That very first college writing assignment (and often subsequent papers as well!) can stump a student more than any other new aspect of undergraduate schoolwork. College professors are typically looking for a different style of writing than what you were used to in high school. This being said, there are specific things you can do to help prepare for and write college papers, and alleviate that often-present frustration called writer’s block. The following is a list of DOs and DON’Ts that I’ve discovered help most college students in the writing process:
DO read the material you are supposed to be writing on/about. If you have not kept up with the reading assignments for a class, how can you expect to sit down and write a paper on their subject matter? Unless you are in a completely opinion-based philosophy class of some sort, you will not impress your professors with papers that show your lack of knowledge of the assigned readings. You should demonstrate a knowledge of the text that allows you to incorporate quotes when appropriate, and that shows your ability to come up with thought-provoking questions.
DO NOT summarize reading assignments from your course. If you are writing about literature, do not give your professor a plot summary; if you are writing about some kind of theory, do not give the main points of a theoretical essay you read for the class. This should go without saying, but I’ll include it within this point, absolutely DO NOT plagiarize. Most universities have honor codes and strict policies regarding plagiarism and you do not want to be caught disregarding these rules. Suspension or expulsion will usually follow.
DO be creative and show free-thinking in your writing. Come up with interesting ways to make your points and interpret the topic given (if there is one). I’m not saying stretch the reaches of your professor’s imagination, but consult with and get approval from him or her about potential ideas to be discussed in your paper, and think of different ways to elaborate on these ideas. Also, it is perfectly acceptable to leave things unanswered within your papers. It leaves your reader with something to think about.
DO NOT write a five-paragraph paper as you may have been taught to do in junior high. College professors hate papers with merely an introduction, point-by-point paragraphs, and a summarizing conclusion. Your paper should be organized, but it is up to you to decide how to do this. Every paper should have an introduction and conclusion, but these should not mirror each other. The conclusion can push points discussed in the paper further or introduce new ideas; it should not merely serve as a quick regurgitation of everything you already said.
DO provide your reader with a clear thesis, an obvious point you are going to address. This does not mean you need a sentence in your introduction that begins with “In this paper, I am going to talk about/prove/argue/explore/etc.” (in fact you should not have one of these. They are too juvenile). But somewhere in your introduction, your professor should be able to figure out what your paper will discuss.
DO NOT choose a topic so broad that you leave every point only moderately explored. Narrow down your topic to something that can be thoroughly discussed in the amount of pages your assignment calls for. Find something specific in the assignment or material that really interests you personally, and focus on that. It will keep you interested in your work and force you to eliminate extraneous material from your paper.
DO take advantage of any writing tutors or help your college offers if only just to be an extra set of proofreading eyes. Some schools have writing centers that employ people specifically trained to help you with your papers. Use them. If your school does not have something like this, then ask your professor to read a draft a few days before it is due, or at the very least have a classmate proofread your paper when you are done. When reading our own papers, we often read what we meant to say rather than what we actually typed, so having someone else check for typos and such is essential.
DO find out what environment works best for you to write in. If you write best in places with lots of people, noise, and activity, stick with those places. Likewise, if you can focus better in quiet libraries or the privacy of your own room, then you should write there. I have found I write better with music playing in the background (this semester it’s been Rachmaninov); this approach works well for me, but I know others who say it only distracts them. Just try to discover as soon as possible what works for you and stick with it!