make your references, always double check their accuracy.