He Said, She Said: Quoting and Paraphrasing

A few weeks ago, in the blog “Research: Wading Through Sources” (found here: https://wordpress.com/view/wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com), I talked about how to choose sources for your paper and to think of your writing as “joining in a conversation” with scholars. Now, I’d like to share some tips for actually integrating those sources. There are a lot of things to cover on this topic, so I’m going to share what you will most likely be using and the areas where I see the most issues in student papers.

For examples, I will be using material from my paper, “The Despair Unto Death in The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy: A Kierkegaardian Reading.”

How Much to Quote/Paraphrase

Often students fill their papers with too many quotes, especially long ones. This can quickly come across as lazy and a way for the student to reach a certain page count.

According to the University of Iowa’s writing center, “ninety-nine percent of your paper should be in your own words. Quotes help your argument, but cannot substitute for your own original work.” You’ll probably find other percentages. For instance, WriteCheck.com suggests %20 can be quoted/paraphrased material. The main idea is that the majority of your work should be in your own words and ideas.

Introducing Quotes

Another problem I’ve seen is students tossing in a quote here and there with no introduction or commentary.

Example:

“In Confession, Tolstoy ‘speaks of spiritual discomfort having grown in him like a disease, at first revealed by transient symptoms but gradually mastering the whole organism,’ and ‘the process is realized in his finest tale of the decade, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)’ (Gifford 45). Here, Tolstoy describes his despair as like a disease. This simile is made into metaphor in Ivan Ilych, in which the protagonist suffers an actual illness that represents his internal despair. In this example, I introduce the source (an unpublished fictional work by Tolstoy), and then, after I quote the source, I apply the quote to my argument. It is not usually safe to assume that the reader will know immediately how your quote applies. Even if they do, it is your job to not only provide evidence but to also interpret that evidence.”

Paraphrasing 

You won’t always need a direct quote. In fact, most of the time you will be paraphrasing.

Example:

“While Kierkegaard was not well-received in Russia during his own time because of his anti-Hegelian philosophy (Makolkin 2), Hilary Fink writes in an essay comparing Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that the Russian author did, in fact, read and admire Kierkegaard (1).”

When paraphrasing, make sure you cite the page numbers where the information came from.

Ellipses…

Sometimes you’ll find a lengthy quote that you want to use but find is too long or includes too many irrelevant details. This is where you can use an ellipsis (…) to join pieces of a quote. The ellipsis serves as a bridge between the two (or three or four) sections.

Example: 

“In a letter to his wife in 1869, Tolstoy writes: ‘…suddenly I was overcome by despair, fear and terror, the like of which I have never experienced before…I’ve never experienced such an agonizing feeling before and may God preserve anyone else from experiencing it’ (Wilson 250).”

Block Quotes

When you quotation is longer than a few lines, it should be blocked. Some specific guidelines exist for blocked quotes that are important to remember.

  1. Quotes must be indented one-half inch
  2. Quotation marks are not used around the quote
  3. The parenthetical citation comes AFTER the period
  4. Quotes are usually introduced with a colon, but sometimes with a comma
  5. Double spacing is maintained

Example: (Because of the format of this blog, this example is in single space with extra spaces before and after the block quote. In an actual paper, the whole thing will be double spaced.)

“In Kierkegaard, despair is the ‘sickness unto death.’ He writes:

The torment of despair is precisely the inability to die…Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as though there were hope of life. No, the hopelessness is that even the last hope, death, is gone…It is in this latter sense, then, that despair is the sickness unto death, this tormenting contradiction, this sickness in the self; eternally to die, to die and yet not to die, to die death itself. (48)

“To despair unto to death, then, is to be ill in spirit and to desire to cease existing.”

Integrated Quotes

An integrated quote is simply a quote that flows from a sentence in your own words, and I have already used this example many times in this blog. To integrate a quote, it is important to make sure that they are consistent with the grammatical progression of your sentence. This some times takes altering the quote, which I explain next.

Example: 

“Ivan was ‘an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man’ (256), who married because it ‘gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates’ (259).”

Altering Quotes

To alter a quote, you can use ellipses as mentioned before, but you can also change words by putting them in brackets. This is especially useful if the quote you are using is not in the same tense as your sentence or if you want to specify something that is not clear in the sentence.

Examples: 

“At this time, ‘Tolstoy [became] something more than a writer: he [became] a religious leader, sage, a modern prophet’ (165).

“Because of these differences, Kierkegaard ‘searches for the absolute in the eternal world which is really the absolute world, a world without the limitations of place and time, a world without beginning and end, while [Tolstoy] searches for the absolute in this temporal world which is a relative and finite world’ (502).”

Quotes Within Quotes 

Finally, note that, in the last example, I used singular quotations (‘…’) when quoting within my own quotation. This is the standard for quotes within quotes. If the author you are quoting mentions a title of a short work, for instance, you would put it in singular quotations.

 

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Works Cited

Fink, Hilary. “Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer’s Sonata and the Kierkegaardian “Either/Or.”

Canadian-American Slavic Studies 36:1-2 (2002): 7-18. Brill Online Books and Journals.

Web. 18 March 2016.

Gifford, Henry. Tolstoy. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982. Print.

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Trans. Alastair Hannay. Great Britain:

Penguin Classics, 1989. Print.

Makolkin, Anna. “Russian, Stalinist and Soviet Re-Readings of Kierkegaard: Lev Shestov

and Piama Gaidenko.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 44.1 (2002): 79-96. ProQuest. Web. 19

Mar. 2016.

“Paraphrases and Quotes.” University of Iowa, https://clas.uiowa.edu/history/teaching-

and- writing-center/ guides/paraphrases-and-quotes. Accessed 11 October 2017.

Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Tolstoy, Leo. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy.

New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967. 245-303. Print.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988. Print.

“Writing Tip #20: How much of my paper can be quotes?” WriteCheck, 16 January 2013,

http://en.writecheck.com/blog/2013/01/16/writing-tip-20-how-much-of-my-paper-can-

be- quotes.

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Meet Dr. Jane Fife

I was born in Paducah and grew up in Louisville, so I was thrilled to be able to find a job teaching at WKU. I had gone to college in Michigan and Indiana and got my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. My first professor gigs were in Ada, Oklahoma and Chattanooga, Tennessee. I started teaching at WKU in 2003, and directing the Writing Center has been part of my job from the start. I also teach various writing classes, including English 100, writing in the disciplines, argument & analysis, and advanced composition.

For fun, I like to study how people write (now and in the past), collect typewriters, read (especially mysteries about books or old manuscripts), travel to beautiful natural places and historic sites, and bake.

My advice to students is that writing is challenging—at least writing in a way that gets your point across well and is engaging for your reader—so mustering the motivation to write can be tough, even for English teachers! To write well, you have to understand your own psychology as a writer: what makes you not want to write, what can you do to change that attitude, what makes your writing environment less distracting, what makes it more enjoyable and more conducive to focus? If you can answer these big questions about yourself, you’re on the way to becoming a better writer and enjoying the journey. Writing is usually not easy, but it can be fun and rewarding. WKU Writing Center tutors can talk with you about what works for them as writers and help you start to understand yourself better. Yes, we want to help you write better papers, but we also want to help you understand yourself better as a writer and the many things you can do to improve how you write, where you write, when you write, how often you write, and how well you like to write. All that will help you improve what you write.

-Dr. Fife

If This, Then That: Structuring an Argument

Arguing is a part of life 

Structuring an argument is actually very simple. We do it all the time! Note the structures of the following statements:

  1. La La Land is one of the best movies of the year; it won 5 oscars and was nominated for 14!
  2. As a film critic who has viewed many musicals over the past ten years, La La Land is the best I’ve seen.
  3. La La Land will make you laugh, cry, and sing. You’ll want to put on your tap shoes and dance all the way to LA.

Logos, Ethos, and Pathos

These three statements exhibit three different kinds of argumentative appeals: Logos (appeal to logic), ethos (appeal to ethics–in other words, it convinces the audience of ones’ credibility), and pathos (appeal to emotion). All forms are useful in writing an argument, but it is important to understand your audience when choosing arguments.

When forming your argument, you might ask yourself:

  1. What arguments are my sources making and how are they proving their points?
  2. What is my argument? How was I convinced of it? Was it through logos, pathos, ethos, or all of the above?
  3. Who is my audience? Are they resistant to the ideas of the paper? Are they open-minded? Do they have any emotional connection to it, whether positive or negative?
  4. Do I have any qualifications that make me better suited to make my claims than someone else? Do I have any experience with this issue?
  5. Is someone else more qualified? Can I interview them or cite their writing in my paper?

Example 

Let’s say you are writing a paper on why everyone should garden. First, you’ll need to narrow down your argument (see previous blog on writing a thesis statement). You come up with the following thesis:

“Gardens are beneficial not only to the land but also to the physical and mental health of gardeners.”

Next, consider your audience. Let’s assume your audience is your own classroom. None of them garden, and they probably think of it as a hobby for grandmas.

Already, your thesis suggests you will be using logic and scientific evidence to support your claim, but you also may need to include some emotional appeal to convince the students that they not only need to but should want to practice gardening. Finally, do you have any experience with gardening yourself? What are experts saying? Would they be more impressed by the claims of a renowned scientists or by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has taken a stand on climate change reversal? Would a testimony of someone impacted by gardening impact them (pathos)? What about a scientific study on the connection between gardening and mental health (logos)? Sources coming from scientific journals etc. also appeal to ethos because the claims are made by experts in the field.

Structure 

The following are examples of structures used to form arguments.

  1. “If this…then that”
  2. “X…but Y.”
  3. “Because of X…Y.”
  4. “Even though X…Y.”

For instance:

  1. If regular time in the sun improves happiness, and gardening requires time in the sun, then gardening improves happiness.” (logos)
  2. “Gardening may be hard work, but weeding for an hour is the equivalent to an hour in the gym.” (pathos)
  3. Because gardening improved the mental health of patients in the study by X, gardening should be encouraged and made accessible to mental health patients.” (ethos/logos)
  4. Even though there have been claims that gardening is, in fact, detrimental to the environment because of chemicals, soil loss, and disruption of the eco system, X claims that gardens can act towards reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, increase soil, and increase biodiversity.” (ethos/logos)

Now, I just made these forms and examples up on the spot. Each form could have been a paragraph long or worded quite differently. The point is the function of these types of arguments.

All of the previous statements make connections. When structuring an argument, you will more than likely need good transitions spots for the readers to follow your logic. If you have a paragraph on a study that opposes your argument, for instance, you will need to seemlessly transition from that logic to your own claim. In addition, acknowledging adversity to your argument is an excellent way to show you are not afraid of opposition but can back up you own claims.

Outlining 

Look at your points. Using an “if this…then that” structure might help you connect your points together in an outline. (Your sentences don’t have to actually say “if this..then that…” The idea is to think of the connections between your claims.

For instance:

  • Studies by X show that subjects who gardened were happier and more positive.
  • Gardening will make you happier and more positive.
  • Sunlight improves happiness.
  • If sunlight improves happiness, and gardening requires sunlight, then gardening improves happiness.
  • Bad gardening practices can be detrimental to the environment, but good practices can be beneficial.
  • If good practices can be beneficial, then practicing good gardening can improve the land (and make you feel good about what you are doing! [pathos])
  • In a testimony by X, she says, “Gardening changed my life.”
  • If gardening changed X’s life, it could change yours…

Again, I just made these up on the spot to show that this structure is really quite simple. Sure, this outline is far from ready, but, if I were actually writing this paper, it would help me get an idea of what I should focus on. Notice how this outline naturally balances logos with pathos, for instance. My instinct was that too much logos would be unappealing to an audience not interested in gardening to begin with, so I wanted to show why they personally would enjoy gardening.

Conclusion 

There isn’t really a right or wrong way to structure an argument. Take this advice with a grain of salt. I merely want to inspire you to begin thinking of structure in a way that makes connections rather than jumping aimlessly from one thing to the next. Further, I want to encourage you not to think about this as a list of rules but as just a few examples of how things might be done.

Happy writing!

Need help on your paper? Having trouble forming an argument? Come visit us at the Writing Center! 

 

 

 

Loosing the Chains of the Thesis Statement

What is a thesis? 

A necessary evil?

A helpful tool for generating writing?

A sentence at the end of the introduction that tells the reader what you will be arguing?

Whatever you call it, a thesis statement, while useful in many ways, can be debilitating to the author if seen as a solid thing that cannot be budged. An author who writes a thesis before writing anything else—maybe even before researching—may feel the need to keep that thesis no matter what other ideas or rabbit trails they wish to discover in their writing process.

This mentality can be stifling. Even a writer who is not so stuck to the rules may struggle with writing a thesis statement in the first place if they haven’t gone through the whole process of discovering their topic—which often comes from research, outlining, and writing.

So how do we counteract this? How do we “loose the chains” of thesis statements?

First, don’t think of thesis statements as your “ball and chain” but as the key to unlocking the rest of your paper. I even like to think about it as “key”—referring to the musical term. The key to a song affects the entire piece and keeps it from falling into chaos. Even key changes must be smoothly transitioned and purposeful. A thesis statement holds a paper together for both the writer and the audience.

The process of writing a thesis is not static. There are many ways (and times) to write a thesis.

For instance one may:

  1. draft a thesis that states the argument, then narrow and specify (see below) throughout the process.
  2. draft an entire paper (a very rough draft) to discover what one’s true argument is, then write the thesis and revise accordingly (lots of revision).
  3. write a complete thesis to guide the rest of the process to keep one on track, only revising if needed (often involves less paper revision).

The last example is the most traditionally taught. I would recommend starting this way and seeing if it works for you.

Moving on, what are some qualities that most thesis statements have, and how can we achieve them?

Argumentative 

You’ll want to let the reader know what your argument is early on. This is rather Western, so don’t see this as a universal rule. Most likely, however, this is the type of writing you will be doing.

Let’s say you were writing about genetic engineering. You may write something like:

“Genetic engineering is used to modify foods to increase yields and lessen chemical usage.” 

This may sound good, but it is not an argument. It doesn’t say anything controversial. But if you wrote the following—

Genetic engineering is dangerous.”

—it would be clear what your argument is.

Narrowness 

Okay, so we need to dig deeper than that. If you are writing, say, an eight page paper, writing about ALL of the dangers of genetic engineering would be impossible. Let’s narrow this down:

“Genetically modified corn threatens the environment.”

We have now specified the type of genetic engineering as well as what it particularly threats.

Specificity 

As mentioned before, specificity may not come until you have fully outlined—or even written—your paper, but it is important for making sure that all of your paragraphs relate back to the thesis. Again, if a thesis is the “key,” what notes must be played? If you add a new point to your paper, make sure you have included it in your thesis in some way. After some research, you may write the following:

“The production of genetically modified corn over the past few decades has increased harmful chemical pollution and threatened biodiversity.” 

This thesis could actually be more specific by listing all of the main points as well as what research the writer will be presenting. This would obviously need to be written after you have done all of your research, note-taking, and maybe outlining/writing (which is why the following thesis is incomplete).

“Studies from…on…show that the production of genetically modified corn over the past few decades has threatened the biodiversity of farmland and increased harmful chemical pollution in food, water, and soil.”

Below is a (very rough) outline that addresses the points in this thesis.

  1. Introduction
  2. What is genetically modified corn?
  3. How has it progressed over the past few decades?
  4. How has it threatened biodiversity of farmland?
  5. How has it increased harmful chemical pollution in food?
  6. In water?
  7. In soil?
  8. Conclusion

Of course, one might also include a paragraph or so on opposing viewpoints, etc.

Revision 

The nice thing about a thesis is that it keeps you from covering too many things in one paper by forcing you to narrow down and specify, but that doesn’t mean that The octave may change, the notes may vary, but, in the end, everything must be in sync, which is why revision (throughout the process and at the end) is necessary.

I could go on with the metaphors, but it’s time to let you write.

Research: Wading Through Sources

For reference on when to start your paper and how to choose a topic, see the following post from last week: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/what-should-i-write-about/

Overview 

Research can be an arduous, time-consuming thing, but it can also be a fascinating process if you’ve chosen a topic you are interested in. Assuming you have already learned a bit about research and how it works, I’d like to take the opportunity to help guide you through the process by digging a little deeper and addressing the following:

  • Why we research
  • How to choose sources
  • How to read sources for information you need

A Research Scenario… 

Imagine you are trying to prove to your skeptical friend, James, that Americans did land on the moon in 1969. What sources would you gather to prove your side?

You might start off quoting a NASA document, but then James argues that they are telling you what they think you should know. So you have to dig deeper. You find a scholarly article that addresses the conspiracy theories. You find a book on the life of Neil Armstrong. You find another book on the science behind space travel. Each time, James refutes it with another source, but this only makes you take your research further, until you and James are in a back-and-forth discussion, each backed up by your sources.

We Are All Researchers 

I used this silly illustration to show that research isn’t an arbitrary, boring task for scholars that you have to imitate while in school but never use again. We research all the time! We read product reviews to judge which brand to buy, we research why we woke up with a sore throat or which restaurants we should go to on vacation. Research, especially with our easy access to Google, is a part of our every day lives.

A Worthy Opponent 

In the illustration above, you are researching something with the intent of proving a point. This is what you most likely be doing in academic research. To prove a point, you need a “James” to remind you that you are not the only one who holds your opinion. Finding a source that opposes your argument will help you know which points need more evidence, that author becoming the “antagonist” to your paper that gives you, the protagonist, something to push against. That antagonist can also represent your readers without you having to argue against the readers themselves. They are the ones giving you momentum and making you question every point you are making so that you can back it up with more evidence.

An Ongoing Conversation 

Thinking about research as discovering an ongoing conversation among scholars about your topic—and thinking of your paper as a contribution to that dialogue—can help you as you search for sources. Remember that researching is a part of the brainstorming process. While you may have already chosen a topic and even written a draft of your thesis, research will help you dig deeper and develop your ideas.

Choosing a source 

When choosing a source, think about your audience. Most often, it is best to think of your audience as someone like James—a skeptic with a high expectation for academic evidence. That means your evidence needs to come from academic, scholarly sources. WKU’s library website offers many options for finding resources. For more information, see here: https://wkuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/understanding-your-wku-libraries-and-that-looming-research-project/

Sometimes, however, you will need to look at a book, such as a biography, or even a news article. While most of your papers will require academic sources, don’t think this is the only answer. Sources can be anything from personal interviews to documentaries to Twitter feeds. It all depends on your audience, your topic, and your argument.

The main thing to ask yourself is, “What do I need to know, and how do I found out?” 

Reading the Source

There are many ways to make sure a source will be useful to you before you read the entire thing. You can read the abstract to see what the paper is arguing, read the first page and look for its thesis, or glance through the article, looking for topic sentences and finally the conclusion. 

If you are able to copy and paste the article into a word document, you can highlight or bold the sections you find useful. You can also use “ctrl F” to find certain words or phrases.

Write a brief summary about the article. This will not only help you get an idea of what the paper is about, but it will also help you later when you address the article in your own paper. You will need to know clearly what the article’s stance is, or what information they are sharing.

Also, while you are reading, you can take note of certain quotes or ideas you think might be used for or against your argument. Save these and take note of the page number. Also make sure you copy and paste the citation, if given, the url, or—for books—any information you will use to cite it later.

Compiling Your Sources

Once you’ve read through several sources, taken notes, and written summaries, you can compile them as you choose. I like to organize my notes into categories based on the points I want to make. I simply copy and paste my notes into the order I want them to go and give them appropriate title sections.

Finally…

Dig deep. If a source references another source that seems interesting, see if you can find it. If you can find a primary source—such as a historic document or interview, etc.—this is especially useful. Remember, this is all part of the writing process. The more you do before you actually write your paper, the easier it will be to get your ideas down later.

Keep an eye out for next week’s post on writing a thesis!

 

What Should I Write About?

Brainstorming can be an easy or difficult task depending on your level of excitement about an assignment, your existing knowledge, your timeline, and other factors. While you may feel that a topic is something that floats around until it finally settles into your mind, ready to be written, or that, on the contrary, it is something you chase after but remains out of reach, there are actually many techniques you can practice to pin that topic to the ground.

Where do ideas come from? 

Last week, I had an amazing breakthrough in finishing up a rough draft for a short story I was working on. Suddenly all the ideas clogged in my brain flowed freely and found their place on the page. While some may call this kind of writing session “inspired” or picture a writer stopping in the middle of an activity, grabbing a pen and paper, and writing something beautiful and perfect as if playing scribe to an external “muse,” my experience last week came after days of brainstorming and finally free writing.

Paper topics often come the same way. While I can’t deny that there are some unexplainable instances in which ideas just shoot down like lightning, more often than not, it takes intentional brainstorming time to finally capture an idea.

Set a Deadline 

In my last blog, I addressed how the best time to start your paper is now. That means that coming up with a topic begins now, and that takes intentional, scheduled time. As I wrote before, you may even decide to make a deadline for yourself for when you will finally choose your topic. In other words, don’t wait for lightning!

Thesis or no Thesis?

It may be that, while brainstorming, your topic and thesis may come to you simultaneously. That’s great! On the other hand, if trying to come up with a thesis around your topic is preventing you from choosing a topic to begin with, set it aside and don’t worry about it for now.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a fairly nuanced word; it can entail anything from reading, researching, note-taking, or just sitting and thinking about topics. A lot of this depends on what works for you, and that often depends on what kind of paper you are writing.

Free-writing 

One method is to simply free-write. This is what I did to unclog my thoughts about the story I was writing. I simply opened a word document and typed away until I had a more solid idea of what to write about. I didn’t stop, even when I had nothing to say but “Anyway” or “I don’t know what to write.” Before, thoughts were flowing in and out of my head, but free writing allowed me to capture those thoughts and process them.

Free-speaking

On the other hand, maybe you process better through speaking aloud, so talking into a recording devise would help you accumulate ideas.  Maybe you need an audience to receive and give feedback to your ideas. At the Writing Center, we can offer a listening ear.

Careful reading

Try keeping a pen in your hand while reading to underline and take notes. Jot down things even if you don’t know for sure it will be helpful later; it just might! For literary papers, think about questions you have, what the author is trying to say, or what theories may be applied to it. For other papers, think about how the topic might apply to other situations or what you might be able to add to it from your experience, from research, or from further study.

Research 

Do some research on your chosen book or field and see if anything jumps out to you. Sometimes seeing what’s already there can help you see what is missing. Think about your paper as a contribution to the discussion.

Questions to get you thinking

  1. What about this subject or book is interesting to you? Do you have any experience with it now? Will you in the future?
  2. What in your reading has left you wanting to know more?
  3. Do you see anything in your readings or lessons that connects with other topics, contexts, or social concerns?
  4. If you are writing on a novel, what might the writer’s intention be? What symbols do you see? Do you see any loose ends? Any connections?

How do you know it’s a good topic?

Finally, here are some questions to help you discern if your topic is not only good in general but also good for you specifically.

Is it interesting to you?

Maybe you are writing about a story that really moved or angered you, or maybe you are writing about the effects of red40 on children with ADHD because your brother had shown side effects in the past. Whatever it is, your topic should engage you enough that you won’t tire of it after the first page.

Has it been done before? 

Some students strive to write something that has never been said before, but that is sometimes a lofty goal, particularly when writing about novels that have been around for centuries. If this is stifling you, remember that this topic hasn’t been covered by YOU and that you have a perspective that no one else has. In your research, you may find yourself putting together pieces of the puzzle that haven’t been linked before.

On the other hand, choosing a topic that has never been addressed before may mean that there is nothing to research, or even that it is invalid. For instance, researching a topic that looked into the probability of apes taking over the world, if anything, might send you to personal blogs or websites with unprovable science. This may be a sign that your topic is improbable.

Is it controversial?

If you are writing an argumentative paper, it is important that your topic have some kind of opposition. If you were to write a paper about why brushing your teeth is good for you, for instance, you would be arguing with no one (or maybe some outliers). But if you wrote your paper arguing brushing your teeth with fluoride may be harmful, or that one should only use a particular brand, then you have an argument and will likely find sources that support opposing sides.

What are others saying?

If you aren’t sure about a topic, ask a friend, a professor, a mentor, or even a tutor at the Writing Center. Note their reactions, their level of interest, and any questions they might have. This will help you know if you are on the right track or if you need to dig a little deeper.

When Should You Start Your Paper?

For the next several weeks, I will be writing a series of blogs that focus on each stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to outlining to finally editing your paper.

As a writing tutor, many students ask me, “Where do I start?” My hope is that these posts will help you answer that question, but for now my focus is not on the “where” and “how” but the “when.”

More than likely, you have more than one paper on your plate this semester. Some of you have some small papers with one big paper due at the end. With all of these deadlines, it may be difficult to know how long each paper will take, especially if this is new for you.

So, when do you start your paper?

Right now.

Before you start hyperventilating, I’m not saying that you get out your laptop and begin formatting your paper. If writing only involved putting words on a page, maybe, but there is a lot of brainstorming, outlining, researching, etc. that happens before you ever create your word document. In fact, there is almost always more work to do than you may anticipate, so taking the time it takes and working on small, manageable tasks each week will prevent last-minute stress, cramming, and poor work.

Sometimes, professors schedule pre-writing deadlines—such as choosing your topic or turning in an outline—to make sure you don’t put anything off and get overwhelmed. If this is not the case for you, you can still schedule the following steps (or a variation of them), beginning with deadlines for as soon as possible and ending with the final due date.

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Research—I typically give myself a week or two for this, so, rather than having a “due date,” you can schedule time throughout your week to peruse the library or online resources.
  3. Write your thesis statement
  4. Complete outline
  5. Write rough draft
  6. Edit your paper
  7. Turn in your paper

Some of these may move around or repeat. For instance, your thesis statement may not be fully developed until you are editing your paper, or you may discover a missing link that requires more research; that’s okay.

You may be hoping for a big block of time to work on your paper, but the chances are that, even if that time comes, you will quickly drain yourself by devoting all of that time to your paper. Instead, look for those moments throughout your day when you tend to have open time. What time of day do you work best? When are your breaks? Do you have five or ten minutes here and there that you could devote to finding sources or writing down ideas? You may discover you have more time to write than you originally thought!

Often, deadlines can loom over us like a hazy fog that we can’t quite grasp but that weigh heavily on our shoulders. By writing down a due date and scheduling out when you will work on it, you can pin the assignment to earth in a solid form that you can hold in your hands and continually refer back to. Don’t make this an optional due date; treat it just as you would a due date given to you by your instructor. When you accomplish that specific task, check it off, celebrate, and take a break. You will come to your next task with a fresher perspective if you give yourself some time in between.

If you have a paper looming up, I’m here to help. Not only am I and others available in the writing center to help you get started, but I will also be following up this post with several others on the topic of writing a research paper.

Emily Diehl