Rules for Paper Writing: Best Practices

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I spent a couple of posts telling you guys what you shouldn’t do when writing papers. Today, however, I’m going to take some time to outline some things that you should do if you want to get a decent grade.

I put together some videos detailing the Fried Chicken Method, which was taught to me several years ago by my favorite professor, Dr. Ricciardi. It’s a pretty straightforward method that deals mainly with paragraph construction. It’s designed to be a system that can allow anyone of any skill level to write a solid paper. I’m going to take it for granted that you watched the videos, because I don’t like retreading the same ground twice, and it really is a lot of information to type out here. Just… just watch the videos, okay? I put a lot of work into them. They’re free.

Whether you decide to use the Fried Chicken Method or not, there are some things that everyone should do in their papers.

1. Stay Relevant

Look, I get that you did a lot of extra research for this paper. It’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. But do we really need four paragraphs detailing Shakespeare’s possible contraction of syphilis? Is that really relevant to Hamlet’s Oedipal Complex?

I don’t really think so.

Some writers (myself included) can pride themselves on making random information relevant to the topic at hand. Hell, I once filled two Blue Books writing about symbolism in a two-page Hellboy comic for an English final. It’s kind of what English majors do. That said, when I’m writing a lengthy assignment, I make damn sure that every paragraph is genuinely relevant.

This can be something of a difficult task if you’re trying to fill an extra few pages, and ran out of things to write. And I get it; we’ve all been there before. But let me tell you this: every time a student or classmate brought me a paper with paragraphs of questionable relevance, I crossed them out, because professors will take off points.

Professors grade a lot of papers. Full-time professors teach at least twelve credits in some colleges, eighteen in most. Even if they have relatively small classes– figure twenty or thirty students in each one– that’s a minimum of eighty papers, and that’s just if they only assign one per class. I don’t think I ever took a class that didn’t require at least three papers, but I was a Humanities student, so what do I know?

The point is that they read way more papers than you do. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that they get significantly frustrated when a paper veers off topic to discuss something barely related to the subject at hand. And they can be vindictive over wasting time. I’ve seen professors cross out entire pages and refuse to even grade the paper until it’s fixed.

If you aren’t sure that you should include something, here’s a pretty good litmus test:

1. Identify the topic of the paragraph in question.

2. Check your thesis.

3. Ask yourself if the topic helps support your thesis.

If it doesn’t, chuck it out or rewrite it so that it does. If it does support your thesis, well, awesome. Keep going.

Just do yourself a favor, and check your work for relevance.

2. Draft. Draft. DRAFT.

This rule applies to academic and fiction writing, and might seem self-explanatory, but it really isn’t.

I’m a good writer. It’s kind of my thing. I can sit down at a computer and bang out a ten page paper incorporating a dozen sources in about an hour and a half, max. I was that annoying student who wouldn’t spend the entire semester working on the term project, would start it the day it was due, and still get an “A.” I never took notes, and always missed the maximum number of classes a professor would allow before automatically failing you (sometimes, I even pushed it beyond the maximum, because professors don’t automatically fail you if it’s obvious you know the material). Hell, my Chaucer professor called me in for a private meeting because I missed four classes early in the semester, and told me that I would fail the course unless I dropped it (the maximum I could get was a “D”). I told her that once she saw my tests and papers, she’d make an exception, and (along with a promise to not miss any more classes) refused to drop. I wound up getting an “A,” because being a student was my superpower. (She even apologized to me, which I didn’t deserve, but hey man, I won).

I tell you this not to be braggadocious, but to explain that, despite my extraordinary ability to coast through college with an excellent GPA, I still wrote multiple drafts. In fact, that happens to be one of the reasons I had a good GPA.

Drafting isn’t some nonsense that your high school English teacher made you do (I remember having to hand in rough drafts before handing in a “final” draft, and damn did I resent it). It is a highly useful tool that any student wanting to do well needs to learn how to use.

I don’t do multiple drafts on these posts, and I probably should. When I linked those two earlier posts at the beginning of this one, I glanced through both of them to make sure I wasn’t going to repeat myself, and found three critical errors in each. I fixed and updated them, so you won’t find them if you search now, but they were there.

You don’t realize how many mistakes you actually make when you write a paper in one sitting, beyond a certain length (I find that length to be above two thousand words, around eight pages or so). They’re often stupid, silly missteps that Microsoft Word will not pick up. Remember, if the spelling is correct and there aren’t any obvious grammatical issues, Word will just assume that’s what you meant. It does not check your ideas for you.

Drafting helps you avoid those mistakes. You must police yourself, because nobody else will do it for you.

My best advice for drafting is this;

1. Write the first draft as quickly and completely as you are able. Try to make it as best you possibly can, but don’t take too much time doing it. Hit your page count, finish the assignment, make sure you hit your source quota, but beyond that, don’t worry about it too much.

2. Wait a while. If you’re organized and still have several days before it’s due, give yourself two days at least before you look back at it. This distance is the most crucial step, and shouldn’t be avoided. (Unless your paper is due in an hour and you can’t get an extension). If you try to start a second draft right away, you’re not going to find your mistakes. You’ll know what you were trying to say, and will automatically fill in the gaps that your words leave. You might catch some spelling errors, but wording errors will slip through.

3. After as much time as you can afford has passed, reread your paper. You’ll find pretty much all of your mistakes if you do so carefully. As you go, reword things that could be communicated better.

I recommend that you repeat steps two and three a couple of times (assuming that you have enough time to do so). Even if you can only do this once, it is definitely worth it. It will certainly help raise your grade.

3. Know Your Limits

Some people can slap together an “A” paper in an hour or two. For others, it takes weeks to write ten pages.

This is nothing to be ashamed of. George Freakin’ R.R. Martin takes years to put out another book, and writes at a glacial pace of 350 words per day on average. That’s about a page and a half on days he writes. Tolkien took eleven years to write The Lord of the Rings, which is about 245 words per day, just shy of a full page.

However, these guys are professional writers who get paid to produce. They don’t have hard deadlines, because they’re really good at what they do. Professors are not known for their leeway, by and large (though it’s usually pretty easy to get an extension if you know what you’re doing).

What this means for you is that you’re going to have to recognize your own writing pace. I dated a girl who took two weeks to write five pages– and that is not an exaggeration. Unfortunately, that meant that she had to organize her life around completing those assignments on time, because she took five courses a semester.

Part of the problem was that she had little practice in high school, and was thrown into full-on paper writing when she hit sophomore year of college and had moved past most of the 100-level stuff. She did get better as she went, but always wrote a painfully slow pace.

If you write slowly, that means that you need to set aside enough time for yourself to write your paper. This sounds like basic advice that is really just common sense, but you would be surprised at how often this aforementioned girl found herself hours away from a deadline with only half a paper completed. I tried to help her as best I could, but there is only so much I can do without, you know, doing it for her. (I did that a couple of times too, but that’s neither here nor there).

Going hand-in-hand with this, you need to know what you’re good at. If you have a particular style of paper writing that you’re comfortable with, I encourage you to maintain that style (as long as it doesn’t violate the rules of grammar or the style guide your professor requires).

Some people are extremely comfortable with writing papers almost like a narrative. I’m one of them; in fact, my thesis advisor complimented my thesis because it read like a narrative. It’s part of my thing. I like to write a paper almost like I write a story. Which might be difficult for some to understand without reading my thesis, but the point is that you can always tell that it’s my paper when you read it.

I remember a few years ago, probably around 2010, I was heavily into The Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind. I read ’em all over a couple of months, and then I found out that there was a TV SHOW! All I knew about it was that it had already been canceled, but I went to the store and picked up the first season on DVD.

After the first episode (which was okay; much like The Dresden Files, it seems that major networks are completely incapable of adapting any novel series into a TV show) I felt like something was off. The whole thing felt… familiar. And I thought about it for a minute or two before I thought “That felt an awful lot like Sam Raimi’s work.” Not Evil Dead Sam Raimi– Hercules Sam Raimi. And I checked the back of the DVD set, and there was his name, right next to the Executive Producer title.

The truth of the matter is that your fingerprints are going to be all over anything you write or create; your style is going to come out. So you might as well embrace it. I don’t really recommend trying to write in a way that you are totally unfamiliar with unless that way has not been giving you results. Obviously, if your methodology has been getting you poor grades, change it up. But if your style isn’t hurting your GPA, then go ahead and stick with it. Experiment when you aren’t being graded.

 

There you have it. I’m sure I’ll expand this list in later posts, but this should do for now. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at alex@misterwritenow.com. I promise I will get back to you. 

 

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