The Small Paper Shuffle
When faced with an essay or small paper, most students follow a similar pattern. You glance over the relevant readings, crack your knuckles, sigh loudly, check your Facebook feed once more, just in case some vital change in a friend’s relationship status requires immediate, intense attention, then, with great resignation, start writing. You type a little. You add a quote that makes sense. You glance at that little page count number in the lower left corner. You type a little more. Eventually you hit your magic page count. A couple quick editing passes and you’re done!
The Problem With Writing-Centric Papers
I call this approach writing-centric: it centers all the relevant activities around the core activity of writing. Here’s the problem: it produces mediocre papers of the type that drive professors, over time, to a slow, but ever darkening despair regarding the state of American youth.
For short papers and essays it would be inefficient to completely revamp your style. In this post, however, I describe a simple tweak to your process — requiring 1 – 2 extra hours — that will significantly increase the quality of your paper (and your experience with the writing process.) It will also make your professor’s day.
The Idea Vacation
Let’s rewind our story of typical student writing. You’ve just finished glancing over the relevant readings — we assume, because these are essays and small papers, that you’re responding to class reading, not conducting significant research. You turn to your keyboard, ready to dive in…but wait! Not yet! Step away from the computer…
Instead: take your readings and go for a walk. Wander campus asking yourself questions such as:
- “What do I really think about these topics?”
- “What did this writer really mean?”
- “What are different things she could have believed instead, and why did she choose this particular angle? “
- “What would I have said?”
- “What do I really think about this? Why?”
Allow the first, obvious thoughts — the type that fuel writing-centric papers — to come and go. Then push deeper. Keeping asking hard questions. Dig out a tiny gem of thesis that fits your personal take on the material. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. But it should be both: honest and nuanced; something you actually believe. This might take a while. Let it. Enjoy being outside and spending time with your mind. (This is a good step to combine with an adventure studying expedition.)
Once you think you have something, settle down in the most inspiring possible room in your college’s library system. Bonus points for plush chairs, old wooden book cases, and, of course, tarnished old oil painting portraits old solemn looking white men. (See, for example, the Dartmouth Tower Room image at the top of this post; courtesy of Susan Simon.)
Settle in and go back through the relevant readings. Start fleshing out some of the details. Take some notes. Maybe sketch out a simple topic-level outline.
When you finish, you should be at a point where you can give a convincing little speech about your idea. Indeed, in a perfect world, you would take your idea vacation right before office hours, so that you could immediately pitch your idea to your professor.
Time Alone With Your Mind
One of the biggest surprises about the experience of the modern liberal arts student is how little time they actually spend just alone with their thoughts, sifting through, in a complicated inner monologue, what they believe and why. Essays and small papers offer you this opportunity. Most students ignore it and instead just blaze ahead blindly in their comfortable, “I hate papers!” writing-centric approach.
I’m suggesting that you try something new. Take a 1 – 2 hour idea vacation before your fingers hit the keyboard. Not only will you produce the type of paper that can pull a professor out of his low-grade despair, it actually has the possibility of making paper writing something that, if not anticipated, is, at least, no longer dreaded.
A Study Hacks Mini-Crash Course in Paper Writing
If you’re relatively new to Study Hacks and the style of paper writing I preach here and in my book How to Become a Straight-A Student, here’s a collection of past paper-writing posts that will help bring you up to speed: