The final(s) countdown: Getting your paper started

by Abby Ponder 

We’ve reached that time of year, folks: finals week. Or, better yet, crunch time.

It’s been a grande ole’ semester filled with football games and friends, festivities and fun times. But, like all good things, this semester has to come to a close, and with that conclusion, final projects and papers must come to an end, too.

So how are you coping with the stress of finals week?

Well, step one: don’t panic. I know that is much easier said than done (trust me, I definitely know that), but it’s doable. Compartmentalizing is key. I have four or five papers due in the upcoming weeks, and compartmentalizing them is the only way I’m going to be able to remain a fully functioning human being by the end of this.

So, let’s walk through the process. Bear in mind that, as we go, what works for me may or may not work for you. Everyone has a different approach to paper writing, but it is my hope that even if this isn’t the exact path you wind up taking, that this post might help you figure out for yourself what works and doesn’t work, and then provide you the support to build your own foundation from there.

First, look at the assignment and deconstruct what it is asking you. Are there multiple questions being asked in the prompt? In that case, I’ve found that it can be helpful to separate them into different questions. Suppose that the prompt it asking you the following question: “How does The Scarlet Letter reflect the mentalities of Puritan New England? How is this mindset still reflected in a contemporary setting? How do the symbols from the novel reflect the way symbols are used today in regards to shame?” When planning to write this paper, you might break it down like this:

Admittedly, the questions your professors assign will be more eloquent than my attempts, and your answers will certainly be more elaborate, but you get the general idea. Breaking down these long questions can help you figure out what direction you want to take your paper in. I’m a very visual learner, and so having this clearly laid out in front of me helps tremendously.

However, while some assignments may be long and elaborate, there are others that are completely open-ended. In some cases, these assignments can be even more overwhelming. You know you’re supposed to write about something, but with no specific guidelines or instructions, where on Earth are you supposed to begin? In that case, find a topic that is both interesting to you and is relevant to the class. Making a list can be helpful, and taking a look back at the syllabus can also give you an idea of everything you might’ve forgotten from earlier in the semester. (But you wouldn’t forget any of the material, right?)
Photo Credit 
Once you have a general idea as to what you’re going to be writing about, I’ve found that writing up an outline can be particularly helpful. Outlines, in my experience, can go in a couple of different directions.
One option is the bare-bones skeleton. This is the idea of just putting words on paper to have some sense of direction as to where the project should go. I typically write this outline on paper, because drawing arrows and crossing things out can sometimes be especially satisfying, and it definitely lends itself towards making you feel as if you’re making progress–because you are!
The above picture is from the beginning of an outline I was working on for a class earlier this semester. It’s nothing terribly elaborate, but more of an idea as to where the paper will eventually go. Even if the paper deviates from this path, it’s a nice way of gathering your thoughts and saving them for later. You never know what epiphanies will happen!
Once I have finished my bare-bones outline, then I start a quote-based outline. In most of your academic research papers, secondary sources are crucial. Instead of flipping back and forth while writing the paper, I like to have a good idea of what quotes I’ll be using and where I will be using them before I even get started.
Following the bare-bones outline, I created this one to plug in resources that, if the paper presented an opportunity for them, I could cite.
While you may still need to pull out some other quotes as you go along (because, hey, papers develop in different ways sometimes), this way you already have the central ones at your disposal. If you follow this outline (ha!), though, make sure you continue to mark where you’re pulling the quotes from. Citations are critical, and you’re not saving time in the long run if you have to go back and find the author and page number after the fact. Do it all upfront and you’ll be golden!
From there, the next thing to do is just start writing. And remember, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect–that’s why it’s called a first draft. If you have the time, check out one of our recent post about the editing process for some extra assurance and advice.
Also, don’t forget that the Writing Center is here to assist you with any stage of the writing process. We are not an editing service, but we will gladly help walk you through any bumps in the road you may stumble across, whether you’re on the preliminary outline or looking at a final draft. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a second opinion on things, too.
Like always, you can schedule an appointment by clicking here and selecting a time that works well for you. If you’re struggling with the system, we also offer a step-by-step tutorial for how to make an appointment. We are also available for drop-in appointments, but please remember that those function under a first come, first serve basis. Because of that, we strongly encourage students to go ahead and schedule an appointment in advance to secure their spot.
Good luck in the upcoming couple of weeks, my friends, and have awonderful break!
Happy Writing!
This post was originally published on November 24, 2014.
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