How to Write a Paper

Dennis Baron

1. The topic

To make sure your paper is not a dud:

2. Why am I doing this?

This is not always as easy as it sounds, because identifying and narrowing the problem must often accompany writing rather than preceding it.

3. Audience awareness

When you write, you should always consider your relation to your reader. Who is your reader? What do you want to tell the reader? What is the best way of doing this? How much does the reader need to know? (If you explain too much or too little, readers react negatively or get bored.) What is your purpose in telling something to your reader? What do you need to do to keep your reader reading, to keep them turning the pages. What you're not after is the reaction of one reader: “This book was so good I couldn't stop putting it down.”

You must be able to see that something clear to you may not necessarily be clear to your reader. But if you explain too much, your reader will feel patronized. True, your writing must first sound good to you, but it must sound good in public, too.

4. The Writing process

Only you know how you write best. Maybe you make outlines, maybe not. Maybe you sit and think and think and think and then just before the paper's due you sit down to write and it all comes pouring out. Or maybe you write a little, revise it, revise it again, write a little more, revise it some more, and it all comes out in dribs and drabs, and when you're done you finally discover what it is you wanted to say, and then you go ahead and write the introduction last. You must write in whatever manner suits you best, but you must allow sufficient time, planning, break-taking, revising time, and so on to ensure that the paper will be done on time. Your writing for this paper must incorporate sources: they may be published sources or personal interviews or both. You should have a consistent method for noting sources.

5. Models of good writing

Don't be fooled by “professional” or “model” writing. First of all, you're not a language professional and nobody expects you to be one. Second, remember that published writing implies a number of things that are simply not the case so far as the process of writing goes.

6. Assigned writing and real-world writing

Don't kid yourself. School is the real world. And just about all writing that writers do is assigned writing. Sometimes it is assigned by a boss or editor or teacher. Other times it is self-assigned.

Now go out and write. And remember, be careful out there.


Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.