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.)
- For the moment, ignore the content (let’s talk structure).
- Guide your paper with a controlling idea.
- Cite evidence to develop your argument.
- Avoid daisy chains of stand-alone paragraphs.
- Think of your introduction like an overture.
- Introduce your reader to the points your paper will make.
- Cut the filler. Replace it with better stuff.
- Trust the process.
- Breathe. (This stuff isn’t easy. But with planning, you can do it.)
- Recap: Shape of a Weak Academic Paper vs. a Strong One
1. For the Moment, Ignore the Content.
Let’s talk structure. When we write a 5-page MLA-style research paper, we want to produce the right amount of text, with page numbers, a title block, indented paragraphs, maybe a few indented block quotations, and a final Works Cited list (starting at the top of a sixth page).
The words in my example don’t matter. (It’s actually gibberish Latin. We’re just focusing on the overall shape of the paper.)
2. Gide Your Paper with a Controlling Idea
A good college paper develops a single idea across multiple paragraphs. A weak one is a daisy chain of one-paragraph mini-papers.
If you want to write a paper on a topic worthy of academic study, but you sit down and start churning out paragraphs without a plan, you’ll start wandering from idea to idea. Your reader will be lost.
Keep yourself on track, and keep your reader oriented, by making sure that each paragraph engages meaningfully with the single main idea that your paper develops.
That main idea (which I’ve highlighted here in green) gives shape to your paper. Every paragraph in the paper references that main idea. We keep returning it as we transition from the intro to the body, from one body paragraph to the next, and from the last body paragraph to the conclusion.
3. Cite Evidence to Develop Your Argument
At the college level, your goal is not simply to demonstrate you understand what your instructor told you you read. Your goal is to use details from the sources you chose, in order to develop an original argument. We make our arguments convincing by citing evidence. (Note: An academic argument is nothing like name-calling spats between siblings or political opponents. See “Academic Argument: Evidence-based Defense of a Non-Obvious Position“)
In the image below, I’ve flagged all the places where this author cited evidence. What matters most is that every paragraph cites sources. Aim to cite several different sources in each paragraph (and sometimes, in the same sentence).
4. Avoid Daisy-chains of Stand-alone Paragraphs
5. Think of Your Introduction Like an Overture
Think of an epic movie you’ve watched many times. You’ve probably noticed that during the opening credits, the music gives you a sample of the emotional content of the whole movie. (I’m going to use Star Wars in this example, but you can feel free to think instead of the Harry Potter films, the Lord of the Rings, or your favorite broadway musical.)
The overture to the 1977 Star Wars begins with a brassy main theme that we associate with the good guys. It also includes a mystical and melancholy theme that we hear in scenes featuring Luke and the Force, and another theme with lyrical strings that we associate with the grace and strength of Princess Leia.
Composer John Williams has carefully planned the music to invoke emotions that help us follow the story. When we see the characters in the movie, hearing the music again makes them feel familiar.
Just as composing a good overture involves sampling at all the important musical themes that will come later, composing a good thesis paragraph means introducing all the important ideas the body of your paper will cover.
What happens when the overture doesn’t work so well?
Let’s imagine an overture that beings with a pastoral flute solo, blending into a complex string quartet, which is then drowned out by ominous male chanting voices. We’d probably expect the movie to follow the journey of a humble person living a simple life in harmony with nature, who then joins a more complex society, which is threatened by some ancient outside force.
But what if, after we sat through that overture we find that the score for the first third of the movie uses only tuba-and-tambourine marches, the middle of the movie is all 70s synthesizer “bow-chick-a-bow,” and the final third is banjoes & harmonicas. If the flute, strings, and chanting never actually made it into the movie, then what were they doing in the overture? If your movie is about a military dictatorship that descends into debauchery but is finally redeemed by backwoods hoboes, then why on earth would you make me sit through the flute, strings, and chanting?
I feel much the same way when I read a student paper that begins by introducing the random points A, B, and C, then jumps to unrelated paragraphs on topic X, Y, and Z.
You can’t construct a college-level paper by daisy-chaining stand-alone paragraphs that deal with one source at a time, any more than you can score an epic movie with a series of unrelated tunes.
6. Introduce Your Reader to the Points Your Paper Will Make
Don’t think of the introduction as where you introduce your reader to everything you’ve learned about the topic you chose to write about. You’re not writing a textbook. Your job is to introduce your reader to your paper.
While you might use your introduction to introduce a complex concept your reader will need to be familiar with in order to understand your thesis, an introduction should not natter on about what “some people might say” and what “other people might say,” or confess your ignorance about your chosen topic (“I don’t understand why everybody on the planet doesn’t feel exactly the same way I feel about X”).
You probably won’t know what points your paper will make until you’ve hammered out a rough first draft. That’s normal. Just be sure to re-read the introduction you wrote before you had any real idea of what you were going to say.
7. Cut the Filler (Replace It with Better Stuff)
If you fill up on junk food, you won’t get the nutrition you need. Yes, cutting out the easy-to-obtain junk calories means you’ll have to work a little harder to get your daily energy from fresh, nourishing food. And yes, cutting the low-value words that are easy to write (personal opinion, summarizing what you have read, scolding or ridiculing people whose values you don’t share) means you have to produce something else to take their place.
The shape of a well-constructed academic paper begins with a thesis paragraph that introduces your controlling idea, lists your supporting points (in the order that your paper will address them), and also introduces the original idea that follows from your supporting points.
8. Trust the process.
If your instructor asks for pre-writing (a research question, a bibliography, an outline), make sure you take each step of the writing process seriously.
A week before your paper is due, visit the writing center, or make an appointment during your instructor’s office hours. If your instructor offers you the chance to revise, take advantage of the opportunity to improve your work.
Your instructor may not circle all your spelling mistakes, or tell you what your thesis should be, or what arguments you should make. But your instructor does want you to learn, and you will benefit from any feedback you get.
Before you submit your draft, make sure that the title, thesis, and conclusion match. If you got inspired with a new idea somewhere in the middle of page 4, and you wound up somewhere you didn’t expect, go back and change your introduction so it looks like you were headed there all along.
The thesis paragraph should present your topic, preview each of your main supporting points, and demonstrate how the supporting points add up to your original conclusion. Every body paragraph should refer to your controlling idea; each paragraph should also engage meaningfully with credible sources. Each paragraph should end by demonstrating how the details you have supplied in that paragraph prepare the reader to take another step towards accepting your paper’s overall conclusion.
Remember that you’re not being asked to demonstrate you can daisy-chain stand-alone paragraphs that respond to one source each. You’re being asked to demonstrate you can synthesize what you read, using selected details to develop your original thoughts.
9. Take a breath. This stuff isn’t easy.
Just as your housemates will notice and appreciate if you serve them a home-cooked meal, your instructor will notice and recognize the extra work that goes into successful college-level writing.