to Write a Paper
1. The topic
To make sure your paper is not a dud:
- You must identify a problem. This is your topic.
Whether you are talking about literacy or slang or sociology or civil
rights or literature or the history of the world, your problem should
indicate how language is involved; language should play the central role
in your discussion.
- You must state your topic or thesis or problem
clearly and specifically.
- Focus your problem or topic to make sure that
you understand what you are trying to prove or argue or analyze.
- Focus it to make sure you have time to do it, to
make sure you can find the resources in the library, to make sure you will
have time to conduct interviews if you need to, and that you will have
access to the people you need to interview.
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.
- At some point before, during, or after the
writing, you should be able to say: “This is what my paper is about. This
is what I have proved. This is what my results show.” “This is what's new,
what's important, what's worth reading.”
- If you can't state that clearly, then your paper
is not focused, your organization is not effective, your data not related
to your argument. And you haven't decided why you are writing it in the
- Such a clear statement of the problem and its
outcome or implications is also your conclusion, the point you are trying
to make, your reason for writing. Your conclusion may be placed at the
beginning or at the end of your paper, depending on how you organize your
writing. Or it may be placed at the beginning and the end. That is up to
you, up to your sense of style and organization.
- But both your principle of organization and your
conclusion should be clear to your reader. The reader shouldn't have to
ask, “Why are you telling me this?” The reader shouldn't have to think,
“I'd rather be sailing.”
- If you are gathering data in support of a
hypothesis (for example, Women and men on campus use slang differently), you may discover that when you write your
conclusion you have not been able to support what you set out to prove.
- That's ok. You have (presumably) gathered
valuable data, analyzed it, and drawn conclusions from it. You may be
disappointed with a result which states: “The situation appears to be more
complex than I first imagined, there are more variables than I initially
identified, I found too many counter-examples to justify firm
conclusions,” but I don't expect you to win a Nobel Prize, just to do
good, conscientious investigation and analysis of language.
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.
- Published writing looks like somebody sat down
and wrote it straight through from beginning to end, and did it right the
- In reality, writing is more like movie making:
scenes in movies are shot out of chronological sequence. They are done
over and over until they get it right. Then they are edited together to
give the illusion of chronology and sequence and dramatic coherence. Sound
and special effects are added or modified in post production. Several cuts
may be shown to different audiences before the filmmakers decide on which
version to release.
- With writing the same sorts of things may
happen: bits and pieces are composed out of sequence, or the initial sequence
is rearranged later on. Revisions are done while you write, as well as
later, retrospectively. Writers show drafts to readers, other writers,
colleagues, to get feedback, to see if they're making any sense. Sometimes
they put the work down and let it incubate while they do other things,
then get back to it when they are fresh.
- And with published writing, editors and
copyeditors and proofreaders rework copy after it has left the author's
hands until it looks like what they want it to look like.
6. Assigned writing and real-world
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
- But all writing has a deadline. If you miss a
deadline it may be too late to get the grant, the raise, the client, the
grade. Even the Romantic poets had deadlines. Look at Keats.
- In a way, the writing you do in school may be
apprentice writing. But it is no less real, no less significant, no less
vital, than on-the-job writing. And often, unfortunately, is is no more
real, significant, or vital, either.
- Don't be fooled by the poet's “Look in your
heart and write.” No real writer sits around and waits for the Muse to
strike. The Muse is notoriously undependable. Writing is work, not
inspiration. How do I know? It just came to me.
- I'm only a few mouseclicks away, so don't
hesitate to email me if you have any questions or concerns. Normally my
computer downloads my mail every half hour during weekdays, and I usually
log on late at night for a few minutes every night, including most
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.