How to write a good paper… or, follow the prompt…


Your papers are the functional equivalent to a mid-term and a final in this course — and you should put that kind of effort into them… When you post in Watch and Respond, a paper prompt for the unit will be available in “paper prompts” in the content area.  You’ll have a few to choose from (depending on the course).

First — look at the assignment and make sure you are selecting a prompt from the current “half” of the course.  For the mid-term it would be the first half — for the final it would be the second half…

Second — read all the prompts that would fulfill the assignment — which of them appeals to you the most?  Which of these prompts made you think, connected to your life, made you want to read more etc… go for that one.  Don’t spend a lot of time and effort on a prompt that bores you, because you’ll bore me too.

Third — review the relevant reading for the prompt… look at what was assigned, go back into the reading notes posts from your classmates to check to see if you have it right, read other stuff in the class on the topic, look at this blog for relevant posts etc… in short, gather your materials.

Fourth — make an outline.  This will keep you organized and on track.  Make a major point out of each relevant part of the paper prompt. Under those major points, put the minor points you want to address, as well as make notes about which sources you should include etc…

Fifth — double-check your outline.  Do you give about equal “space” to each important part of the prompt (if not, that’s kind of ok, but make sure you’re not skipping over something you don’t understand).

Sixth — look at the source material again — did you miss anything?  Spend some time in google searching on the terms relevant to your prompt — is there something out there that you should include?  Look at the watch and respond discussion for the topic, is there anything there that should be included… if so, add it to your outline.

Seventh — write from the outline.  Flesh it out — A few tips for writing:

  • Put ideas from others in a different color — use the highlight feature of your word processor to make a distinction between your ideas and the ideas you need to cite.  I’ve also turned that text a different color.
  • When you first include the idea, make sure you include the source — if only in an informal sense… that will remind you about where you got the information.
  • Keep your quotes short and your explanation or application of them longer…
  • Use color to make sure your paper is balanced — are you spending a lot of time on one part of the prompt?  if you color all paragraphs with one color for that topic and use another color for another topic you’ll see right away where you’ve gone on tangents.
  • Use the “insert comments” function to make notes for yourself…. I do that a lot, and it helps.
  • Sometimes when I have a first draft finished, I’ll print it and do another outline, then compare it to my first outline and adjust (or not) as necessary.
  • It’s ok to use the first-person… you can say “I think” — because, you do :).  Try to avoid using “I feel” because, this isn’t really about your emotions, it’s about your thoughts…
  • MAKE SURE YOU ANSWERED THE ENTIRE PAPER PROMPT!  I can’t tell you how often I have students unhappy with their grades because they skipped part of the paper prompt… don’t be them.

Eighth — put your draft away for a while — as long as you can, while still leaving time to edit it.

BEFORE you start editing, save a copy of your draft — that’s saved my butt more times than I can tell you….

  • When you’re editing, make sure you have all of your citations filled out and in place — not long ago a paper was published with “insert crappy citation on…” — don’t be that person.
  • Make sure you turn all of your colors off.
  • Make sure you go back and read the notes you wrote to  yourself… then delete them from the final version.
  • Make sure you don’t have super-long paragraphs — for the most part, you aren’t using highly complex ideas — so, you should probably have about 2-3 paragraphs per page.  If you have more like 1 paragraph per page, or  paragraph over two pages, you should be concerned.  If you need to know more, look at the course links area under writing resources and read more about writing paragraphs.
  • You’re right, this isn’t an English course – it’s a course in which what you learned in your English courses is crucial to your success — I do grade on paper form — granted, content is more important — but, overall this course is supposed to be part of the ‘writing across the curriculum’ idea — and I do grade on form as well as content.
  • Look at the grading rubric before you submit your paper — do you think  you’ll be in the A category?  If not, then keep working.
  • MAKE SURE YOU ANSWERED THE ENTIRE PAPER PROMPT!!!  This is your last opportunity to check…
  • Save your file as a .doc, .doxc, .pdf, or .rtf — and submit it.

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