How to Write a Paper

First you must lay aside your sophomoric resentment of the task. I know you came by it honestly, no doubt as a sophomore, but your contempt for your reader will not make your paper easier to write. Writing a paper is a serious activity. It is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. A paper exposes your ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong; and, if that is what you are, you want to know. You respect your reader’s knowledge and intelligence because it is like your own. If you are an undergraduate, your reader is a serious student in your cohort; if you are a professor, your reader is a fellow scholar in your discipline. Whatever your station in life, when you are writing an academic paper, your reader is a peer.

A paper always presents the result of study. Sometimes the study is so well-defined that it deserves an article, sometimes it is merely the learning you did in the weeks or months before you wrote the paper. You may be reporting the results of years of fieldwork or weeks of classwork; the point is that the paper presents something you have learned deliberately. You may have formulated and answered an explicit research question, or you may merely have followed a reading list and attended classes. In any case, you set out to discover a set of truths and, after some definite effort, perhaps some actual suffering, you reached your goal, or at least got measurably closer to it. You are now in a position to tell the reader, not just what you think, but how you know. You can even tell the reader how well you know it, how certain you are. The paper is simply the most efficient possible way of doing this.

A paper is a series of paragraphs that each supports, elaborates, or defends one thing you know. Since a paragraph normally consists of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, there are about two of them to the page. Some of them will introduce the paper, some will establish a backgound, some will theorize your object, some will present your methods, some will offer an analysis, some will discuss your results, some will conclude the paper. A five-page paper will have nine to eleven paragraphs. A ten-page paper will have about twenty, a twenty-page paper, about forty. You have to know one thing well to write each paragraph. The sooner you decide what the ten, twenty, or forty things you will claim to know in this paper are, the happier you will be as a writer.

Each paragraph occupies roughly one minute of your reader’s attention. You are arranging a series of one-minute experiences in the mind of your reader. Tell them about the world your research bears upon. Tell them about the science you have brought to bear upon it. Tell them what your research shows. Tell them how their minds should change in the clear light of what you’ve found. In an important sense, a paper always seeks the artful dissappointment of the reader’s expecations of your object. You are showing them something new and this will have consequences for what they thought was true. Should they rethink their expectations, their theories? Or should they now make some practical intervention in the world we share? Spend a few minutes of your readers’ time working through these issues.

Your kindness to your reader is measurable in your discipline. How much time did you spend on each paragraph? Did you demand, say, 27 minutes of yourself before you asked your reader to give you one? Did you spend some of that time making sure that the key sentence presented a discrete difficulty for the reader to consider? Did you compose further sentences with the explicit aim of making the key sentence easier to believe, understand, or agree with? Did you devote some time to arranging the sentences in an order that yielded a maximum of clarity and a minimun of boredom? Did you take the time to read your own paragraph out loud to make sure it works as it should? Did you seek some feedback on it? Your prose should be like a window on your mind. You are writing down what you know so that your peers can engage you in conversation about what you think is true. That is the substance of the craft.

6 thoughts on “How to Write a Paper

  1. Thank you, Thomas.
    I think I’m going to read this article once a month to be aware of what it takes to write an academic paper! There are so many important ideas in your words, and sometimes we forget them.

  2. Thank you. As a grad student, I intend to fully heed this advice. As a writing tutor, I plan to pass it on to my students.

  3. Thank you, Thomas, for the insightful article. I agree with Sonia, it will help to regularly go through the article and refresh the purpose of writing a paper.

    1. Thank you. It’s nice to think that I’ve written something that people can return to every now and then to be reminded of the essentials.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *