Finals week is fast approaching, and what can put a damper on your holiday spirit more quickly than the thought of the three-to five-page papers you’re required to write? Getting a B or a C, or gasp, even a D on them, that’s what.
For those students seemingly doomed to a monotonous stream of B’s and C’s, buck up. What follows is a buried treasure of knowledge that will assure your next paper’s presence in the 4.0 bracket.
Keep things fresh
Before you start thinking about your writing skills, the first step to writing an A paper is coming up with an innovative topic and finding an interesting way to express that topic in writing.
“To me, an A paper has a freshness and a keen perception that make the reader want to read from the first sentence to the last,” said Robert T. Rhode, a professor of English at Northern Kentucky University. “An A paper invites the reader in and sustains the reader’s enthusiasm and interest all the way through.”
Paul Ellis, coordinator of NKU’s Writing Center, also believes a piece earning an A requires a certain amount of depth. “A shallow, superficial piece of writing where the ideas are pretty much taken out of the air is not going to be an A paper,” he said. “I want to see the thinking process of the individual student writer in the paper, and that is more likely to be an A.”
Writing an intriguing paper can make your professor, who reads hundreds of them annually, happy, and your professor being happy with your work can only help your grade.
“An A paper is such a pleasure to read that I forget about grading it,” Rhode said. “I’m thinking I’m reading the work of a colleague on whatever subject it may be and I’m intrigued with this colleague’s expression of ideas.”
“Then I reach the end and I realize, well that was an A,” he laughed. Rhode pointed out, however, that just because it’s an A paper doesn’t mean there can’t be mistakes. “It’s not as if it’s perfect, but it’s a paper that was worth reading.
You got sweet skills?
Regardless of writing ability, your assignment will go nowhere without the basic requirements of any top-notch piece of writing – grammar, structure, audience and an idea of the purpose of the paper.
“Skills of grammar and prose style are immensely helpful because that can boost a C paper to a B,” Rhode said. “I have read some C papers that actually had astonishingly fresh ideas but they were so sporadic and so poorly organized and supported that they fell unfortunately to the level of a C.”
Knowing your purpose in writing and your audience is also crucial to a well-written essay, Rhode said. “I think one of the best practices an author can have is to ask himself or herself: ‘What is it I really want to write about and what do my readers want to know?'” Rhode said.
Asking these questions seems elementary, Rhode said, “but that’s not true, because even though I’ve published, what, 130 or more articles, every time I sit down to write I have to think, ‘Who is my audience? Why am I writing this?’ Those are never very far out of my cognition as I’m writing.”
This practical approach Rhode recommends works wonders for senior English major Elizabeth Menning. “The first thing I do when I write a paper is to ask myself, ‘What do I want to say by writing this paper?'” she said. “The answer to that question becomes my thesis statement.”
Menning then creates an outline for effectively supporting her thesis, goes through her research and finds the points most relevant to her argument and starts writing. “Laying everything out in an outline is something that helps me stay focused on what I want to say, and it helps keep my information organized,” Menning said.
Gasp! Writing can be fun?
You may have the abilities and a mind-blowing topic, but those alone won’t help unless you, the writer, are sincerely interested in learning more about the subject you’ve chosen for your essay. Cultivating an interest in your topic makes writing the paper less tedious and less like work.
“I find that if I am writing a paper on a topic I want to learn more about or that I am really interested in, the process is much more enjoyable,” Menning said.
“My advice would be to approach a paper with the attitude of it being a learning experience,” she said. “If you approach it with the negative attitude that it’s just a hoop professors make you jump through, you will dread every minute.”
Rhode pointed out the attractions of professionalism in writing in order to avoid the creative doldrums. “Really professional writers write because they must, but not because they are told to. They write because they feel compelled,” he said. “If you are writing a paper you don’t care whether you (write) or not, it’s most likely not going to be an A,” he said. “Unless you can really fake what looks like an A paper.”
Don’ts: Learn from your mistakes and others
You’re finished writing, you’ve had fun doing it and you think the grammar is acceptable – what follows are some writing hurdles professors and fellow students have had to jump in the past.
Ellis finds that most students make three mistakes in the writing process. “They start too late, they don’t revise sufficiently and they don’t edit and proofread their final drafts before turning them in,” he said.
Knowing when to begin writing can also be tricky, Ellis said. “You don’t want to get started too early, because you might not put 100 percent effort into it,” he said. “You want to wait until there is enough tension so that you’ll really sit down and focus on the paper.”
Ellis recommends seven to 10 days before the assignment is due to begin if the paper is a response or an analysis that doesn’t require library research.
As for Rhode, he feels mediocre writing is the result of students not taking enough risks in their essays. “There is a kind of playing it safe mentality, perhaps, that leads to an obvious conclusion,” he said. “Usually B papers I find are extremely well-written in terms of the mechanics, but they just don’t reach the level of keen perception, strong curiosity and a kind of feeling of revelation that an A paper would achieve.”
Besides grammar and spelling, Menning always makes sure to not misuse her sources for assignments. “Don’t quote a source merely to fulfill a requirement for the paper,” she said. “Remember that you’re writing a paper to get your point across; not to rehash what five or six critics have said.”
Menning recommends only using quotes that are relevant to a paper’s argument and supporting these quotes with who and how it is applicable to the argument.
But definitely DO this:
First of all, use the campus Writing Center. Some students may believe they have to have the first draft written before visiting the center, but Ellis says not necessarily. “I emphasize that you can come to the Writing Center even if you haven’t written a word.”
The center’s tutors can help writers clarify an assignment, brainstorm responses, and revise and proofread papers.
To Menning, a ‘do’ in the writing process is putting in time and effort. “Writing a good paper is determined by whether a person is willing to put in the time to make it good,” she said. While writing papers may be a skill that comes easier to others, receiving an A on a paper is certainly not limited to those students.”
Students should also ask for help, Menning said. “Always have someone proofread your paper; whether that is a peer from class or someone from the Writing Center,” she said. “Also, if the professor offers a paper conference day where he or she is willing to discuss your paper on a one-to-one basis, take advantage of it. It can only help you.”