Completing an Academic Writing Project

Step by Step



Before getting started, it's usually a good idea to consider where you want to go and how you want to get there. Consider these questions before you continue to step two.

A. Understanding the Basic Guidelines of an Assignment

Read your assignment and class notes carefully and see if you can answer these questions:

  • When is my assignment due?
  • What is the word or page requirement?
  • Do I need to do any research for this assignment? If so, how many sources are required and what type of sources must they be? For example, some instructors will only accept research taken from peer-reviewed journals, while others may have certain restrictions concerning Internet sources. (If this is all sounding very mysterious to you, stay tuned; you'll find more help with research in Step 4: Research.)
  • Do I need to use specific style guidelines, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago?

Return to the Step One Questions

B. Understanding the Purpose or Goals of an Assignment

Reading Assignments for Keywords

Once you understand the basic requirements of an assignment, the next step is to carefully and critically reread the assignment sheet and circle key words that will help you understand the instructor's expectations. It's especially helpful to circle key ideas from the course, or verbs like analyze, compare, interpret, evaluate, or explain. The circled ideas should help you understand what concepts from the course are particularly important, and the circled verbs will help clarify what you are supposed to do with those concepts.

Does the assignment call for a discipline-specific form? Does it ask for material to be addressed in a certain order, i.e. a lab report, literature review, position paper, or an essay with an intro, body, and conclusion?

Talking With Instructors ū컨 Assignments

If there are any terms or ideas in your assignment that are unfamiliar or confusing to you, don't be afraid to ask your instructor for help. Most instructors are happy to help you out, especially if you come to them well ahead of any deadlines. Professors keep office hours for a reason—use them!

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C. Understanding and Addressing Audience

Before you get started on your paper, make sure you understand who your audience is, and consider what type of "voice" and evidence you should use to address that audience. This is not as daunting a process as it may seem. All writers make decisions about what written voice is appropriate for a particular piece of writing; in an email to your BFF (or best friend), you would most likely use different vocabulary, discuss different topics, and maybe even construct your sentences differently than you would in a letter to your granny.

Rather than making an abstract decision about what constitutes a "correct voice," it will often be easier for you to consider what you know about the intended audience, and then write accordingly. What does the audience care about? What are they are familiar with? What kind of language do they use? And what is your purpose in communicating with them? Is it to show you read the text, can apply a concept to a real-life situation, or to convince them of something?

If you were to write an email to a friend about a movie you'd recently seen, called "Night of the Kilbot" for instance, it's appropriate to use a casual tone and your personal opinion to persuade her she ought to see the movie. When you are writing a formal paper in a university setting, the written voice shifts again. Your immediate reader will obviously be your instructor, but references to a specific reader in a personal or casual voice ("I don't know if you know what the KilBots did next, Prof. Smith, but it was so awesome that the scientific community could only say, 'Oh, snap!'") sound odd and aren't appropriate. This is because the assumed audience for college writing isn't a single person, but really a larger body of educated readers—people who know enough about your topic to grasp your thesis and evidence. And this educated audience values evidence over opinion (examples, statistics, logical lines of reasoning). The written voice that results from assuming this audience is what most people call "academic voice."

A university paper about a film, then, might be expected to include discussion of visual composition, use of terms like "mise-en-scene," or thoughtful analysis of artificial intelligence. The voice might sound something like:

The robots' search for acceptance on an unfamiliar planet creates a sense of pathos in the viewer, though the surprising complexity of the film's androids stands in direct contrast to the one-dimensional performances of the human players.

Writing for an academic audience might require some extra attention at first, and small adjustments might need to be made based on what field you're writing about. (Some fields are okay with the use of "I" in a formal paper, for instance, but others aren't.) In time, however, writing in an appropriate academic voice becomes more natural, and an ability to analyze what's appropriate for your audience can often help you figure out how to phrase thoughts clearly and effectively in any piece of writing.

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Once you understand your assignment, the next step is finding a strong topic. Make sure these statements about your topic are true before you continue to step three.

A. Coming Up With a Topic You Want to Write ū컨

Before you begin writing your first draft, you have to have an idea, right? This work you do before the rough draft is called "pre-writing," and it helps you find ideas you didn't even know you had. Here are a few brainstorming/pre-writing techniques:


Listing is… making a list. It's worth your time to spend 15 minutes making a list of ideas at the very beginning of your writing process. Think about how many brands of cold cereal supermarkets have. Try to get that many ideas out on paper before you even think about narrowing your topic down. After you've printed your list, circle the 3-5 most interesting or important ones. Use those ideas you've circled with the following tactics.


If you're a visual person, try clustering. It's like free association. Write your main idea down in the center of your paper, then draw a circle around it. That's like your solar system's sun. Now, write your topics around it, like planets. Each of these topics can have things related to them—your own opinions, interesting points, whatever—so write those little things around the planets. Those little things are the moons and satellites. Now, stand back and look at your paper's solar system. Whichever planet looks the most interesting to you (it might be the one with the most moons and satellites) could be your topic.


Once you have an idea or two, start freewriting. Don't worry about logic, grammar, or spelling; just get your ideas out on paper. Give yourself a goal, like "fill one page," and stop when you've reached it. Finally: read your work, and decide which of the things you wrote interest you most.


After a ten-minute freewrite, circle the most important or interesting sentence you've written. Copy this sentence at the top of a new sheet of paper, and freewrite again based on that sentence. This is kind of like zooming in on one neighborhood using Google Maps, and it lets you get into depth and detail before you even start working on your rough draft. Repeat as many times as you like.

Focused Surfing

Unlike regular Web surfing, which is a way to waste time while procrastinating, focused surfing is early research. The trick is to keep a word processing document open while you're surfing. That way, you can write down your reactions to things you read on the Web. Be careful if you do this, because sometimes people copy ideas they've seen online without even realizing that they're doing it, and this can lead to unintentional plagiarism. To avoid this, don't cut-and-paste text from the sites you're visiting. Make yourself summarize, in your own words, what is important or useful about this site. Also: keep a list in your new document of the sites you visit. You'll need the accurate site name and online address later, so you might as well note it now.

Talking ū컨 It

When you're at work or hanging out, talk about the things you're studying in class. Don't talk about the other students or the teacher or your grade; talk about the things you're reading and studying. Maybe the person you're talking to will have some strong opinions about them. If you agree or disagree with whomever you're talking with, that might be a good topic to write about. After all, if you get stuck or bored, you can always just call your friend up and start the conversation again.

Return to the Step Two Questions

B. Making Sure Your Topic Fits the Assignment

If you're not sure your topic fits the assignment, the best way to confirm this is to check the tips in Step One: Understanding an Assignment.

Return to the Step Two Questions

C. Using Class Notes and Readings to Come Up With Topics That Interest You

Focused Surfing

When surfing the Web for school, remember your general subject. This sounds obvious, but the Internet has a way of getting people off track. Here's a trick: Write your general subject area, like "nurses in the US Civil War" on a sticky note, and attach that note to the frame of your computer screen. Looking at that note occasionally will help keep you on track. In addition, keep a word-processing file open on your computer while you surf, and note interesting sites on a new document. That way, you'll remember where you found everything interesting.

Using a Reading Journal

If you've taken notes during any classes, or written any response papers, or taken any reading quizzes, or written anything in the margins of your class readings… this is a great time to look over those things. If you've kept notes on your class readings in a separate notebook (a reading journal), check that too. If you see anything in there that interests you—anything that doesn't make sense, or that really makes sense, or that touches on something you think you might want to do if you ever get out of college—write that down on a fresh sheet of paper. Now try the brainstorming topics listed above.

Return to the Step Two Questions

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Developing Your Argument

If you know what your assignment requires and you know what topic you'd like to write about, your next step is to develop your argument. You might start by writing a "working thesis statement" that you can adjust or change as you research and write. It’s sort of like making a plan for the weekend on Tuesday night: you know the plan will probably be modified, but it’s a good place to start. Make sure you can confidently respond to each of these statements before moving on to step four.

A. Figuring Out if Your Assignment Requires an Argument or Thesis Statement

Not all writing assignments require a formal thesis statement, but most do. It is important to read over your assignment carefully to determine if your assignment would benefit from having one. Remember, a thesis statement is just a fancy phrase for the main point of your paper. Nearly all types of academic writing need a central direction or point. Even if you plan on using many different kinds of examples, anecdotes, or pieces of evidence, you will want to make sure to bring them together under a clearly stated thesis statement somewhere in the beginning of your paper. There are some foreseeable projects that might not require a formal thesis statement—such as an informal reflection essay or a piece of fiction writing—but it is very likely that even the most informal of writings would do better in having at least a topic sentence outlining or hinting at the main direction of the paper.

Return to the Step Three Questions

B. What Makes for a Good Working Thesis or Provisional Argument?

The idea of a working thesis

A thesis statement is the main point or assertion of your paper. A working thesis is just a thesis that isn't quite sure of itself yet. You, the author, are still working out where you want your paper to go. You might be perfectly confident about your topic—that is, generally you know what you want to write about—but you still might not be sure how you want to deal with it or what direction you want to take that topic. A working thesis is just a thesis in a sort of rough draft form. It's not final or complete. It may be lacking focus or a debatable claim, or a combination of both.

Should I worry about only having a working thesis?

No, not necessarily. Often, it can be useful to have a general thesis to start out with simply so you can feel free to charge ahead and begin writing on your topic. An unrefined thesis usually occurs when you haven't spent enough time exploring the complexities of your topic. Simply writing about your topic can help determine the main focus of your paper.

How can I tell if my thesis is in good shape or is still in the working stages?

The best way to know if your thesis is still in the working stage is to "grill it," that is, interrogate or question every single word of the thesis and determine if each word is sufficiently specific and meaningful. Assault your thesis with a barrage of questions, asking what, who, where, when, and why. To some degree, your thesis should answer all of these questions. If you find it doesn't, then you know you still have some work to do. Don't worry; many writers do not discover their true, final thesis until after finishing their first full draft.

The importance of a thesis containing both a topic and an assertion

As mentioned, for your working thesis to attain the status of a thesis statement, it must possess both a topic and an assertion about that topic. In other words, you must put forth a debatable argument about your topic.

For example, an incomplete thesis might look something like this:

A wolverine's claws are useful in defending themselves.

That statement might make for a good starting topic but it does not really assert anything that is debatable or interesting. Turning that topic into a thesis could look like this:

A wolverine's claws are quite sharp and consequently help the animal defend itself from predators.

Here, the writer mentions both a topic (a wolverine's claws and self-defense against predators) and an assertion (a wolverine's claws are quite sharp and help defend it from predators). However, as we will see in part three, the above thesis could be stronger with a more debatable assertion or claim.

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C. The Importance of a Thesis Making a Debatable Claim

A truly debatable assertion makes for a stronger argument

A thesis must not only make an assertion about the topic; it must make a debatable or controversial claim about the topic. The example in the previous detail section (What is a working thesis?) about wolverines possesses the two key ingredients of a thesis, but its assertion is boring and rather obvious. A stronger thesis might state:

Not only are a wolverine's claws the sharpest and most deadly of any species classified within the Mustelidae family, they use these claws in self-defense against a dozen various predators found in its home ecosystem.

This thesis statement makes a much more debatable claim—"the wolverine's claws are the sharpest and most deadly of any species classified within the Mustelidea family."

Arousing suspicion or intellectual interest in the reader

If an assertion is debatable enough, a reader might question its accuracy. A strong thesis should arouse at least a little of this skepticism in its reader, which in turn might be proof that the thesis author is claiming something interesting and worth debating. Regarding our example, a reader might wonder: Even if a wolverine's claws are somehow the sharpest, does that make them automatically the deadliest?

Return to the Step Three Questions

D. A Thesis Must be Supportable with Logic and Evidence

The paragraphs that follow your thesis should be full of support, e.g. examples, anecdotes, or evidence. Additionally, each paragraph should link back up to your thesis statement in a logical way. If after examining your working thesis you find that evidence or logic can't be used to support it, then your thesis is probably too opinion based.

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Now that you have a topic and an argument or a working thesis, you'll want to do some research to find out what others have said or written about your topic. There are many approaches to research, and a vast number of methods for finding information. You should also keep in mind any requirements or expectations your instructor has for the research part of your assignment. Consider these statements about research before moving to the next step.

A. Familiarizing Yourself With Your Topic

Familiarizing yourself with doing research and learning the basics of your topic can be a great place to start. Need to review how to begin researching? Check out the PSU Library’s .


Look through more general sources such as encyclopedias or articles giving subject overviews. You can turn to the web for basic information on sites like Wikipedia, but be sure you use those kinds of sites primarily as starting points that lead to more specific sources.

Keeping Track of Sources

Make it easier on yourself later by keeping a running log of materials you have looked through (including websites). If you do this ahead of time, you will not be scrambling backwards to create your Works Cited/References/Bibliography page. Nobody wants to be accused of plagiarism (see item E in Step 9: Checking Your Use of Research). For help with proper citation, drop by the Writing Center or with a tutor.

Stay Organized

Some folks prefer a more organized approach to research using notecards while others work best by highlighting texts or dog-earing helpful pages. However you do your research, make sure you know what information you want to use from each source and where to locate it.

Return to the Step Four Questions

B. Locating a Diverse Array of Sources

Locating a good number of sources can be one of the toughest parts of doing research, but also one of the most fun and interesting. Try following the steps outlined below:

Spread Your Reach

Look to source lists from your background materials. These may point to important work in the field. Or, talk to someone in the know. This may be your instructor or classmates, or it may mean contacting a professional in the field. Try to do some brainstorming on your own:

  • Ask the Journalist's Questions (who, what, where, when, how, and why) to better orient yourself within your topic; this will help you determine where to look.
  • Using basic internet search engines (, , , etc.), you may be able to discover additional avenues to go down. In the process, you may come across references to sources to track down in the library.

Research at the Library

Though we live in an increasingly electronic world, in which research is done on Internet databases and the results are kept in electronic form, a good university library is still the primary site for doing effective research:

  • The offers many services to students looking to survive the world of academia. Plus, utilizing library resources proves an invaluable element of varying sources.
  • Communicate with librarians directly over the phone or internet with .
  • You can also walk over to the 2nd floor of Millar Library and talk to the helpful folks at the Research Desk.
  • Or with a librarian familiar with your subject area.
  • Surf to the library's page for information on different resources.
  • Browse pages tailored for specific classes listed at .

Return to the Step Four Questions

C. Paying Attention to Specific Guidelines

Specific guidelines or requirements from your instructor can be used to direct your research, saving you time while helping you fulfill the assignment. In evaluating sources, you must be critical in discerning the credibility, reliability, accuracy of any given source. Ask basic questions of a source:

  1. What type of source is it (print, database, electronic media, etc.)?
  2. Who is the author? What credentials do they have? Where have they been published? Are they a scholar or professor associated with a respected, reputable institution?
  3. How current is the source? When was it published, and where?
  4. Who is the intended audience?
  5. Is the source primary or secondary? Is it current in the field or discipline?
  6. Does it suit your needs? Will it lend support and credence to your own project (essay, thesis, dissertation, freelance article, etc.)?

Use reliable resources by asking these questions when choosing where to turn for information:

  1. Is it current? Publication dates of quality sources are easily identifiable, and as a general rule, you want to look at the most recent articles available. These are often journal articles.
  2. Is it relevant? All information should support your thesis and assertions.
  3. Is it biased? Web sites, journals and writers also have affiliations with certain organizations and philosophies; these affiliations can affect bias. Before you incorporate a source into your written work, you need to know what its affiliations are and how those affiliations may create bias.
  4. Is it specific? Sweeping generalizations are to be avoided. Secondary sources using vague language and broad generalizations will adversely affect your arguments and your entire essay. Essays and sources should offer specific evidence and a lot of it.
  5. Is it authoritative? Reliable sources always have an author and clearly identify an author's experience and education. Many offer a way to contact the author. If you use a source without an author (heaven forbid), the web site or journal should make clear its reasons for publishing the work, as well as a way to contact the author or editor. When you use secondary sources in your essays (1) they should have expertise in their field; (2) their area of expertise should be a legitimate field of study; (3) they should only make claims within the area of their expertise; (4) there should be an adequate degree of agreement among experts; (5) the author should be identified.

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D. Varying Sources

Varying sources ensures you produce a paper that stands on more than one leg. In general, try not to rely too heavily on any one source; rather, use the means at your disposal to find an array of strong supports in different areas.

Searching for Books and Materials

In the digital age, every library is actually multiple libraries. If a library doesn't have a book or other source immediately on hand, the item can often be easily borrowed, in physical or electronic form, from another library. A wider selection of materials can be found using resources or through the database.

  1. Find an even wider selection of materials using:
    • The Regional Catalog
    • , or Inter-Library Loan
    • The Worldwide Database

Browsing Databases for Academic Journals

The library provides access to over 200 premier . allows users to use a myriad of search functions while displaying links to comparable or related works. However, you may have to return to the library's databases for full access to some articles found through this site.

Working with the Internet

Beware of online sources. With the onslaught of electronic media, and the Internet in particular, everyone is a pundit, expert, or sudden scholar. Remember that anyone can post online, or put up their own website. Online material is especially mutable and ever-changing. Evaluation of such sources is scant at best. If a source seems suspect or of questionable credibility, confirm the source or information yourself. Using the internet alone in a paper can signal a lack of effort to some instructors. If you are unsure about expectations for your assignment, check with your instructor via a question after class, a quick e-mail, or a phone call. Consider your use of popular sources versus scholarly or academic sources. You may be able to find information comparable to a site of questionable authorship through the library's resources.

Supporting Your Assertions with Data

From time to time it will be necessary to use quantitative data in your papers. After you have collected your data you will need to communicate it to your readers. Below are some tips for making that communication effective:

  1. Be selective—choose carefully how to display quantitative data and where in your paper it is appropriate to include the information.
  2. Be clear—provide enough information in a chart, graph, or table that it can be read and understood on its own. When including multiple pieces of data in visual form be consistent in your presentation.
  3. Discuss—refer to your data in the text of your paper, but don’t just repeat the facts and figures. In the text, your job is to expand on the information, put it in context, and support the claims you are making in your paper.
  4. Look again—review the work you have done with quantitative data.

Using Non-Print Sources

Interacting with non-print sources can be as daunting as it may be intriguing. Interviews may be useful and appropriate for some assignments. If so, ask pertinent, probing questions. Keep good notes or use a recorder to ensure you present your contact’s sentiments honestly. Audio/Visual sources open a whole new can of worms for good…or evil. Be careful when working with films, podcasts, recordings, and the like that may be interesting, but may not be appropriate for your piece. If you end up using an A/V source, refresh yourself on the ways to incorporate such quotes in your paper.

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E. Exploring Contrary or Differing Ideas

Exploring contrary or differing ideas generally makes your paper stronger. Showing you have considered alternatives to your own point of view, just like varying sources, indicates a higher level of critical thinking to your reader(s). Speculating about how others may view your ideas or issues will improve your ability to prepare for any questions or objections that may enter the reader's mind.

When dealing with texts and sources, never forget to ask critical questions of your resources. A few moments analyzing an issue can lead you to that next brilliant point in your research and writing. While managing differing viewpoints may seem overwhelming, do not be afraid to dig into your topic and find a niche, a home for your idea. Addressing the ideas of readers who disagree with your approach builds another line of defense for your convincing argument. Also, consider other approaches to your specific supports. You may find stronger sources or simply more diverse ideas that improve the soundness of your work.

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Organizational Planning

After generating ideas, developing a working thesis, and doing some research, most writers come up with some kind of organizational plan before they write a draft. The plan can be modified, but without at least some sense of organization, starting can be difficult. Have you organized your ideas and research into an organizational plan? Check to see if these statements are true for you.

A. Using an Organizational Plan or Outline to Get Started

Making an organizational plan or outline can help you organize your ideas before you start writing.

What is an outline?

An outline is a tool writers use to organize and examine their thoughts prior to writing them in draft form. Think of it as a map or blueprint for your paper.

How do outlines work?

Outlines work for writers the same way budgets do for entrepreneurs. When looking at a budget an entrepreneur is able to take a step back and see how much money is being spent on each section of their business. A close look at a budget often reveals where a business is losing or making money. Writers design outlines to have the same perspective.

By taking a step back and viewing their ideas in outline form, writers are able to save time by seeing (prior to writing the draft) whether or not their thoughts flow in a clear, logical order and draw the reader to a logical conclusion. A close look at an outline can also help writers catch mistakes such as deviation from the thesis, the addition of unnecessary topics and lack of support.

Outlines are easier to manipulate than drafts and allow writers the ability to shuffle their ideas around until they find the perfect structure for their project or assignment.

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B. Tips for Using Outlines Effectively

Outlines come in all shapes and sizes. Choose the structure that works best for you or feel free to make one up on your own. The only rule to remember when writing an outline is to write your thesis at the top so that you can be sure you don't deviate from it.

The nesting method of outlining, which is probably the most traditional, involves putting main ideas, or "headings," in a I, II, III… order with supporting ideas, or "subheads," beneath in an indented i, ii, iii…list. Two popular ways to organize a nest-style outline are by topic and sentence.

Topic Outlines

In a topic outline, the headings are given in single words or brief phrases. Consider the following example:

Thesis: The tradition of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has created a culture of fear for the young village women there.

  1. Young women don't go out at night.
    1. New York Times story of Jyldyz' escape.
    2. Statistics of women kidnapped during the day vs. at night.
    3. Statistics of women polled about being scared of traveling after dark.
    4. Etc...

Sentence Outlines

In a sentence outline, all the headings are expressed in complete sentences. For example…

Thesis: The tradition of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan has created a culture of fear for the young village women there.

  1. Kyrgyz village women have historically been afraid to go out at night because they are afraid of being bride kidnapped by men from their village
    1. The New York Times ran a story about a sixteen year-old girl named Jyldyz who, after a violent confrontation, narrowly escaped being bride kidnapped while walking home from a neighbor's house at night
    2. In Kyrgyzstan women are seventy-five percent more likely to be bride kidnapped at night than during the day.
    3. In a 2003 pew research poll teenage Kyrgyz women said that they were one hundred percent more scared about traveling out at night than during the day because of the potential of being bride kidnapped.
    4. Etc...

Get Creative with Your Outline

There are as many ways to outline as there are writers. Feel free to be creative. For example you might put all of your topics and pieces of supporting evidence onto notecards, then spread them on the floor and arrange them. Or you might try the clustering method, where you jot down ideas as they come to you and watch for ways to draw them together.

Some writers like the idea tree, where you place a topic at the head of your page and begin "branching" off with supporting ideas and materials then expanding these "limbs" by branching off again and again with more details.

The point of making an outline is to help you organize and structure your thoughts, not hold you to a rigid standard.

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C. Double-checking Your Outline for Comprehensiveness

Before you go on to write your draft, recheck your outline one last time:

  • Do all of your headings (primary topics/ideas) directly support your thesis?
  • Do all of your subheads (topic/idea supports) directly support your heads?
  • Try to visualize your outline as a finished paper. Is your information and research presented in the most logical, natural way for your reader to approach? Remember, it is easier to rearrange things now than when you are at the draft stage.
  • Did you include any extraneous information that doesn't seem to fit the scope of the project or assignment? If so, lose it now before it derails your paper.

Return to the Step Five Questions

D. Finishing Your Outline: Next Steps

Congratulations on finishing your outline!

When you are writing your draft remember that your outline is malleable—you are not married to it. If something happens during the writing of your paper that makes you break the structure of the outline don't be afraid to go with it. An outline should only be used as a guide, not a law.

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Writing a First Draft

In this step we explore how to get words on paper and feel good about them. Though the process of actually composing sentences and paragraphs into a full draft is often shrouded in mystery (or at least not discussed in much detail), most writers keep guidelines like these in mind as they compose a first draft.

A. Avoiding the Permanent Pause: Thoughts on "Writer's Block"

Many writers suffer at the mercy of the great myth of "getting it right the first time." This myth tells us that the best way to write is "all at once," and ideally (according to this myth), a writer opens a new computer document, composes an introduction, and begins to type one paragraph after the next in an orderly fashion until, upon approaching the length requirement, the writer composes a nice conclusion that ties everything together, hits print, and is done.

This rarely happens. Our thoughts do not often spontaneously spool out in well-stated grammatical sentences arranged in a logical and effective order. The mind associates freely: a thought about computers leads to a thought about a music playlist on your computer, which leads to a thought about a band, which leads to a thought about a concert, which leads to a thought about money, which leads to a thought about things you don’t have, which leads to a thought, strangely, about moon rocks. Or something like that.

Thought may proceed this way, but an essay cannot. So writers often find themselves in a deadlock with that heartless little cursor, struggling to type the next line and feeling that they are lacking direction. If you feel every written word is permanent, it makes sense to pause before writing the next word. And before the next sentence. And, again, before the next paragraph. It becomes dangerously easy, in that frame of mind, to become permanently paused.

But fear not. There is hope.

The next time you begin a new writing project, try thinking about the project as a series of steps that you can start and stop several times, as opposed to completing all of them at once. Knowing that you’re going to let yourself go back and fix things later will keep you from having that "every word I write is set in stone" feeling. Most people write much faster and produce better material when they give themselves the freedom to write a first draft with a few rough edges. A writing project that includes some pre-writing brainstorming, the composition of a draft, some reorganization and fixing, and strategies for straightening things up when you’re done will usually help you write faster, make your writing time feel more productive, and strengthen the quality of your final product.

"Re-visioning" your essay: how writing a rough draft often changes your ideas and focus

The mind associates freely, but an essay cannot. It is true that a final product should not feel like a string of loosely connected combinations of words. But during the writing process itself, this kind of loose connectivity of ideas is perfectly permissible because writing is more than just writing, it is also thinking. Some people even claim that they must write in order to truly understand what they think.

You may start a rough draft with the feeling that you know exactly what you will say in the essay. You may even have a handy outline in which you've detailed all the pertinent points you want to make. An outline is an excellent tool for preparing to draft, and you should use it if it suits your process. But as you start to write, you may find new ideas popping into your mind asking to be heard, ideas that may differ from your original, neatly mapped-out ideas. Since you now know that every word you write is not set in stone, you can be kind to your new ideas, giving them space in your draft and revisiting them with curiosity as you start to revise. Being open to new thoughts that emerge as you write is particularly important because they will often be even better, more precise, analytical or fresh—than any ideas you could have come up with before you started drafting. This is because writing begets deeper thinking, which begets deeper writing, which begets yet deeper thinking…and on and on while serious smartness accumulates.

Practice letting new ideas into your draft, no matter how random or weird they may seem to you at first and no matter how they may deviate from your outline. When it's time to start looking over what you've written, highlight ideas that emerged during the drafting process itself, overlooking (for the moment) ideas that you mapped-out before hand. Can one of your new ideas provide a more fruitful and interesting focus for your essay? Let yourself "re-vision" the possibilities. In your next draft, if you wish, explore them. This step is part of the process we call "Global Revision" because it involves totally re-seeing your essay from the inside out.

Thoughts about why you became disenchanted with your topic

Boredom sets in when we don't give attention to our new ideas. Think about it: new ideas give us a sense of exhilaration, a feeling that our brains are changing and growing. The mind takes pleasure in real learning when surprising connections are made, but it will fall into torpor when it is forced to simply plug data into pre-crafted formulas or to regurgitate existing information. Even when it is difficult, the writing process can be a pleasurable experience because it is a great way to engage in real learning, to alight on new ideas and to stimulate the mind. If you are disenchanted, give yourself the opportunity to create new ideas by revisiting generative invention strategies (do we still have this one?), or by paying attention to how writing a rough draft often changes your ideas and focus (resource for this?). Most importantly, keep your mind open to sparks of imagination and creative connections that may help inject excitement into your writing process.

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B. Thoughts ū컨 Why Your Topic Might Not Fit the Assignment

Essays whose topics fail to fit the assignment are usually the victims of misunderstanding. For instance, an instructor may want you to analyze a film, but you take analyze to mean "summarize," and give a detailed plot summary rather than an in-depth interpretation of the film's meanings and messages. Or, you might believe that a research paper should simply report on a topic, rather than also take a position and develop that position through the use of different kinds of evidence. On the other hand, instructors have been known to write confusing or cryptic assignments that simply cannot be understood, not even by other instructors.

The best thing you can do is talk to your instructor, ask questions, and make sure you both have the same ideas about what the assignment should accomplish. If you've already chosen a topic, but aren't sure if it's appropriate, talk to your instructor as soon as possible.

Keep in mind that different disciplines adhere to different writing styles and rules. Misunderstandings might arise if, for instance, you are asked to write a 12-page paper on David Copperfield but only have experience writing plans, memos, and analyses for your business and economics classes. Think of this as an opportunity to practice gaining flexibility in your writing. For example, in this instance you could take the time to look at sample literature essays or to seek out other resources for writing about literature. Also remember to talk to your instructor and visit the Writing Center for guidance.

In each case, as your instructor intended it to be understood is essential for choosing an appropriate topic. Make sure you have a firm grasp on this part of the writing process before you invest too heavily in any topic.

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C. Thinking ū컨 Audience While Composing a Rough Draft

Many writers run into problems in their rough drafting process when they try to force their writing to sound "academic" right off the bat. If you worry excessively about sounding academic you might find yourself too intimidated to write, and/or too beholden to "academese," a kind of stilted, overly-formal writing that is neither clear nor easy to read. In a rough draft of an academic essay it's not necessary to write in an academic voice, even if the final draft will strive for it. Instead, in a rough draft, try writing in whatever voice makes it easiest for you to get your ideas onto paper. Then, as you revise, you can adjust your voice.

For instance, if you are writing a film analysis and you are having trouble conveying your ideas in a sophisticated way, you might first try writing it as if you were addressing a friend in an email:

So like a million people, I went and saw "Night of the KilBot" last weekend. The alien robots were awesome!!! But the acting was ridiculous, and there's no way Scarlett Johansson could conquer a Bone-Krushing KilBot using only a re-wired curling iron. Whatever!

The voice there is perfectly appropriate for a casual email to a friend, and the opinions are clear. When you begin the global revision process, highlight and then transform these kinds of phrases to address your intended audience.

For a formal paper in a university setting, your immediate reader will obviously be your instructor, but the assumed audience for college writing is really a larger body of educated readers—people who know enough about your topic to grasp your thesis and evidence. The written voice that results from assuming this audience is what most people call "academic voice."

For revision, you might transform your previously informal phrase about Night of the KilBot into something that sounds more academic, like this:

The robots' search for acceptance on an unfamiliar planet creates a sense of pathos in the viewer, though the surprising complexity of the film's androids stands in direct contrast to the one-dimensional performances of the human players.

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Expanding and Improving Ideas

There are few things in the world that can be done perfectly on the first try. It's normal, and probably good, for the first draft of a piece of writing to have elements that can be worked on, and successful writers craft strong pieces of writing by revising many, if not all, aspects of their first drafts. Looking at your own draft, check for these elements.

A. Writing a Strong Introduction

Introductions are a lot like first impressions: terribly important and fairly irrevocable. A good introduction will set the tone of your piece and help the readers know what to expect in the coming pages.

A strong introduction should:

  • Grab and engage the reader
  • Act as a map for the reader by letting them know the direction the paper will take
  • Establish the tone of the paper

If you have already written a draft introduction but find that you are bored, frustrated, or confused by it, try taking one of the following approaches:

Direct Statement of Fact

Often, writers spend too much time in their introductions "warming up." Beginning your paper with a direct statement of fact is helpful because it requires you to be short and to the point, which is often what readers are looking for.

The Surprising Statement

Sometimes simply using the direct statement of fact method can be boring. If you really want to grab a reader's attention you can try hooking them with a surprising statement.

The Anecdote

An anecdote is a short, interesting story. Beginning your paper with an anecdote that is relevant to your topic is another interesting way to lead your reader in.


A humorous quote or statement can liven up an introduction and get the reader excited about reading your piece. Remember, always be aware of your audience and subject matter when choosing what tone to use in your paper. Some readers expect serious writing and some subjects aren't laughing matters.


Writing, particularly the type you will see in college, generally seeks to answer a question of some kind. Many writers find it effective to simply pose the question in their introduction.

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B. Sharpening Paragraphs

In refining your essay, it is important to pay attention to what work each paragraph is doing for your paper and how you've broken up your paragraphs. Take a closer look at each of your paragraphs and make sure they all have a clear focus or main idea, as well as a specific purpose in your paper.

How to organize a paragraph

First of all, a paragraph should usually be about one thing. The easiest way to make sure your paragraph has a clear, single focus is to include a topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph that states the main idea. The rest of the sentences in the paragraph should develop, support, or elaborate upon the main idea stated in the topic sentence. This might involve:

  • Discussing examples, details, facts, or statistics
  • Using quotes and paraphrased material from sources
  • Examining and evaluating causes and effects
  • Defining or describing terms

When to start a new paragraph

Just as a speaker who rambles for a long time without pausing soon becomes difficult to follow, if your whole paper is one long paragraph, your reader might get confused or give up. Some reasons to begin a new paragraph include:

  • To show you're switching to a new idea
  • To signal a change in time or place
  • To move to the next step in the process
  • To introduce a new source or alternate opinion

When each paragraph focuses on one thing, the content becomes easier for the audience to read, follow, and understand.

The purpose of a paragraph

The basic purpose of each paragraph in your paper is to support your thesis. No matter how beautifully written and logically constructed, a paragraph that does not in some way help you defend the main assertion of your paper probably does not belong. If it doesn't fit, you must omit.

Look closely at each paragraph in your essay and ask yourself, "What does this paragraph do for my paper?" You should be able to sum up the purpose of each paragraph in a single sentence, such as "Gives a specific example of the problem," "Addresses an opposing viewpoint," or "Presents statistics that support my thesis." If you can't describe what a paragraph does, or if a paragraph does something that may not be relevant to your thesis, you need to consider whether or not that paragraph truly belongs in your paper.

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C. Getting More From Existing Ideas: Expanding and Refining

At this point, you have a complete or nearly complete rough draft. Congratulations! The temptation now may be to print out your draft, set it aside, and get back to that America's Next Top Model marathon. First, though, it's important to read through your paper carefully and ask yourself how you can get more from what's already there. The challenge is to find and develop new material that will strengthen your paper.

Using Complexity to Refine and Expand

One way to refine and expand your ideas is by checking your paper for instances of binary thinking: the belief that something is either black or white, good or bad. If you're writing about Gandhi, for instance, and you engage in binary thinking, then it's hard to write, because you think, "Well, Gandhi was good. Everyone knows that. What else is there to say?" A more complex consideration might describe Gandhi's beliefs and actions, interpret how he came to those beliefs, discuss why he took those actions, describe the effects of various events, explain how and why he changed over the years, and so forth. You can write a much longer paper on Gandhi that way than you can if you interpret your topic as "Gandhi: Good or Bad?"

Using Questions to Refine and Expand

A second strategy is to pretend you're a devil's advocate. Read each of your paragraphs as a skeptic, finding every opportunity you can to ask who, what, when, why, or how. See if you can find a paradox, a contradiction, or a controversy related to your topic. For example:

How much electricity—a major contributor to global warming—had to be used to put on the "Live Earth" concerts?

Write your questions in the margins or on a separate piece of paper, and then go back and answer them. Ask yourself where and how you can use examples to show the reader your points. Anticipate and address as many of the reader's questions as possible.

Using Research to Refine and Expand

Another thing to check is that wherever you've quoted or paraphrased a source, you've also written something about that source. Think of your paper as a call-in radio show where you're the host: each time someone new is speaking, the host has to introduce who is talking and what makes him an expert, clarify what's just been said, and remind the person just tuning in what they've been talking about. A strong paper introduces sources, interprets what they've said, and explains how those ideas relate to what the paper just said and is going to say next.

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D. Writing a Strong Conclusion

Many writers believe that "conclusion" is synonymous with "summary". This, however, is not always true.

A strong conclusion should:

  • Lend your paper a sense of closure
  • Suggest possibilities beyond the scope of what you just presented and drive home to the reader why they should care
  • Leave the reader with a convincing and memorable final word

As with introductions, there's more than one way to approach your conclusion. Here are a few suggestions:

Simple Summary

The main points of the essay are restated. This is effective for longer essays with complex concepts. This approach is pointless for shorter essays because there’s no need to remind people of what they read one minute ago.

Pan To A Larger Landscape

The significance of the topic is revealed and its broader implications are clearly shown. If analogy is used or a larger topic introduced, the connection to the paper's thesis must be apparent.


Suggest further action or study.


These can be useful in setting up a parallel that illustrates to the reader the import and mechanics of your main topic.


Indicate to the reader the future implications of your discussion.

Play around with some of the ideas above and see which one leaves the strongest impression while fulfilling all the necessary functions of a conclusion. Remember, it's important to find the approach best suited to your paper topic and writing style.

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Refining Organization

If you've improved your introduction and conclusion by making some changes, or if you've expanded and refined sections in the body of your paper, it's a good idea to consider whether the changes you've made might require some slight reorganization of the paper. Re-organization as a result of revision is almost always a good sign--it means you've created a superior draft of your paper, in which you are expressing your ideas with greater depth and clarity. Looking through your paper, considering these statements.

A. Using a Reverse Outline to Bring Similar Ideas Together

Once you have a rough or first draft, use the reverse outline to find and bring similar ideas together that are separated from one another.

What is a reverse outline and how do I use it to bring similar ideas together?

First, go through your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper, write "1" in the margin for the first paragraph of your essay. Then, list that paragraph's main purposes, each in one phrase or sentence. It is important to understand that "purpose" here doesn't mean what the paragraph literally "says." It means what it "does," or why you are including it at all. One purpose sentence per paragraph is completely acceptable, but there shouldn't be more than two or three. Take a look at paragraph 1 and its reverse outline for the following student essay:

Essay (Paragraph 1):

The problem with regulating cell-phone use while driving is that no evidence exists that says that it actually causes accidents. As Phillip Fresh of the Queensburg Chronicle assures us, "There has been no legitimate study conducted on the scene of accidents that suggests that cell phones are causing them. Clearly, there is no reason to believe that they are the cause of accidents at all" (A2). While Fresh's point about the lack of empirical evidence is well taken, doesn't his comment ignore common experience? How many times have you been driving and seen a near accident caused by someone driving one-handed with a cell phone pressed against his head with the other hand? Though it is true that there have not been significant studies conducted at the scenes of accidents to determine if the driver-at-fault was on a cell phone, this doesn't mean that cell phones aren't causing multiple hundreds of accidents every day. Moreover, if an on-scene study was conducted, how many people would freely admit that they were blabbing on the phone anyway? Most would undoubtedly feel compelled to hide it. Fresh is wrong; the study wouldn't even work if it were conducted, and therefore, we shouldn't base our theories of cell phone-caused accidents on these study's existence or non-existence.

So far, this student's reverse outline looks like this:

Paragraph #1

  1. Establish the case against cell-phone regulation: there is no proof
  2. Emphasize common experience, I see people talk on the cell and drive all the time
  3. Bring up problems with studies (if conducted)

And here is the second paragraph of the essay:

Whether Phillip Fresh's concerns should be taken seriously or not is not at all crucial to the debate over whether or not cell-phone use while driving should be regulated. Mohammad Breeze, a respected reporter for the Clarktown Gazette, reports that 39 of 50 people surveyed in the greater Clarktown area report having seen an accident or near-accident caused by someone talking on a cell-phone (4). Unlike the problematic "on-scene" study that Phillip Fresh proposes, Breeze’s survey appeals to common sense. People are far more likely to report someone who nearly caused an accident than to admit that they themselves had nearly caused one.

Now this student’s reverse outline looks like this:

Paragraph #1

  1. Establish the case against cell-phone regulation: there is no proof
  2. Emphasize common experience, I see people talk on the cell and drive all the time
  3. Bring Up Problems with studies, (if conducted)

Paragraph #2

  1. Argue for Fresh’s irrelevance in context of debate
  2. Use Breeze to emphasize common experience
  3. Suggest that Breeze’s survey is relevant

Now that we have a reverse outline of these two paragraphs, how might we revise this piece in order to bring similar ideas together? Looking over the reverse outline, one purpose common to both paragraphs jumps out: each paragraph emphasizes the common experience of seeing people talking on cell phones who nearly cause car accidents. This purpose is shared by both paragraphs and can therefore be consolidated into the same paragraph. Have a look at the two paragraphs after the student combined these ideas:

The problem with regulating cell-phone use while driving is that no evidence exists that says that it actually causes accidents. Phillip Fresh of the Queensburg Chronicle assures us of this: "There has been no legitimate study conducted on the scene of actual accidents that suggests that cell-phones are causing them. Clearly, there is no reason to believe that they are the cause of accidents at all" (A2). While Fresh's point about the lack of empirical evidence is well taken, doesn't his comment ignore common experience?

Though it is true that there have not been any significant studies conducted on the scene of accidents to determine if the driver-at-fault was on a cell phone, this doesn't mean that cell phones aren't causing multiple hundreds of accidents every day. Mohammad Breeze, a respected reporter for the Clarktown Gazette, reports that 39 of 50 people surveyed in the greater Clarktown area report having seen an accident or near-accident caused by someone talking on a cell-phone (4). Unlike the problematic "on-scene" study that Phillip Fresh proposes, Breeze's survey appeals to common sense. People are far more likely to report someone who nearly caused an accident then to admit that they themselves have nearly caused one. Fresh is wrong; his study probably wouldn't work if it were conducted; therefore, we shouldn't base our theories of cell phone caused accidents on these study's existence or non-existence.

Now, the purpose of "emphasizing common experience" is discussed only in the second paragraph, rather than being separated into two paragraphs as it was before. But that's not all. Bringing together similar purposes in this way calls attention to the wordiness of the previous version because the same purpose was unnecessarily spread across two paragraphs. Therefore, by consolidating shared purposes you not only strengthen the organization of your essay, you also make your language more succinct and direct.

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B. Transitioning Between Paragraphs

Paragraphs are temperamental creatures. As writers, we want them all to communicate well, but paragraphs frequently ignore neighboring paragraphs. It is important to coax each one into communicating with its neighboring paragraphs; otherwise, your essay will be a collection of isolated paragraphs that refuse to "speak" to one another. This will cause your readers to have a hard time relating one paragraph to the next. One way to encourage communication between paragraphs is to concentrate on transitions.

This sentence is an example of a good transition; it makes the relationship between this new paragraph and the one before it clear by picking up where the previous paragraph left off; it even uses a key word, "transition," in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and the first sentence of this one. The paragraph above concentrated on the importance of communication between paragraphs, and then built up to the idea that transitions are a good way to encourage this communication. This leaves a reader waiting to hear more about transitions, and this paragraph is now discussing them. These two paragraphs are clearly speaking to one another; the first one sets something up, and this (second) one explains that something.

Picking up directly from the previous paragraphs' last sentence is an effective way of transitioning, but it is not the only one. Unlike the last paragraph, this newest one doesn't speak to the ones before it by taking its lead directly from the last sentence of the preceding paragraph. Instead, it acknowledges the previous paragraph's main idea then looks forward by indicating, in its first sentence, that there are more ways to build effective transitions than by picking up exactly where the previous paragraph left off. In this way, this paragraph speaks to the one before it by saying it will add a new type of transition to our repertoire. The conversation between this paragraph and the one before it is therefore something like:

Paragraph Two:

Hey paragraph three, I bet you don't know how to create a really good transition by picking up directly from my last sentence, do you?

Paragraph Three:

I don't need to. I'll ingeniously indicate that I am going to add something completely new to the main idea of the essay.

We have discussed two valuable methods of transitioning in this entry, yet the key to smooth, interesting transitions is ultimately to ask yourself as you write:

  1. How do I want this first (or last) sentence to relate to its neighboring paragraph?
  2. How can I make it relevant to my main ideas?

Both of the transition methods discussed thus far are a result of asking both of these questions. To illustrate, let's ask these two questions to the final paragraph (beginning with "We have discussed") in this entry.

Say, final paragraph, how does your first sentence relate to your neighboring paragraph, and how is it relevant to the main idea of this entry?

Final Paragraph:

Well now, my first sentence clearly summarizes the main points addressed in previous paragraphs, and usefully complicates them by suggesting that there is something that they have in common. Moreover, my first sentence is relevant to this entry's main idea because it provides specific questions that writers can ask in order to better understand the purpose of this entry.

Well said. You see, even though paragraphs can be testy and reclusive at times, a little critical thought and patience on the writer's part can help them get along with one another. Not only will your paragraphs thank you, so will your readers.

On a final note, never underestimate the power of a well-placed transition word or phrase. Words such as however, as a result, in addition, in fact, conversely, similarly, finally, and many more, will help your readers see the relationship between your ideas.

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C. Reverse Outlining for Paragraph Order: Feeling and Figuring Out "Flow"

Once you have a rough or first draft, use the reverse outline to improve your essay's flow.

What is a reverse outline and how do I use it to improve flow?

First, go through your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper, write "1" in the margin for the first paragraph of your essay. Then, list that paragraph's main purposes, each in one phrase or sentence. It is important to understand that "purpose" here doesn't mean what the paragraph literally "says." It means what it "does," or why you are including it at all. One purpose sentence per paragraph is completely acceptable, but there shouldn't be more than two or three.

Look over your reverse outline, and get enough distance from it so that you can picture your entire essay. Observe the outline in its entirety; let your eyes jump around from one paragraph's purpose(s) to the next—skim the surface and see if you get any initial feelings that something is misplaced: follow your guts. Go ahead and revise the outline, strike things out, add things. When adding things, don't write full paragraphs; write only condensed versions of the main ideas you wish to add. After you have given the outline this type of examination, you can return to your actual draft to delete portions, add portions, and re-arrange the order of paragraphs.

Following your guts is one way to know how to reorder things, and it's a very good way, but it won't do everything for you. So, when you feel like your essay is in need of organizational help and don't have any gut feelings to follow, use your head instead.

When you can't feel what order things should be in, perhaps you can figure it out. To do this, take out a piece of paper and cover up your completed reverse outline. Then, reveal one paragraph's main idea at a time, asking yourself each time you do so "does it make sense that this part follows the last part? Why or why not?" By moving gradually through each paragraph's main idea(s) in this way, you are emulating, in simplified form, the mental process that your readers will go through as they read your paper. However, by constructing a reverse outline, you have an intellectual edge; a writer that takes the time to move through the logical development of her paper's main ideas can gain clear insight into its underlying framework and principles of organization. We use these frameworks and organizational principles all the time without knowing it; the reverse outline is a practice that will reveal them to you.

If you go through your outline carefully and slowly in this way, you can easily detect paragraphs and main ideas that are out of place and move them to a better spot. This might require you to split up a paragraph and move only part of it, and sometimes you'll see an opportunity to move an entire paragraph and its main ideas to a new spot.

Once you've both felt and figured out your paper’s organization, as well as moved, added, and taken away what you need to, it only remains to fill in the gaps that are left by these changes. When you move stuff around, sometimes connections between thoughts are lost, and the new order of ideas may need to be tied together again in a new way. To do this final step, read through your revised essay with an eye for disruptions in flow, and insert sentences, or even short paragraphs that help your ideas relate to each other. The truly ambitious have been known to reverse outline their revision, and go through the steps above a second, or even third time in order to be sure that they have really achieved good organizational flow.

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Checking Your Research

If you've done a good job of finding a variety of strong sources and you've incorporated them into your paper through an effective organization, you've done well! Now is a good time, though, to double-check the individual instances in which you've used thoughts from outside sources within your own argument.

A. Quotes, Paraphrases, and Summaries: What They Are and How to Use Them


What is "quoting"?

Quoting a source brings the exact words of the source into your paper and encloses them in quotation marks.

When should I use a quote?

Though there are many reasons you might want to use direct quotes in your essay, in most instances you should use them to:

  • Argue with and/or extend an argument – use a direct quote when you have already laid out an argument but need an outside voice to push against or to help you take the argument to a new place.
  • Lend authoritative support to your own argument – use a direct quote when you want to bolster your claim with the aid of an authoritative voice. Bringing in the voices of experts to corroborate your claims shows that your claim is sound and can be trusted.
  • Add eloquence or power – use an eloquent or powerful direct quote when you need to paint a vivid picture, make a lucid point, or provide stunning punctuation to an idea.

Whatever the reason you choose to use a direct quote, it should be distinctive enough that it would lose something essential if it was paraphrased or summarized.

What should I keep in mind when I use quotes in my essay?

Because quotes highlight outside voices, they should be used sparingly to prevent your voice from getting lost. Ideally, your essay should never consist of more than 1/3 quotes. Beware, too, of exceedingly long quotations. In general, try to keep your direct quotes to 3 or fewer lines of text at a time. If your quote exceeds three lines, you will need to block it – that is, you will need to set it off from the flow of the main text by indenting the entire quote 1 inch (or ten spaces). Use blocked quotes only when you must.


What is “paraphrasing”?

Paraphrasing is restating a source's ideas in your own words. Paraphrased material tends to be roughly the same length as the passage being paraphrased and does not use quotation marks.

When should I use a paraphrase?

Paraphrase a source when a good chunk of information is needed, but you want to limit your quotes and maintain your own voice in the essay.

What does a paraphrase look like?

Compare the original and paraphrased passages below:

Original Passage:

Once the food industry saw there was a profit to be made, 'organic' stopped being a guarantee of attention to flavor or individual care. —Corby Kummer’s “Back to Grass"

Paraphrased Passage:

Unfortunately, when big business realized how much interest was developing in "organic" beef, the emphasis turned away from health and reverted back to making a profit (123).

The paraphrased passage contains none of the exact language of the original passage, yet manages to convey the same information in roughly the same space and maintains the writer’s own voice.

How do I make sure I’m not plagiarizing when I paraphrase a source?

Even though the language in a paraphrase may be your own, you should take special care to ensure that the style of the paraphrase is also your own. In other words, do not attempt to simply reproduce the original passage by plugging different words into an existing framework. For example, notice how the passage below bears too similar a resemblance to the original passage:

Original Passage:

Whatever the current troubles of McDonald's and other burger purveyors, beef remains America's most popular meat.

Faulty Paraphrase:

Despite the recent problems of McDonald’s and other fast-food sellers, beef is still America's favorite meat.

To avoid a faulty paraphrase which veers too close to plagiarism, try reading through the passage twice, setting it aside so it is completely out of your line of vision, and writing it in your own words as if you were explaining it to a friend. You might also try this same strategy by first explaining the information to yourself verbally before you write it down. In either case, do not look at the original passage when you are trying to paraphrase it, no matter how tempting it might be to do so.


What is "summarizing"?

Summarizing is condensing a source's main ideas into your own words. Summarized material is shorter than the passage being summarized and does not use quotation marks.

When should I use summary?

Summarize a source when readers need to know the essential details, but not all the details.

What does a summary look like?

Compare the original with the summarized passage below:

Original Passage:

Whatever the current troubles of McDonald's and other burger purveyors, beef remains America's most popular meat. Many meat lovers…have decided to go organic—a choice always to be applauded, for the benefits that chemical-free farming brings to the environment and the health of farm workers, and a choice made easier by the adoption last October of a national organic standard. But organic, vexingly, will not necessarily satisfy people who care about flavor and freshness. Once the food industry saw there was a profit to be made, "organic" stopped being a guarantee of attention to flavor or individual care. --Corby Kummer's "Back to Grass."

Summarized Passage:

In his essay, "Back to Grass," Corby Kummer comments on the demise of the organic beef ranching industry, painting a picture of how organic farming has been corrupted by the never-ending search for profit (123).

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B. Introducing and Following Up On Quotes, Paraphrases, and Summaries: The "Quote Sandwich"

What does it mean, this “Quote Sandwich” of which you speak?

In your essay, your words directly preceding and following your source’s serve to show the source’s purpose. Here at the Writing Center we call this the Quote Sandwich, because each quote (and often paraphrases and summaries, too) should be sandwiched between your introduction and interpretation of the quote. Sources don’t speak for themselves; it is up to you, the writer, to clarify for your audience why you have included a source and how it strengthens your thesis.

What does it look like to “introduce, interpret and contextualize” a source?

Consider how this student writer introduces, contextualizes and interprets ideas from a source to strengthen his essay:

However, Psychologist Thomas Brown, who avidly supports Ritalin use, puts it this way:

“…there is research evidence supporting the idea that a structured program of consistent behavior modification can be affective in getting most young children, including many with ADHD, to refrain from being disruptive in classrooms and at home. But it is difficult to see how even the best behavioral treatment program can modify an individual’s impairment of ADD syndrome […].” (248-249).

This student tells us first who is talking (Thomas Brown) who Brown is and why we should listen to him (because he’s a psychologist) and his position/context in the discussion (he’s an avid supporter of Ritalin use).

But the student doesn’t just let the quote speak for itself. He goes on to tell us what we’re supposed to understand from Brown’s quote, and then he argues with it, points out the flaws in the Brown’s point of view, and uses Brown’s ideas to extend his own argument:

Here’s the student again:

Simply put, Brown is suggesting that the outward behavior is improved, but the actual inward cognitive ability to retain information still lacks with such treatment programs. He goes on to describe how Ritalin (and other ADHD drugs) is a tool that allows children to be put in a more teachable mode. With medication, children can sustain focus, which in turn, gives teachers and parents the opportunity to teach. Children can then “…use their learning in ways that were never possible for them while their ADD symptoms were untreated [with medication]” (248).

Brown suggests that it is best to use a combination of both drugs and alternative treatment. In fact, his claims tend to point out that a strictly non-medication approach, actually allows parents and doctors to shape children into a forced social mold. On the contrary, it is for this very reason that I oppose seemingly hasty diagnoses and over-use of psychotropic drugs.

Material that has been introduced, interpreted, and contextualized has greater clarity for readers, and serves as stronger support for a writer's argument.

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C. Giving Credit Within Paragraphs (In-Text Citations)

What is an in-text citation?

An in-text citation gives the reader enough information within the essay to find the full source citation in the list of works cited at the end of the essay. Use in-text citations for all quotes, paraphrases, and summaries. The two most common systems used for making in-text citations in college papers are the systems developed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the American Psychological Association (APA), though some disciplines use other systems.

What information do I need for an in-text citation?

In-text citations always require a parenthetical citation – that is, information contained in parentheses at the end of a sentence or passage obtained from a source. In-text citations often need a signal phrase as well. On the most basic level, if the author is named in a signal phrase, the parenthetical citation does not need to include their name. In contrast, if the author is not named in the signal phrase, their name should be included in the parenthetical citation. Compare the following passages that use MLA format:

In-text citation with signal phrase:

In his essay, “Back to Grass,” Corby Kummer comments on the demise of the organic beef ranching industry, painting a picture of how organic farming has been corrupted by the never-ending search for profit (123).

In-text citation without signal phrase:

As experts make clear, the organic beef ranching industry, as well as other organic farming ventures, have been corrupted by the never-ending search for profit (Kummer 123).

Why are there differences between APA and MLA styles for in-text citations?

APA, or the American Psychological Association, has different citation rules than does the MLA, or Modern Language Association. These rules may seem random, but they are actually meant to help readers and researchers quickly find the most important information about a source that they will need in their field of study.

What does an APA in-text citation look like and why does it look this way?

Because APA is used in the sciences, which rely on scientific studies as source material, the most important information a reader will need to know is who authored study and the date it was conducted. These are important issues in the sciences because subsequent studies and theories – including yours – change often and rely on the accumulated information from previous studies. As a result, in-text citations for APA format favor the author and date. Below is an example of an in-text citation in APA format:

Schuller (2005) found that children who watched more than five hours of television a day before the age of three were twice as likely to show signs of ADD and ADHD in their adolescent and teen years, a finding that “places serious health burdens on the television industry” (26).

Notice that the passage gives precedence to the author and date of the study by locating them at the beginning of the passage in the signal phrase. The page number is not as important, but because the passage includes a direct quote, the page number is included parenthetically.

What does an MLA in-text citation look like and why does it look this way?

As you might imagine, publishing dates matter less to folks working in fields such as Literature, Art, or Philosophy. What matters more to readers, writers and researchers in these fields are ideas and arguments about pieces of art, works of literature, or patterns of thought. As a result, MLA in-text citations highlight author’s names and page numbers. Below is an example of an in-text citation in MLA format:

Though Pauline Kael found Julie Andrews to be “annoyingly fresh-faced” in her exuberant performance as Maria in The Sound of Music, it is, in fact, this cherubic, scrubbed-clean quality that gives the film its contagious power (36).

Aren’t there more rules about how to cite sources in the text than you’ve shown me here?

Yes. Problems always arise in the citation process (i.e. what to do if there are multiple authors, how to cite web sources with no author, what to do if there are no page numbers, etc.), but solutions to those problems do exist. Make sure you consult a writing handbook or style manual when you cite sources.

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D. Giving Credit at the End (The List of Works Cited)

What is a list of works cited?

At the end of an essay that includes sources, you should always have a separate sheet (or sheets) of paper with a list of the sources you cited within the essay.

What should I include in my list of works cited?

You should consult many more sources than you end up quoting, paraphrasing or summarizing, but on your works cited pages, list only those sources you actually ended up using in the essay. Both APA and MLA require the same information in an entry, but it will be in a different order according to which style you use. Make sure to include the following relevant information in your entries, but please consult a style manual or writing handbook in order to put the information in the correct order:

  1. The last name of the author of the essay, book, or web document should appear first in the entry
  2. date of publication
  3. titles (i.e. of essay, journal, web site, and/or book)
  4. publication location
  5. page numbers for articles and essays
  6. For web documents you will also need to include the date you accessed the information and the URL.

How should I format my list of works cited?

As with in-text citations, in the list of works cited it matters which citation style you use. However, both APA and MLA styles adhere to a few of the same basic rules:

  • Center the title of the page at the top – for MLA it is called Works Cited; for APA, it is called References
  • Entries should be alphabetized according to the last name of the author. If there is no author, alphabetize according to the first word of the title of the essay, book or web site.
  • For entries that exceed one line, indent all subsequent lines so that only the last name of the author hangs out at the left margin.
  • Keep your list of works cited double spaced with no extra spaces between entries
  • Do not number your entries

What does a list of works cited look like when it’s all put together?

See a short example below, in MLA format:

Works Cited

Abbot, James D. “Pinning Down a Cloud: Solving the Problem of Maria.” Film Talk 11.4 (2002): 245-267.

DeVane, Jessica. American Musicals of the Sixties. New York: Harcourt, 1995.

Kael, Pauline. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. London: Little, Brown. 1968.

Patterson, Jeremy. “Art That Puts a Shine on War.” Looking Lives 42.5 (1999): 92-102. 7 Feb. 2008 <http://lookinglivesonline.org/art_war.html>.

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E. Plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s words or ideas without properly attributing them to their original source. Acknowledging the original source when borrowing ideas or words from others is called “citing sources.” Whether you work with sources or not, you should be aware of the following forms of plagiarism, all of which carry serious consequences in academic and professional settings:

  • Quoting, paraphrasing or summarizing without giving the author credit.
  • Copying word for word whole pieces of writing and passing them off as your own.
  • Mixing your own writing with segments of word for word copying that is unquoted and uncited. This is known as Mosaic Plagiarism.
  • Having another person, such as a friend or family member, write a paper for which you claim credit.
  • Turning in a paper for an assignment in one class that was originally written for a different class. It is possible to do this, but you must first obtain the consent of both instructors; otherwise it is considered plagiarism.

What is considered “common knowledge” and should it be cited?

When a piece of information is considered common knowledge it does not need to be cited. However, it’s not always easy to determine what common knowledge actually is.Especially in the areas of history and science, there is a wide range of facts that could be considered common knowledge. “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America” is common knowledge. If, however, you read somewhere that Washington’s favorite writer was William Shakespeare, this idea would need to be cited. Similarly, in science, a statement such as, “Hydrogen is an element which, combined with two molecules of oxygen, produces water,” is common knowledge, but if you were discussing postulations about hydrogen that you found in someone else’s research, you would need to cite the information. When in doubt, use citation.

What if I don’t know I’m plagiarizing?

Not all plagiarism is an intentional act of direct copying. Quite often, it is an unintentional mistake. Differing cultural norms for composition can sometimes account for unintentional plagiarism. Different cultures have different ideas about the proper documentation of sources. In any culture, people sometimes assume that ideas concerning intellectual property are world-wide, when, in fact, attitudes about using source material vary widely.Rigidly upheld notions of plagiarism are actually new even in Western culture and only began to blossom with the invention of the printing press a few hundred years ago. Western ideas about intellectual property are already changing as a result of information disseminated via the Internet. Even in light of these varied norms, plagiarism is still considered a serious offense.

What do instructors know?

Plagiarism is generally extremely easy for instructors to spot. Instructors develop a sense of their student’s written voices, and when plagiarism is attempted – whether intentionally or not – it is easy to see the difference between the writer’s own voice and the voice of copied material. If instructors suspect a case of plagiarism, they can turn to the Internet, which has equipped instructors with highly effective tools for discovering plagiarism. Do not assume that your instructor will not notice your plagiarized material.

What are the consequences of plagiarism?

The Western perspective is that plagiarism is no different than stealing. Each institution has its own protocol for dealing with cases of plagiarism, so it is in your best interest to familiarize yourself with the plagiarism rules at your university. PSU dictates its policy on plagiarism and academic dishonesty in the student code of conduct. Generally, cases of plagiarism can be expected to result in anything from a failing grade to academic suspension. A scholar accused of plagiarism may lose his or her job and will certainly lose the respect of other scholars in the community. In short, it is not acceptable to remain ignorant of the possibility of plagiarism in your own writing or to attempt to consciously deceive your reader about the source of your material – it is simply not worth it.

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Checking Final Details

The process of crafting a strong piece of writing is often extended and complex. You may have written many drafts of individual paragraphs or of the whole paper—drafts in which you adjusted overall organization, the development of specific ideas, or the composition of individual sentences. It's easy, amid all of this good work, to overlook some last mismatches or errors. Consider these final details.

A. Maintaining Consistency in Your Introduction and Conclusion

Remember that introduction you wrote two weeks ago, when you were still fuzzy about exactly what your topic was and hadn’t yet come up with a thesis statement? It’s common for the focus, ideas, or even the main assertion of your paper to change during the writing process. Now that you have a completed draft, it’s important to return to the beginning of your paper and make sure it reflects the main body of the essay and matches your conclusion.

An introduction should generally introduce the topic of your essay, give some background information about the topic, and include a thesis statement. Reread your introduction carefully, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the topic you introduce in your intro still accurately reflect what you talk about in the rest of your paper?
  • Do you provide your readers with enough background information, and is there any background information that is no longer relevant to what you discuss in the rest of the paper?
  • Is the assertion you make in your thesis statement the same point that you argue in the main body of the essay?

Providing a sense of continuity between your intro and your conclusion doesn’t just mean that you should restate your thesis statement at the end of your paper, although it is important to remind your readers of your main assertion. A strong conclusion might also pick up on some element from your introduction and add some final reflection to it, or perhaps even put a slightly new twist on it. For example, if the intro asks a provocative question, the conclusion might provide an answer to that question. Or if your introduction begins with an anecdote, you might reflect on that anecdote in your conclusion. Making sure that your introduction and conclusion match will give your paper a nice feeling of wholeness or coming full circle.

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B. Correctly Formatting Your Works Cited Page or Bibliography

Formatting your works cited page or bibliography is usually one of the last steps you must take to produce a polished final draft. Clearly citing sources will lend you credibility by showing that you consulted other experts, and gave credit to those who first developed specific ideas or published certain information.

Two major systems for citing sources are used in undergraduate courses: MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). Every field uses the citation style that best suits its interests and values, so it’s a good idea to check with your professor to make sure you know which citation style he or she expects you to use.

Once you know which style your instructor wants you to use, it’s easy to find places to look to make sure you are citing your sources clearly. Three resources are:

  • A writing handbook or style manual. Good writing handbooks have basic information on MLA, APA, and other formats. For more extensive information, the organizations themselves put out their own highly detailed books about their citation systems.
  • Online resources: There is a wealth of citation help online. Typing the name of the citation format you are using into a good search engine should turn up various guides.
  • The staff at the Writing Center is happy to help you find resources on any citation style.

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C. Making Sure Your Paper is Formatted Correctly

There are few quicker ways to annoy a professor than using funky formatting. Likewise, making sure your paper is properly formatted is a simple way to help show your instructor that you put a serious amount of time and effort into your paper.

Your instructors may give you a style guide telling you exactly what your paper should look like, or they may direct you to a style manual such as MLA, APA, or Chicago. In that case you should follow the instructions precisely. If you don’t get direction from your instructor, follow the general guidelines below.

  • Top of the page: At the top of the first page include the following information, in order: Your name, your instructor’s title and last name (“Prof. Smith”), the course title and number, and the date.
  • Title: The title belongs below the things listed above, and above the main body of your paper. Unless your style guide suggests differently, center your title, but don’t underline or bold it.
  • Font: use a standard font. Times New Roman is the most universal. Use 12pt type. Italicizing and underlining text should only be used in places where a style guide or manual instructs you to do so.
  • Margins: Set all margins (top, bottom, left, and right) to 1”. Don’t play around with this. Instructors have read hundreds of papers, and they will immediately notice if you’ve messed with your margins to increase your page count.
  • Spacing: Double-space everything. This includes the information at the top of the page, the title, the body of the text, the bibliography, and the transitions between paragraphs.
  • Indenting: Indent the first line of new paragraphs. On the Internet and in handbooks, unindented paragraphs are used for readability. In college papers, the first line of a new paragraph is always indented.

One last thing: papers should always be typed. Any hand-written work (like in-class essays or exercises) should be written as neatly as you are able, in blue or black ink.

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D. Proofreading Strategies

Proofreading—finding and fixing errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation—is really the last step in writing something. It’s like that last look in the mirror to check for scary hair or stuff in your teeth: you wouldn’t want to check before you showered and brushed, but you wouldn’t want to skip it, either. It’s the small details that make your appearance and your writing seem polished.

When you read your own work your eye often runs ahead, causing you to miss some mistakes. This is especially true if you’re reading on a computer screen. The key to catching errors is to s l o w d o w n. Read your draft sentence by sentence, backwards, or read line-by-line using a ruler or piece of paper to cover the rest of the text as you go.

Another way to catch errors is to listen. Read your piece out loud. Better yet, have someone else read it out loud to you exactly as you’ve written it, typos and all. You’ll be able to hear awkward sentence constructions, redundancies, and odd transitions.

Maybe you have some old papers lying around with marks your professor made. Look at your misspelled words or any comments about your sentences, and make a list of errors you might search for in your current paper.

Use your computer’s spell check, but don’t rely on it completely:

Their are dimes when they won’t catch errors because the wrong word is spilt write.

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