Kaitlyn Hedges is a freelance writer and editor from California and living in Utah. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s in English and minors in editing and anthropology. She enjoys chocolate milk, spaghetti, ultimate Frisbee, and long walks with her husband and daughter.
This is it. You’ve written lots to get into college, but now that first big college paper is looming. Even after having written for high school classes, college admissions essays, and scholarship essays, those first semester papers can be daunting. What should that first college paper look like? Will you revert to the five-paragraph essay? Or write a whatever-comes-to-your-mind essay?
You may need to write differently depending on the class, the subject matter, or the teacher. But no despite everything, some basic writing steps will help you get started and—even better—help you get finished with your first great college paper.
1) Read the prompt—carefully.
I can tell you right now: You will not get a good grade if you’re supposed to be analyzing the architecture of the Colosseum but you end up ranting about the inhumanities that occurred inside the Colosseum. Write on the topic you’re supposed so. Just as important, answer all the questions in the prompt. Look for key words like “analyze” or “explain” and do what is asked. Also, look for logistical specifications the prompt gives, like whether you need sources and how your paper should be formatted. Follow each part so you won’t get dinged for missing anything crucial from the get-go.
2) Outline and organize your ideas.
Before you start writing, outline what you want to say and what your arguments are. Using this outline, organize your main topics to keep everything logical and easy to read. If you prefer, you can use my favorite method: reverse outlining. To reverse outline, write everything you want to say and then look back and write key words for each paragraph in the margins. Then reorganize based on those key words.
3) Keep it simple.
However you decide to start, be sure to keep it simple. Few people like reading dry, academic jargon—and it doesn’t necessarily make you seem smart. The real trick with writing isn’t disguising a simple idea behind complicated text; it is communicating complicated ideas through simple words and analogies. Use vocabulary you know.
4) Revise. Then revise again.
You may need to revise once or twice. Or, you may need to revise eight or nine times. If possible, give yourself plenty of time for this step. And as part of revising, make sure to proofread! Yes, as many of us have figured out at this point, Word’s spell check can only get you so far. Typos make any argument seem much less legitimate. If you want to be taken seriously, careful proofreading to weed out any typos will make you sound more professional, knowledgeable, and credible.
5) Find a friend to read it or read it out loud to yourself.
Even if you’ve read through your paper a dozen times, find someone else to read it. Even editors need editors. Something that makes sense to you may not be as clear as you think. If you don’t want to ask a roommate or a friend, see if your school has an on-campus writing lab or writing center where upperclassmen trained in writing can give you personalized tips. Someone else may see flaws, even if you think you’ve read it through so many times it has got to be perfect.
If you’ve waited until the wee hours of the morning to finish and no is around, try the next best tactic: read your paper out loud. You may feel ridiculous at first—I know, I’ve been there—but reading out loud will help you feel where a transition is missing or where a sentence is just a little off somehow. Problems that seem fine on paper may seem awkward out loud.
Now, you may not be able to follow all of these steps every time. I know as well as anyone that life happens and sometimes you may not start an assignment until the night before—or, gasp, the morning of—the day your paper is due. BUT, if you want to do well and feel accomplished with your paper, take some time. Start early and remember these steps. It’s not as scary if you give yourself some time and do it right. Go and write right!