7 Steps to Writing That Knockout Final Paper

Nov 29, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Thanksgiving break is over: Have you started that final paper, or -- worse yet -- those several final papers for all your different classes? Your professors have been nudging you to start early and maybe you have -- for some of them. But surely you still have more work and need to overcome the first hurdles: finding a start, mastering the format and writing in a scholarly fashion that will inspire you, or at least prevent you from procrastinating, and will also make your professors happy.

Whether you are in the sciences or humanities, there are a handful of objective steps to communication that you need to master. You need good argumentation, good organization, concise word choice, solid mastery of the subject, and participation in larger arguments on the topic.

If the biggest hurdle is starting, writing the opening paragraph, try some of those familiar tricks -- grab a chunk of text, such as a quote from the assigned reading that you know well:

"For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods," claims Aristotle in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics....


Sometimes people must be "forced to be free," asserts political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau...

That snappy opening should get your engines running, but make sure you know where you're going first: Did you read the assignment? Talk to the professor? Try not to panic? Have you sworn off any morbidly stupid temptations to plagiarize, beg your boyfriend or girlfriend to write this for you, or any other poor choices that would spell certain academic doom?

If you've done all this, then you're ready.

1)Re-read the assignment prompt in the presence of several witnesses. As you know already, each college professor has his or her own highly idiosyncratic ideas about excellence, so the first thing you need to do is make sure you understand the assignment and confirm your understanding both with your peers and your professor. To the extent permitted, talk about the prompt with a friend. When in doubt, go visit that professor in his or her lonely office hours, which few students exploit anyway.

2)Make an argument. Even if this paper is a science paper, you still need to show some kind of evidence and argue for your position. Writing about the 12 cranial nerves? Surely you have a position to defend, which will be your thesis. Once you have a thesis, try it on any innocent bystander including your professor. Read it aloud to your peers from class, your roommates, your parents, baby brother or family pet. Try to hear if it sounds convincing, or if you can make the thesis shorter than 25 words. Ideal theses invite opposing arguments which you will address later e.g.

While it seems that SunChips bags are a perfect marketing tool because they are compostable, in fact research has not yet sustained this claim.


Burn-out among nurses occurs not simply because of shortage of staff, but because of poor supervision as well.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr. claimed that breaking some laws was just because these failed to "square" with natural law.

3)Stand on the shoulders of some authority, especially the ones your professor assigns. Whether or not this is a research paper, there is often a secondary source or an authoritative argument, to which you need to respond. This is usually the methodology section of your paper and it comes right after the thesis. It allows you to review the other literature and respond to other arguments. By now you've learned the hard truth that your own personal opinions and impressions fail to qualify as scholarly arguments, you need to join the conversation that's started before you, especially on large topics like globalization or abortion or love or whatever. You have to know what others have published on this topic. Be sure to consider literature from opposing views as well. You can rebut them in your paper.

4)Use proper citation, not just to avoid the evils of plagiarism, but also to lead the appropriate scholarly trail of notes so another reader can track down the same sources in order to join the conversation as well and provide more ideas. The main sources are MLA, AP Style as well as Chicago Manual The most concise on-line resource is Purdue Owl, which has both MLA and APA, as well as many other useful links for college writing, including ESL questions.

5)Stick to the text, whatever the course is. Whether you're writing about mitochondria, multicultural urban centers or metaphors in Shakespeare, there is at least one primary reading that your professor assigned and wants you to cite. So go through that text or texts and pick out at least 5 passages, ones that were discussed in class and ones you found on your own. This is usually what your professor means by "textual evidence."
When you quote that passage prepare your reader with a few sentences introducing the passage, then quote it, then explain it, NEVER expect the quote to speak for itself, unpack it, empty it out like a laundry bag full of grungy clothes and then make sense of it.

If you find your paper shorter than it needs to be in the end, go back to these passages. Chances are there is still more you could say about each of them in order to make your argument more explicit. Never pad a paper with rambling -- this never fools anyone -- it's better to be more specific about the material.

6)Find an alert proofreader! Have another pair of eyes look to proof your work. When that person is done, don't be satisfied, take the paper to your college learning and writing center and submit yourself to an outside view by a professional, who knows good writing but who is unfamiliar with your topic. You may have to make an appointment at the writing center ahead of time: don't wait until the last minute. You know you will have succeeded only if you have written a well-organized argument that readers can follow and then choose to accept or reject.

7)Revise your paper and rewrite the conclusion. If you had a great session in the writing center, you will not only be typo free and have a good paper with a solid argument and good organization, you will see that your conclusion could be drawn out a little better to say more clearly what you meant but in the end needed to elaborate.

To conclude, you will be proud and most of all relieved when you turn your paper in!