By David Joel Miller
Writing a great paper or report can be easier than writing a bad one.
A few simple steps can transform a major difficult project into a manageable one and result in a great job with a lot less effort.
There are things that you may be doing that make that term paper or report a lot harder to do than it needs to be. Every semester I offer my students a challenge, Do your paper early and I will take a look at it and tell you what grade you will get. Then you can fix the paper before the deadline and I will grade the revised one or you can keep that first grade. (This is not an original idea, one of my professors in grad school made the same offer.)
Over the semesters I have concluded that it is not necessarily the students with the highest I.Q.s that write the best papers. It is also not necessarily those who grades on the other tests are the highest who write the superior papers.
One other surprise has been that it is not the ones who work the hardest who get the best scores on the papers. People who write the best papers and those who do the great projects and proposals do certain things that make the whole process easier and the end result is a better outcome.
Often those who turn in the early papers do far superior work to those who utilize the whole term to get the job done.
Here are some ways to make the job faster and easier than you think and still produce some great work.
1. Start planning the project the moment you know you will be doing it.
The planners have a topic in mind early on and they look for books and articles right from the start. As a result, they may decide that their first choice of topic will not work or that there is limited research on their topic.
Starting early helps you know what you will need to find and gives you the option of altering your plans. Those who wait until the night before it is due often find they can’t come up with good sources on the topic they have chosen and now, with hours to go, they have to start all over.
2. Allow more time than it will take so you will not be rushed.
Last minute papers always seem to take longer than expected. The result is that things get left out. Last minute papers are often shorter than the requirement. They have fewer or no sources and they may lack a title page or other mechanical aspects.
Give yourself extra time and you can complete all the parts not just the major text part.
3. Get all the needed resources ready before you start.
Online resources are nice but sometimes the serious research or references you will need are only available in a library. Make that trip beforehand and all will go well.
More than one student has been late because their printer would not work or they closed a document without saving it. Having time to get that printer cartridge or more paper takes all the stress off your plate. Things can and do go wrong especially when you are working under pressure close to a deadline.
4. Do a quick first draft.
Starting early lets you do a first “down” draft where you get your ideas on paper. After doing that first draft early on there is plenty of time to let this simmer and then revise. Last minute projects have to be completed and turned in ready or not. Some nonsensical things slip through.
5. Let it sit and percolate.
Giving a project a few days to sit and then rereading it will help you spot all sorts of errors that should have been obvious but weren’t. When read to close to the first writing our brains seem to read what we meant not what we actually wrote.
I found early on that writing and then publishing a blog post that same day let a lot of errors slip through. Writing a post one week and then revising the next increases the chances that I will see an error and correct it. (Yes errors do still creep through.)
6. Follow the directions.
If the directions said APA format and you wrote in MLA there are points off for that. If the requirement was a paper on current trends and you wrote about the history of your subject you are off topic.
More than one grant proposal did not get funded because that grant writer left out a required part of the submission.
7. Give out lots of credit to others.
Do not plagiarize. Use citations. Include references. Plagiarism in academic circles is more than just using someone else’s words. If it was someone else’s idea you credit them.
In blogs and popular writing we are more worried about copyright, so make sure you quote only as the copyright holder allowed. A mention of the person who wrote the book on your topic is always a good idea even when you reframe and add your take on the subject.
8. Use words that you and your reader will understand.
Using a highly technical vocabulary does not make your paper better, especially if you do not understand the words. More than one student has quoted long bits of technical language that looks very impressive but is totally unrelated to the topic at hand.
If you do not understand what was said do not think it helps your writing to quote it. Good writing makes technical subjects understandable to those who are reading your paper.
9. Read it over one last time with “new eyes.”
By starting early and allowing time for the paper to sit and “ripen” you give yourself time to reread it one last time before you hit print or send and have to live with the consequences.
10. Ask someone else to read your paper or project.
Whenever possible have someone else take a look at your work and see if they can understand what you wrote. You are not necessarily looking for agreement but you do need to know that they can understand what you said and that there are no glaring errors. If they do disagree with you check to see if you were unclear or if what you said was not really what you meant. Sometimes you think you said it clearly but others may read a whole other meaning into what you said.
There are some suggestions for writing a paper that will get you a passing grade and doing things this way may make that dreaded writing assignment a whole lot less stressful.
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books