Reduce Anxiety About Writing College Papers with These Tips from Rutgers–Camden Professor

By Tom McLaughlin

A well-crafted college paper is an often dreaded but essential ingredient to academic success in college. Unfortunately, many students don’t even know where to begin.

To take the fear and mystery out of the process, we turn to a Rutgers University–Camden scholar who is literally writing – and editing – the book on the topic.

The English professor says that an assignment of more than a page or two should take a week or more to draft whether one is writing an analysis, a critical essay, or a source-based research paper.

William FitzGerald, an associate professor of English at Rutgers–Camden, recently teamed with Boston University scholar Joe Bizup to revise and steward the fifth edition of the late Kate L. Turabian’s The Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.

FitzGerald offers a few key points for tackling college papers and staying on track throughout the writing process.

For starters, what are five easy-to-remember tips for writing college papers?

Start early.  Some of us have learned to write the one draft all-nighter, but you owe it to yourself to let your ideas develop over time and through several drafts. Research takes time, discovering what you want to say takes time.

An assignment of more than a page or two should take a week or more to draft whether you are writing an analysis, a critical essay, or a source-based research paper. This advice applies to teachers as well. Give out assignments early and build in steps along the way; that way, students have to start early.

FitzGerald recently teamed with Boston University scholar Joe Bizup to revise and steward the fifth edition of the late Kate L. Turabian’s The Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.

Answer a question. A real paper doesn’t just report information about a topic or summarize what you have read. Instead of topics, think about questions you want answers to and that your readers want answers to. That way you avoid the “all about” paper or the data dump, and the paper that tells more about your research process than about any conclusions you reach.

All good academic papers imagine a problem of some kind, typically something we want to understand better, and seek to provide an answer to a question that addresses that problem. In a novel, why does a character behave a particular way? In the lab, how do we measure the effects of a certain stimulus on a research subject, animal, or human?

 Plan, but don’t over outline. Many students believe they have to know everything they are going to say before they write. The five-paragraph essay learned in high school reinforces this belief with an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion that restates the opening.

However, unless you are writing in a specific format, it is better to avoid a detailed outline until you get down your ideas, sources, and evidence, experimenting with how to organize your argument. Once you finish your draft, you can do a reverse outline to see if your paper has a structure that best represents your argument.

Dialogue with your sources and your readers. A paper is a conversation with its readers. This is the most important point. Successful papers imagine a community of readers who are interested in what the writer has to say because the writer has thought about the reader’s needs and interests.

Students think that the point of a paper is to show the teacher that they understand the material, but a research paper is also a dialogue with its sources. Students might also think that sources exist to back up an argument or let sources do their arguing for them. However, successful writers approach sources in a “they say/I say” format, at times agreeing with, at other times disagreeing, with sources.

Too often, students and teachers get hung up on the mechanics of citing sources and concerns over possible plagiarism that they miss the basic idea of writing and research as a conversation. But once you get that idea, everything else begins to fall into place.

FitzGerald says that writing at the college level is learning to revise on the basis of how actual readers, including the writer, respond to the writing.

Revise in response to feedback. Finally, writing at the college level is learning to revise on the basis of how actual readers, including the writer, respond to the writing. A surprisingly large number of college students never read what they have written, let alone revise. And when they do “revise,” it is often in the manner of correcting things that a teacher has circled. It can take a while, but eventually, with encouragement, students can begin to see how to use comments and reactions of readers to refine and develop their arguments.

How do you avoid procrastination?

I don’t avoid procrastination, I’m embarrassed to say! But what I do is to start early and work my way toward meeting writing tasks by spreading the work out. It has taken me many years to learn that lesson. I also share early drafts with people whose opinions I value, even if it’s just a few paragraphs or main points.

What are some tips for staying motivated and keeping your energy up throughout the writing process?

When the words don’t come out as you expect, it’s frustrating. I’ve learned that this is normal, so I’m more patient with myself and the process. The words will come or they are there on the page but need some tweaking. We don’t really know what we want to say until we put our ideas into words. Trust the process.

What are some ideas for dealing with writer’s block and getting back on track?

From experience, I can say that writer’s block is real, even if that term covers many forms of avoidance or anxiety. It’s important to acknowledge our fears and take baby steps, and write just a sentence or two or for just five minutes. Usually, the anxiety will subside and we’ll get further than we predicted.

What are some tips for balancing writing with other priorities and personal interests?

The best writers write every day; all that experience adds up. Most of us can’t or won’t do that, but we can schedule writing time just as we would exercise or do household chores and stick to it. It helps to set realistic goals.

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