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The Anatomy of a Good College Paper

Essays are unavoidable in life, whether you're in high school, college, even grad school. The higher you get in your education, the more in depth and intense the papers become, of course. No matter what type of paper, whether it's a thesis paper, research paper, or even a lab report, there are definitely  steps you can take to make the process infinitely less stressful, time consuming, and maybe just that bit easier and more organized.

I only took one semester of English in college, so I am using my final paper for that class as an example throughout this post. 

1. Get your topic. Whether the topic is provided by your instructor, a vague prompt is given, or you need to choose your own, you need your topic before you do anything else. This, while certainly is a given, will start the snowball effect for productivity. Pick something that you would want to read about, as writing about a topic you're not even remotely interested in can be incredibly dull and will most likely not be your best work.

For this paper, we were given a list of topics and had to choose a social issue from it. I chose the "going green" movement to write my paper about.

2. Do your research. So you've got your topic, yeah? Now what? Unless you're an expert on the Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, look it up), some extra research is going need to be done to have information to transform into your paper. Your textbook is a great resource, as you should already have it for the class and it will be a good credible source. For more books, check out your university's library or even your local library for textbooks or relevant books on your topic. I like to use my library's system to find books and filter the results so that it only shows e-books because I am far too lazy to drag my sorry butt to the library and have to be responsible for the physical copy. Your college might also have access to databases, which are another fantastic way to find scholarly articles about your topic. If you're going to go the website route, try to make sure that you use credible sources. A general rule of thumb (but not always!!) is that an .edu or .gov website should be a scholarly source, or an article that has been proofread (I repeat, this is not the case every time!!)

3. Choose your thesis. Thesis statements go hand in hand with choosing your topic and doing your research. Once you're knowledgeable about your topic, you need to sum up your opinion in one strong sentence. This is the underlying theme of your paper, the whole reason why you're writing it. If you don't have a strong thesis, how will whomever is reading your paper know what you're trying to tell them? If it's not explicitly said, you can't just assume the topic of a paper. Below is the thesis for my final paper in my English class, specifically for essay writing.

Many alternatives to going green are overlooked and ignored, deemed impossible and costly right off the bat.
Other than my use of clichés in the thesis (got scolded for that, as usual—I just love myself some clichés), my opinion on the movement was clear: There are ways to go green that are looked over by society because they are costly and seem difficult. Boom.

4. Outline everything. This could be optional for you, but the organizational freak in me is telling me that I have to mention this. Outlines are so important for me when it comes to writing papers for school, as it keeps me on track and gives me guidelines on what needs to be said and when it needs to be said. I'm going to post part of an example below from an outline I did for a paper my first semester of college. This is obviously not the greatest outline out there, but it is a real example that I used to write a paper that I ended up getting a high A on.

In order to have a valid argument, you need to reference both sides, which is why I had a body paragraph for the pros and cons of environmentalism. Roman numeral one was my introduction, numeral 2 was my first paragraph, so on and so forth. With the "meaty" body paragraphs (IV and V), I chose specific facts to mention, but not the entire paragraph verbatim. An outline isn't meant to be your paper word for word, organized into bullets. It's a general guideline to follow to make sure that you don't leave out pertinent facts. Once you have your facts, you can then fill in the blanks with background information and transitions to make your paper flow.

5. Write your body paragraphs before your introduction. How the heck are you supposed to write an introduction to a paper that you haven't even written yet? What are you introducing? Utilize that outline (see: tip #4) and write yourself some informative body paragraphs with a clear message (see: tip #3).

5b. Introduction and Conclusions. Once you've written the main part of your essay, go back to the introduction. Start off with a brief definition or explanation of your topic. For mine, I defined environmentalism, mentioned both sides of the argument, then ended it with my thesis statement. Generally, ending your introduction with your thesis statement is a good idea. It's the last thing that the reader will see before they delve into the body of your paper, fresh in their mind when they peruse your paper.

In your conclusions, reword your thesis and main argument, while still referencing the opposing side. Just make sure that it ties all loose ends and that your vision is still clear. You don't want a conclusion that completely discredits the rest of your paper.

6. Citations. Plagiarism is serious, especially at a college level. Do not, I repeat, do NOT copy and paste anything, ever, unless you plan on quoting that person and credit them in your works cited/bibliography. Even if you paraphrase information, you need to source it, unless it's deemed general and public knowledge (I.E. the date of death of an important historical figure). If you're not sure whether it's general knowledge, either ask your instructor, or just cite it just in case. It's better to be safe than sorry in this case.

If you don't know how to properly cite a source, utilize the Purdue OWL website (choose APA, MLA, or Chicago style based on what your professor specifies). I'm also a frequent user of, which is a citation generator that generally does a pretty good job. You've got a few areas to tweak when it comes to the proper format, but it's a good base for your proper citation.

7. General writing tip: Write first, edit later. Write your paper based on the guidelines given by your instructor, the rubric (if given), and your outline. Include the important most important information you need in your paper to give a good argument. Other than the blatant mistakes that are marked red or green on your word processor, don't go back to change anything until you've finished writing down the foundation of your paper. Once you've gotten the most vital information for your paper, go back through to edit, tweak grammar, and add in your transitions to make it flow. This is when you can improve your choice of vocabulary using a thesaurus. I also use this time to add in my citations and double check to make sure that they are used.

8. General writing tip: Use quotes (carefully) A quote is a great way to back up your argument and add length to your paper, but don't use a quote just for the hell of it. If it's not relevant to your paper and is just a really weak quote, it's going to weigh the rest of your paper down. However, if you find a fantastic quote that strongly relates to your topic and more specifically, your side of the argument, it'll add that extra bit to your paper. Remember to correctly cite it!

9. General writing tip: Don't hold back. Your essay is your place to speak your mind. Show off your strong opinion! Don't be afraid to hold back. It's your paper and your opinion, so if you're going to put your name on it, you might as well make it for something you're going to be proud of. Don't be too wishy-washy. Pick a side and stick with it. You get to reference both sides, so even if you are on the fence, pick the side you feel more strongly about because you still get to talk about the opposite opinion.


  1. Love these tips! I always tend to write the introduction first and then go back to alter it later...really need to stop that and start just diving right in!

    1. Up until last year, I always used to write my introduction first too! Now, diving right into the paper is much more natural for me. I'll steal my favorite bits from the body paragraphs to add into my introduction. :)

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