The surest way to get A’s on undergraduate papers

Most essay guides focus on the mechanics of writing papers, which is important enough. You can’t do without a good writer’s guidebook. But it takes years of study and practice to become a proficient writer. On top of that, even good writers will have hits and misses unless they get the content right each time. My experience says that what most students really need is an understanding of the process of writing an ‘A’ paper.

So, here are the six steps you need to follow to get an ‘A’ every time:

Step 1: Figure out what kind of paper you’re being asked for. Too often students hand in essays when they’re asked for expositions or research papers. So here are the basic forms of papers for undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences:

a. Expositions. An exposition is an explanation of an argument or a piece of texts in your own words. An encyclopedia article is a good example of an exposition. It just informs you about something; it doesn’t argue a side and it doesn’t involve any research beyond the primary text you’re supposed to expound.

A typical exposition question is “Discuss Plato’s Theory of Forms.” The word “discuss” tells you automatically that you’re suppose to explain it, not argue for or against it. You might also be expected to mention common objections to it. But you are not expected to come up with your own objection.

Another typical exposition question asks you to “compare and contrast” two different arguments or theories. Be forewarned that these questions are generally harder to do well because of limitations of space. It’s hard to contrast two theories in the space of 5-10 pages without leaving a lot out—that means the risk is higher that you’ll leave out something the prof thinks is important. Be sure to think long and hard before you take on “compare and contrast” questions.

b. Research papers. Usually you’ll only get these papers in history courses and only in upper years. You’re expected to collect together and summarize what’s been said about a topic. Generally, you’ll get a bibliography to follow for the best sources. If not, always ask for one or where you should go to get one.

A typical research paper question is the same as an exposition (e.g., “Discuss…”), except that it will be clear from the instructions on the assignment that you’re supposed to do research. If ever in doubt, ask for clarification: “Is this a research paper or just an exposition in my own words?”

c. Essays. An essay always argues a thesis. You’re being asked to take a side and argue for it. Don’t forget that. Too often students waffle on essays. They think being neutral is the best policy so they argue a weak thesis or they don’t make a thesis statement at all. This is not the way to go. If you don’t like either side, then argue against both and offer an alternative. But don’t make a weak case for either one because you want to sound tolerant.

d. Book and literature reviews. These are the least common assignments. But some profs still like them. The most important thing to realize is that a book review (of nonfiction) is really an exposition of a book (as in a. above). You have to state the book’s thesis (it’ll be in the introduction) then follow it up with the arguments the author uses to support it. The last step is to evaluate the book’s argument. Be sure that you’re expected to evaluate the book, however, because that’s not always the case.

Reviews of the literature are a like a series of book reviews. Several books will argue the same thesis, so group them and the arguments they cite together. Then collect together opposing or dissenting theses and do the same.

Once again, ask if you’re expected to evaluate the material. You don’t want to criticize something you’re in no position to judge, because it makes you look ridiculous. But sometimes profs will ask you to do your best as a kind of exercise. If this is the case, make sure you criticize lightly. You’re still in no position to act as an expert. Look for apparent contradictions, instead of trying to cast doubt by saying “Well, I don’t find that plausible,” because you likely don’t really know what’s plausible and what isn’t.

Step 2: Write a draft. Once you know what kind of paper you’re supposed to write, don’t try to write the perfect paper on the first go. It won’t work. Sketch out the points you think are important (generally, you’re looking for three to five main points) then write a rough draft of the paper from beginning to end. Alternatively, just write out the paper once you’ve read over the assigned texts or other material. The purpose of this step is so get something down on paper—and the more the better—so you can move to Step 3 of the process.

Step 3: Bring your draft paper to a teaching assistant and your prof. This step is crucial, regardless of whether you’re in your first year or your fourth year. It’s also the single biggest mistake students make and the easiest way to turn a B paper into an A paper. I guarantee you that you’ve left something out or you’ve under- or overemphasized something in your paper. Chances are you made a significant mistake of some kind that will cost you.

A good tip is to make sure that you tell them it’s a draft and that you just want to know if you’re going in the right direction and whether you left anything out. Most times, they’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, so mark it down right there if possible.  Be ready to explain the content of your paper too, because some TAs and profs won’t read it; they’ll ask you to summarize. Don’t panic. Just read off your thesis and the three or five points you’re making.

The second most common mistake is to skip Step 2 by asking some questions about what to include in the paper. This doesn’t work. Don’t even bother going to ask general questions about the topic. You’ll need something concrete for the TA or prof to look at and critique. And if you don’t get clear answers from the TA, go to the prof and vice versa. The other route—from prof to TA—is important to remember. Most students skip the TA, even though the TA is usually the one marking the paper. Talk to him or her and get feedback on the draft, especially if the prof offers little help.

Step 4: Rewrite the paper and edit for mistakes. Once you get feedback, rewrite the paper and read over it until you’re blue in the face. Every prof says you won’t be marked on grammar, spelling and style. Don’t believe it. Not because he lying, but because it’s one of those false bits of conventional wisdom that’s repeated so many times people believe it. Yet it’s not true; poorly written papers always—I mean always—get worse marks than well-written ones with no mistakes. In fact, the following principle will always be borne out:

A well-written paper with weak ideas will always trump a poorly written paper with (potentially) good ones.

The reason is simple: sloppy writing cannot be separated from sloppy thinking.

So, make sure your structure is good, that the arguments flow logically and that the transitions between paragraphs are smooth. Get a writer’s handbook if you don’t know what the terms in the previous sentence mean.

Step 5: Hand it in on time. This one should be self-explanatory. It’ll save you all kinds of time and misery if you just hand it in when it’s due.  Universities are bureaucracies; they like time lines and predictable results. Never go against the basic principles of the machine.

Step 6: Ask about the result. If everything went right, skip this step and move on to the next paper and Step 1. If not, consider this: the third biggest mistake students make is neglecting to find out what went wrong. There are two reasons.  For one, you may not have been wrong. Every now and then someone makes a mistake, misses something or writes down the wrong mark. It’s rare, yes, but it happens.

The second and more important reason is to find out your weaknesses. If you do the same mistakes over and over again, you need to know them. A systematic error—I mean one that you always commit—can be corrected. Maybe you tend to structure a paper poorly, for example; if so, it’s common and it’s easy to fix.

Following this process of writing a paper is the key to success. It’s as important as studying before trying to write an exam.

[If you still don’t have any luck, you can send me an e-mail at my business site and I may be able to help you out. But before you go there, keep two things in mind: for one, I will not under any circumstances (or for any amount of money) write your paper for you; second, it’s a business, so I obviously charge for my services.]


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