Getting Started with College Research Papers

Most students entering college think they know what to expect from a writing class, especially the first rhetoric class in the standard college rhetoric sequence. Then they are shocked when their papers, which perhaps garnered A’s in high school, come back with C’s and even D’s. What has gone wrong? College is a whole new ball game, and here are a few tips to surviving the college writing scene and perhaps even hitting a few home runs.

1) When your teacher hands out the writing assignment, read it. Read it again. Read it again. Underline the verbs: what does your professor want you to do? Once you finish the paper, double-check to make sure you did everything the assignment asks.

2) Assume that the professor means what he says. If he specifies a paper that is 3-5 pages long, and you hand in one that is two pages long, he’ll probably start your grade at a 66% because you gave him about 66% of a minimum-length paper. A 66% is a D.

3) Don’t procrastinate. Start the paper as soon as you get the assignment. That way, if you get bogged down in questions, you will have time to contact the professor to ask your questions before the paper is due.

4) Most English classes require the use of MLA-style documentation. The teacher usually requires that students buy a handbook, which has grammar and style rules, as well as rules for various kinds of documentation, generally including MLA, APA, and CMS. Don’t decide to save money by not buying the handbook. It’s the one book you’ll use all through college, and perhaps into graduate school.

5) Don’t cheat. Don’t download a paper off the Internet. The professor isn’t stupid: he can Google as well as you can, and he knows when the rhetorical style most likely didn’t come from a student.

6) Do ask the professor what his rules are for using Internet sources. Some professors say you may not use anything from the “raw Internet”-that is, something you find using a search engine like Google or Yahoo. It’s always OK to use material from the online databases to which your college or university library subscribes, as all this material has been previous printed somewhere and is merely archived online. Material from online databases doesn’t count as an “Internet source.”

7) Take time to do some prewriting activities for any writing assignment. That is, sit down and think about the assignment for awhile, and write down any ideas that come to mind. If you find you don’t know much about the topic, do some research. Once you have a page full of ideas written down, make an outline, and then start writing a rough draft.

8) The professor will probably give you formatting rules or will ask you to follow one of the formats described in the handbook. Follow any formatting instructions meticulously, punctuating exactly as the models in the handbook show, double-spacing your paper. First impressions are extremely important. Professors can tell at a glance if you haven’t followed formatting instructions, and it creates an immediate presumption of carelessness in the professor’s mind.

9) When you’re finished with the paper, try to lay it aside for a day, or even a couple of hours. In his book titled How to Be Your Own Best Editor, author Barry Tarshis advises writers to put some mental distance between themselves and their papers by doing something entirely different for awhile. Perhaps you haven’t the luxury of more than a half hour to lay your paper aside, but during that time, go and do your laundry or watch TV or study your physics assignment-anything but looking at what you’ve written.

10) Print out the paper before you edit. Don’t try to read on the computer screen-you’ll miss things-but do run a spellcheck.

11) Divide your editing process into two parts: Revision and Editing. Simply put, Revision deals with the Big Stuff, and Editing deals with the Little Stuff. Revising should include reading for organization, jumps in thought, poor transitions, gaps in information-anything that requires rewriting and shifting information around. Mark your paper as you go; then go back to your computer and make the changes. Print out a clean copy.

12) Now deal with the little stuff. This time, you should read the paper aloud, very slowly. Very slowly! This way, you will detect words you’ve mistakenly repeated or left out. Look for sentence fragments and run-on sentences. If your sentences sound weird, they probably are. Reword them until they roll fluently off the end of your tongue. Editing is slow and takes a long time, but it’s worth it.

Still, be prepared for a worse grade than you would like. You might get a C, but if you hadn’t followed these tips, it might have been an F. The best thing to do is to read the professor’s comments carefully and examine all the marks on your paper. Try to discern what your main errors are, and look them up in your handbook to see if you can figure out how to correct them. Perhaps the biggest secret you don’t know is that professors love students who take their work seriously and constantly try to do better!