The Mystery of the Paper Grade
When you sit down to take a test, you likely have a good sense of the grade you will earn. It may be off by a “+” or “-”, but, for the most part, reflecting on how much you prepared, you know where your scholastic fate will ultimately fall.
The same doesn’t hold true for papers.
The experience is common: You dash off a paper the night before and are pleasantly surprised to receive an “A.” A week later, you labor for days on your opus, only to receive a disappointing “B-”. Something unknowable and unpredictable seems to lurk behind that final grading decision. But it doesn’t have to be mysterious. What is it?
Your story — the collection of arguments you make and tie together in your paper — is all important. If, when dashing off your paper, you stumble into a good story, you can receive a surprise “A.” Infinitely more disappointing, if you labor for weeks over a poor story, the effort remains wasted. The grade will be mediocre.
Does this make papers unhackable? Of course not. You simply must learn how to give the story its due.
Focus on the Story, not the Writing
If you follow the Straight-A method, when you finish the research stage of paper writing you should have a collection of annotated sources. For the uninitiated, these include: a photocopy of every article and book chapter relevant to your paper; a cover page attached to each photocopy that highlights the important info contained within (see here for more details).
With these annotated sources in hand, do the following before you type even a single word of your paper:
- Put aside at least one day to do no work on your paper except ponder the story. If the paper is large, set aside more time.
- Start with a high energy block early in your day. Use the tmie to browse through your annotated sources. Start to swap in the information — get comfortable with the different arguments, facts, and interpretations you have available.
- Go walking. For a while. Somewhere quiet. In a park (if you attend an urban university), in the woods (if you attend a rural university), on an iceberg (if you attend a university inexplicably located on the Antarctic continent). Just walk and think. Let the information sieve through the various processes of your mind. Play around with different lines of argument.
- Throughout the day, during little pockets of time — while in line or, even better, the shower — revisit the story. Mentally manipulate the pieces. Begin to rehearse the parts that seem to flow.
- At the end of the work day, right before dinner, sit down to capture the results of your efforts. Make a topic-level outline. This is simply a list of the topics you want to cover in your paper, presented in the order that you want to present them. In essence, it’s a skeleton of your story. Don’t get super-detailed yet. Keep things at the topic scope (e.g., “Pre-war arguments against a European trade agreement”, or “Evidence that Senator Jenson had influential ties to agriculture lobby”, not “quote from page 6 of the Richardson article.”).
- For every 10% of your final grade the paper is worth, talk to another person about your story. Get his or her feedback. Refine the outline.
When you put in this time — which, by the way, is not that painful , unlike writing, creative thinking is generally an enjoyable activity — the result is a solid story. This is what the professor wants to see. Even if your writing is, ultimately, imperfect, he will reward the thoughtfulness of your arguments.
If you want to know how straight-A students perform so consistently high in humanities courses, this is a big part of their secret. By taking just a little bit of time to figure out what you want to say, you immediately vault past the majority of your classmates in terms of the quality of the thinking you capture on paper. And this, in the final assessment, is what the assignments is really all about.