New handout: “The Shape of an Academic Paper”

I’ve given an in-class presentation on “The Shape of an Academic Paper” enough times that I’m ready to turn it into a stand-alone web page, which I’ll ask my students to read for homework, in order to save more class time for writing workshops. Musical friends, I’d welcome your feedback on point #5, “Think of your introduction like an overture.”

The Shape of an Academic Paper

If you are used to writing personal essays, or churning out paragraph-long responses to each assigned reading, those writing skills probably helped you do well in high school. However, a college research paper calls for a different kind of writing.

This page presents the shape of an academic paper, using color-coded images to highlight how the different components of a well-crafted composition might interact. (If you aren’t a visual learner, there’s also a section that makes the same point using the analogy of a musical overture.)

  1. Weak: Personal Intro. Strong: Blueprint, introducing supporting points. Weak: string of stand-alone paragraphs. Strong: Transitions develop complex conclusions. Weak: Last sentence introduces synthesis for the first time; no room to develop it. Strong: Conclusion synthesizes original ideas that have been part of the paper all along.For the moment, ignore the content (let’s talk structure).
  2. Guide your paper with a controlling idea.
  3. Cite evidence to develop your argument.
  4. Avoid daisy chains of stand-alone paragraphs.
  5. Think of your introduction like an overture.
  6. Introduce your reader to the points your paper will make.
  7. Cut the filler. Replace it with better stuff.
  8. Trust the process.
  9. Breathe. (This stuff isn’t easy. But with planning, you can do it.)
  10. Recap: Shape of a Weak Academic Paper vs. a Strong One