On Academic Writing

I haven’t always loved school, but I have always loved writing. Writing papers has, for the most part, always come easy for me. I loved writing papers in high school (they were trash, but I at least enjoyed the act of writing them), and was delighted to start more critical, in depth analysis when I was in college. I love writing creatively, sure, but academic writing has become where I have the most fun. It uses my strengths and challenges me in a way I didn’t know writing could, which likely freaks a lot of you out. Because, as much as I love academic writing, I know it’s simply a necessary evil for a number of you.

Now that I’m in my second year of grad school, I have a fine tuned system for my writing process. I’ve struggled to get through a lot of papers in my life, but considering the fact that papers are now my life, I’ve learned how to keep myself from struggling. I often crank out a 10-15 page paper in a few sittings, and not hate the whole whole thing, but that’s not because it’s easy, but because I’ve created a process, much like I have a process when I write fiction.

Here’s are the top suggestions I can pass on to you—

First thing’s first, I always spend a few hours preparing to write the paper before I get started. Rather than expecting myself to be able to just sit down and crank out ten pages while I’m still researching, I learn everything I think I’ll need to know before I begin. This typically looks like pages and pages of chaotic notes that only I can understand, but that’s really all that matters. In this preliminary stage, I write out the organization of the paper, what each section will argue, how it needs to build upon each other, who I’ll cite where and all kinds of stuff. I think about the story that I want my paper to tell (because even research papers are stories) and I organize it to flow in that way. How can my thesis have the most punch? How can I build my argument best? In what ways can I help my reader out? These are questions that typically aren’t fully answered until the final draft of the paper, but I still think about them in the beginning.

When I finally get to the point where I start writing, I begin with the body of my paper. I’ll maybe, possibly have the thesis written out and some in form or fashion, but the introduction is actually the last thing that I’ll write. A problem I frequently have is that it can take me an entire paper to get to what I need to say in the introduction, so I’ve learned (and been encouraged/told) to write my introduction last.

When it comes to writing the whole paper, I never try and do it all in one day. I’ll admit that I don’t procrastinate like I know a lot of students do, but that’s because I know that my best work comes from more organized and spaced out writing. So, when I have a big paper due, I set goals of how much/when/what to write each day until it’s due. For example, today I’m going to begin annotating my sources for a paper that’s due in two weeks. I’m planning to spend the weekend annotating and reading before I start writing the body next week. I’ll spend a couple of days writing the body of the paper before I work on the introduction and conclusion, and then I’ll spend a day or two editing it. This keeps me from getting burnt out and helps me to feel accomplished even when I still have a lot of work to do. Papers can easily be overwhelming, but the goal setting strategy prevents that from happening.

The last thing that’s always been helpful for me is getting something to my professor before the deadline. Every professor is different, and it’s often hard to assume what each professor is looking for in a paper. When I was in undergrad, I had professors that had mandatory draft dates where we had to bring copies of SOMETHING to them so they could give us feedback before we turned in the final paper. This was a game changer for me, because it’s always so helpful to have another set of eyes on my work and led me to produce much better final drafts. If your professor isn’t available, get a friend (you know, those English major types) to look over it before you turn it it. Another set of eyes is always a good thing, even if it’s just to catch a typo, but especially if it’s to tell you that nothing makes sense.

Those are the things that keep me sane when writing these big papers. I work hard in the preliminary stages, get everything organized before I begin, write the body of the paper first, and then write the paper based on daily goals I set for myself so that I can get feedback on it before I turn in the final copy. These strategies are what have worked for me for years and what continues to make the paper writing process enjoyable for me.

If you’re a student, what have you found that works for you? If you hate writing papers, what is it that you hate? What do you wish could be different? Academic writing can be just as creative and enjoyable as writing fiction or poetry, really. It’s just a process to get it there.

Ashton Ray