Read an Excerpt
Improve Your Writing
By Ron Fry
Career PressCopyright © 2012 Ron Fry
All rights reserved.
Getting Ready for Action
You may be writing only one paper, but there are actually three different jobs ahead of you:
First, you must be an objective reporter. You'll dig up all the facts you can about your subject, gathering statistics, historical data, first-person accounts, and more.
You will read reference books, newspaper stories, magazine articles, scholarly journals, and other materials; watch relevant videos or films; check out online resources; maybe even interview an expert or two.
Your job is to find out the truth, to gather data with an unbiased eye. You can't discard or ignore information just because it doesn't fit into the neat framework your personal opinions and expectations have constructed.
Second, you must be a detective. Like a scientist evaluating the results of an experiment, you must review the evidence, decide what it does and doesn't mean, and draw the obvious (and, perhaps, not-so-obvious) conclusions.
Third, you must be an author, ready to share your newfound knowledge. Having sifted through reams of information, you will write a cogent, well-thought-out, in-depth report, telling your readers what you have learned.
This is an exciting process—where else can you play three such different roles in a matter of weeks?—but one that demands some organization and adherence to a short, but vitally important, list of rules.
Five Fundamental Rules
Let's start with the fundamental rules that need to be emblazoned on your mind:
1. Always follow your teacher's directions to the letter.
2. Always hand in your paper on time.
3. Always hand in a clean and clear copy of your paper.
4. Always keep at least one copy of every paper you write.
5. Never allow a single spelling or grammatical error in any paper you write.
You Wanted It How?
Your teacher's directions may include:
* A general subject area from which topics should be chosen—"some aspect of Teddy Roosevelt's presidency," "an 18th-century battle," "one of Newton's Laws" or "a short story by a 20th-century European writer."
* Specific requirements regarding format.
* Suggested length.
* Preferred methods for including footnotes and documenting works consulted (or cited).
* Other specific instructions.
Whatever his or her directions, follow them to the letter. Some high school teachers may forgive you your trespasses, but I have known college professors who simply refused to accept a paper that was not prepared as they instructed—and gave the poor student an F for it (without even reading it).
At some point, you'll undoubtedly run into a teacher or who gives few or no instructions at all. You ask, "How long should the paper be?", and she says, "As long as it takes." Use your common sense. If you're in middle or high school, I doubt she is seeking a 50-page thesis. Likewise, if you're in college, it's unlikely your professor thinks a three-page paper is "As long as it takes." Use previous assignments as a guide.
If you are unsure of a specific requirement or if the suggested area of topics is unclear, it is your responsibility to talk to your teacher and clarify whatever points are confusing you.
It is not a bad idea to choose two or three topics you'd like to write about and seek preliminary approval, especially if the assignment seems particularly vague.
Excuses: Nice Try, Bad Grade
There is certainly no reason or excuse, short of catastrophic illness or life-threatening emergency, for you to ever be late with an assignment. Some teachers will simply refuse to accept a paper that is late and give you an F for your efforts. At best, they will accept it but mark you down, perhaps turning an A paper into a B ... or worse.
Teachers Don't Read Coffee Stains
Teachers have to read a lot of papers and shouldn't be faulted if, after hundreds of pages, they come upon your wrinkled, coffee-stained, pencil-written report and get a bit discouraged. Nor should you be surprised if you get a lower grade than the content might merit just because the presentation was so poor.
Granted, the content is what the teacher is looking for, and he should be grading you on what you write. But presentation is important. Teachers are only human (really!), and you can't fault them for trying to teach you to take pride in your work. So follow these simple instructions:
* Never handwrite your paper.
* Check the toner level before printing your paper, and use clean white bond paper so that it turns out crisp and clear.
* Unless otherwise instructed, always double space your paper. Leave adequate margins all around.
* Use a simple typeface that is clear and easy to read; avoid those that are too big—stretching a 5-page paper to 10—or too small and hard to read.
* Never use a fancy italic, gothic, modern, or other ornate or hard-to-read typeface for the entire paper.
Recycling Isn't Just for Cans
There should be a number of helpful messages on your returned paper, which is why it's so important to retain it. What did your teacher have to say? Are her comments applicable to the paper you're writing now—poor grammar, lack of organization, lack of research, bad transitions between paragraphs, misspellings? The more such comments—and, one would expect, the lower the grade—the more extensive the "map" your teacher has given you for your next paper, showing you right where to "locate" your A+.
If you got a low grade but there weren't any comments, ask the teacher why you got such a poor grade. You may get the comments you need to make the next paper better and show the teacher you actually care, which could also help your grade the next time around.
Teachers Don't Like Bad Speling
Many employers merrily use resumes and cover letters with grammatical and/or spelling errors for wastebasket hoops practice. Don't expect your teachers to be any more forgiving—there are definitely a few out there who will award an F without even noticing that the rest of the paper is great. It's really too bad you misspelled "Constantinople" or left a participle twisting slowly in the wind.
Paper Writing 101
With apologies to the compilers of the "How to Write a Paper" list cited in the Introduction, here are the real steps that, with some minor variations along the way, are common to virtually any written report or paper:
1. Research potential topics.
2. Finalize topic.
3. Carry out initial research.
4. Prepare general outline.
5. Do detailed research.
6. Prepare detailed outline (from note cards).
7. Write first draft.
8. Do additional research (if necessary).
9. Write second draft.
10. Prepare final bibliography.
11. Spell check and proofread entire paper.
12. Have someone else proofread.
13. Produce final draft.
14. Proofread one last time.
15. Turn it in and collect your A+.
Doing all these tasks efficiently and effectively requires careful timing and planning. This may not be the only assignment—or even the only paper—you have to finish in a short amount of time.
So get out your calendar and mark the date your paper is due. How many weeks till then? Four? Six? Ten? Plan to spend from one-half to three-quarters of your time on research, the rest on writing.
Block out set periods of time during each week to work on your paper. Try to schedule large chunks of time—at least two or three hours, if possible—rather than many short periods. Otherwise, you'll spend too much time trying to remember where you left off and repeat steps unnecessarily.
As you make up your work schedule, set deadlines for completing the general steps of your paper writing process. For example:
Week 1: Decide on the topic and "angle" of your paper; make a list of reference materials.
Weeks 2–4: Read reference materials; take notes.
Week 5: Create detailed outline; write first draft.
Weeks 6–7: Edit paper; prepare bibliography.
Week 8: Proofread paper; type final copy.
Of course, I can't tell you exactly how much time to set aside for each step, because I don't know any of the specifics about your paper—how long it's supposed to be, how complex the topic—or how fast you work. I can tell you that you should plan on consulting and/or taking notes from at least 10 different sources. (Your teacher or subject may demand more; I doubt you'll need fewer.) And plan on writing two or three drafts of your paper before you arrive at the final copy.
Refer to your work schedule often, and adjust your pace if you find yourself lagging.
The more time you have to complete a project, the easier it is to procrastinate about dealing with it, even to putting off identifying the steps and working them into your regular schedule. If you find yourself leaving such long-term projects to the last week, schedule the projects furthest away—the term paper due in three months, the oral exam 10 weeks from now—first. Then, trick yourself—schedule the completion date at least seven days prior to the actual due date, giving yourself a one-week cushion for life's inevitable surprises. (Just try to forget you've used this trick. Otherwise, you'll be like the perennial latecomer who set his watch 15 minutes fast in an effort to finally get somewhere on time. Except that he always reminded himself to add 15 minutes to the time on his wrist, defeating the whole purpose.)
If You Only Had the Time ...
Mastering "time management" does not require the brain of a rocket scientist—it just means making the most of your time. And that means planning ahead.
Be prepared. Stock up on pencils, toner or ink cartridges, paper, and any other supplies you need. Otherwise, you may end up running to the store at midnight in search of supplies.
One great way to maximize your time is to keep (or have immediate access to) a current reading assignment, your calendar, notes for a project, or all three, with you at all times. You'll be amazed at the amount of work you can get done waiting in line, between classes, or any time you have a few minutes to spare.
And stay organized. Keep all materials related to your paper in a separate notebook or file—no messy piles of work scattered here and there, just waiting to be lost or thrown away by mistake.
For a look at "everything you ever wanted to know" about time management, pick up a copy of Get Organized, another of the books in my How to Study Program.
Do not, I repeat, do not put off doing your research paper until the last minute—or even until the last week! If you do, you will make your task much more difficult, and probably wind up with a lousy paper, too. Start working on your assignment now. Right now.
Presuming you ignore this command, I am going to be uncharacteristically generous. Here are a few schedules to complete a good paper even if you only have 12, 8, or 5 days before it's due, including how to at least prepare a paper that won't get an F if you have just one day.
(I'm sure you've thought of this, but have you asked your teacher for an extension? You just might get it and have enough time to write a decent paper. Unfortunately, this is where your otherwise good study habits will get you into trouble: The better your work in the course, the less likely you'll get a positive response. ["I expect so much more from you, Ron!" Thanks a lot.])
Whenever you have two weeks or less to get a paper together, especially a long or important one, consider teaming up with a study partner. The idea is to share the workload and create two papers more quickly and efficiently than you could write one on your own. This works especially well if the two of you can argue opposite sides of a thesis. The papers will be decidedly different, avoiding any sort of collusion or plagiarism charges, but much of the research will be applicable to both. Talking with each other as you work on your individual papers will undoubtedly hone both your arguments.
But My Paper's Due Tomorrow!!
Well, you're behind the eight ball now, aren't you? What happened? Did you actually forget to write down when that 15-page history paper was due? Did you keep putting other assignments ahead of it until you suddenly realized it was due tomorrow? Did you decide to run off for a fun weekend even though you knew it was due tomorrow?
Well, it doesn't matter how you got here. Here you are. Don't panic. I can show you how to write a paper in only 24 hours. But let's get one thing straight: You're not writing an A+ paper here. So put that fantasy to rest. You're simply hoping not to fail. Here's how you're going to do it.
First and foremost, is there any topic on which you are already reasonably well-versed? You really don't have time to start from scratch, so pick a topic you already know something about.
It will help even more if you actually feel passionate about the topic you have chosen. Writing about something that makes you mad or stokes your competitive fires is a lot easier than trying to make a boring topic interesting.
Are there two or three reliable resources—with which you are already familiar—that you can utilize to develop most of your paper? You don't have time to start a Google search and wade through hundreds of websites.
Now clear the decks. Writing this paper is all you are doing today. Here's one possible timetable:
7:45 a.m. Good morning! Eat breakfast.
8:00 a.m. Determine the topic and angle of your paper, attempting to choose one you already know something about and/or one you are passionate about (steps 1 & 2). Pick two or three trusted references to use (step 3). Do not bother making a general outline (step 4).
9:30 a.m. Review reference materials; take notes; prepare detailed outline (steps 5 & 6).
10:30 a.m. Write first draft (step 7).
12:30 p.m. Eat lunch! You need the break and the fuel.
1:00 p.m. Fill in the "holes" in your first draft, doing additional research if necessary. Complete second draft. Prepare bibliography (steps 8–10).
4:00 p.m. Take a break.
4:15 p.m. Review you paper for logical or grammatical problems and inconsistencies. Rewrite until you are satisfied.
7:00 p.m. Dinner.
7:30 p.m. Proofread, print final copy, proofread again (steps 11–14).
11:00 p.m. Go to bed! You really won't do anything wonderful after already working for nearly 14 hours on this paper! And the more tired you are, the more likely you will fail in the last stage—proofreading—which requires care and concentration.
Last but not least: If you can only compose a decent 10 page paper even though the teacher has asked for 15 pages, take the chance and turn in the shorter paper. Most teachers I know will give you a better grade for a pretty good short paper than for a lousy longer one.CHAPTER 2
Developing Your Battle Plan
You're ready to take the first and conceivably most important step on the road to your A+ research paper: choosing a topic.
Once you've chosen a general area of study, you must target a specific topic or question. Then, you need to come up with a general outline—a basic blueprint of your paper.
In this chapter, I'll help you complete all three tasks.
Choosing Your Topic
In some cases, your teacher will assign your topic. In others, your teacher will assign a general area of study, and you'll have the freedom to pick a specific topic.
With freedom sometimes comes danger—give this decision long and careful thought. Pick the wrong topic, and you can write yourself right into disaster.
I'm not implying that you should pick the simplest topic you can find—simple topics often lead to simply awful papers—but there are definitely pitfalls you must avoid.
Danger #1: Thinking Too Big
You need to write a 15-page paper for your history class and decide your topic will be "The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant."
Whoa, Nelly! Think about it: Can you really cover a topic that broad in 15 pages? Not unless you simply rehash the high points. You could write volumes on the subject (people have) and still have plenty left to say!
Instead, you need to focus on a particular, limited aspect of such a broad subject or attack it from a specific angle. How about "The Major Scandals of the Grant Presidency"? That would work for a middle school or high school paper. For college, you would probably want to focus on a single scandal.
Remember, your job is to prepare an in-depth report about your subject. Be sure you can do that in the number of pages your teacher has requested.
Danger #2: Thinking Too Small
By the same token, you must not focus too narrowly. Choose a subject that's too limited, and you might run out of things to say on the second page of your paper. "Why U.S. Grant Drank" might make a humorous 1- or 2-page essay, but it won't fill 10 or 15 pages ... even with really wide margins.
Excerpted from Improve Your Writing by Ron Fry. Copyright © 2012 Ron Fry. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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