How to write a college, university or seminary paper: easy method (almost) guaranteed to get you at least a pass
I am a theological undergraduate in my third year, and I have dyslexia. And without being too boastful (but you have to put your credentials somewhere) I usually score high B grades at degree level, with a couple of C grades and A grades thrown in.
I hold down a full time job; I am a father, a husband, enjoy blogging and I am a semi-professional artist.
How do I do it? How do I fit it all in…and still get the grades? Well that is what this hub is about since I seem to get asked this question quite a bit. There are a couple of important points before we get started.
First I have some very understanding tutors who when things get really tight are happy for me to have extensions.
Second, I sleep about 7 hours a day, but I have learnt that I can cat-nap for 30 mins once or twice a day…and my job allows me to do that. That short sleep recharges my batteries so that I can keep up this pace.
Ok, so it hasn’t always been easy, and when I started I hadn’t a clue how to write papers. I don’t have even A-levels, but I do have a passion to work out how things can be done simply and efficiently, and I refine processes wherever possible, and this is the result of that.
And I write this in the hope that it will help both my peers and anyone else to know that you can write college papers efficiently and sufficiently well to get good results, almost certainly passes. After that it’s a case of needing flare, which I don’t have unfortunately!
Take what you need from this information, and go for it. Write that college, university or seminary paper and enjoy the process.
Basic skills for college or university paper writing
Please understand that this information applies in the main to those disciplines where you have to reflect and critically analyse ideas of other people, so usually this applies to the arts. Science is a bit of a different discipline. Also, you may find your college operates differently, so take what you read and apply it in your own situation.
- First skill: learn how to do mindmaps. I am not going to go into details, check out Tony Burzan’s website, and read some of his books. It is very important because being able to write mindmaps is a lot quicker than writing papers, and it means you can organize data and ideas very quickly. And clear structure gets marks.
Second skill: read the title of the paper, and what is required. Note down clearly what you have to achieve
- Third skill: be impeccable in how the college want referencing, layout, and setting out of the bibliography. You might only gain an extra 10 marks by doing so, but it’s an easy way of picking up points that can be the difference between grades
- Fourth skill: how to read books.
- Fifthskill: your opinion counts
- Sixth skill: how to write well
I will go through each of these, but not necessarily in the same order as listed simply because the processes blend into one another.
Mindmapping for college papers
When you start mindmapping, you can start with a basic way of getting data. That basic way is asking the key questions. Who, where, why, what, when, how. Don’t worry about having to read anything yet! Your own opinion is very important, so write what YOU think at the beginning, answering these basic questions. It will help you to identify what you do know, and what you don’t know, and where the gaps are.
As you get used to it, you might find that you really early on in the process you can create your first mindmap of the paper. If not, don’t worry. Don’t write an introduction or conclusion yet.
- An introduction tells the reader what you are going to say, and what your conclusion will be, in brief
- The main body tells them
- The conclusion tells them what you have said in brief, and makes a comment about it!
When you write your mindmap for the main body what you are doing is to break down in an organised fashion the details that you need to write your conclusion. Think of it like building a house. The introduction acts as the foundations. The main body is everything but the roof. The conclusion is the roof. You put the roof on all the bricks. The bricks are what you build out of, and you have to build the bricks at the bottom first.
So make sure that each argument builds on the one before.
Also, you will probably have a rough outline provided by the college for your paper. You will have learning outcomes for the module. You will have an expectation of what your paper should include. Make sure that you use this not so much as a guide for your paper, but rather that your sections of the paper fall into one of these stipulations. You should be able to put a tick next to each of the criteria knowing that you have answered them.
In each section you want to express your own opinion, find someone who agrees with you; perhaps find someone who disagrees with you; reference clearly; write a short summary conclusion at the end of the section. Now it gets a bit more complicated than that, but that’s how you avoid the trap of just regurgitating someone else’s data.
In the conclusion you pull together all your short summaries into one place, and summarise them. you should be able to do that in about 100-150 words. You then make a comment on that summary, be it to say what the implications are, or simply to summarise them into a pithy sentence. If I have found a quote somewhere I will use it as my last line, but it has to really do the job.
That last line is a bit like putting the weather cock on top of the completed house!
How to read books
If you need to fill in the gaps then now is a good time to go and get some factual data. Dig around in the books and mark up the pages you need using post it notes. Use the index. And the contents pages. Don’t worry right now in trying to get exact details written down, mark the pages to look at later.
You need about 10 books for a 1500 word paper. You don’t have to read ALL over every single book.
Read the conclusion of each book. Read the last few paragraphs of each chapter too to see if the chapter was likely to contain the information that you needed. If there is a glimmer of hope, then go to the start of the chapter and read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. If there are subheadings then use those!
Allow your eye to skim over the text between the first and last sentences of each paragraph, but don’t try to read them because it will just tire you out. What is happening is your brain is absorbing that information subconsciously which will help you write your paper.
When you find a paragraph that looks hopeful, read it carefully to make sure that it could possibly (not definitely) fit into your paper. If it will, mark it will a post it note – just a thin one, and move on. You are doing this as quickly as possible because you are trying to cram your brain with loose ideas and information. It’s amazing but after 10 books of looking for data and trying to find people who agree or disagree with your ideas you outlined in your mindmap, at the end you feel like you always knew the information!
Write a second mindmap for your college university paper!
Ok, now don’t lose the first mindmap, but the chances are you now know loads more than when you started. So write another mindmap. This is why you don’t feel as though you wasted your time the first time through. Create the mindmap the same way you did before, but make sure now that you are leading to the conclusion that you now want to say having read all that information. You may or may not have changed your opinion. Also, don’t forget that you can pull in other ideas outside of just the discipline you are studying. Critical thinking in theology means to use every resource at your disposal to make comments and help you to think through the issues. Even your own life experience. (thanks Tim Herbert Herbert for that one…)
Now, all those books you marked up. First, make sure that you write down the bibliography of every one of them. Even if you don’t use them in your paper to prove a point or other, you read it, and it will influence what your thoughts are even if you don’t remember reading a particular bit.
Next, go through each of the portions that you marked up. Decide if there is still a possible place for one of those references in your paper. Write down (with quote marks so you know you are quoting someone else) useful sentences from these books. Remember, you still haven’t actually written the paper itself yet. You need all the quotes in one place though because you will need to choose which are the strongest ones to use as references in your paper, and to make sure that you aren’t quoting from just one book.
A good spread of references gets points, and its surprising how many books say the same thing.
Once all those quotes are down, write your paper.
Writing the paper or essay proper!
You have your mindmap. You have keyquotes in your head and notebook. You have read and re-read important information. You will be surprised how much you know.
Now, use the mindmap you have to write your paper. Try to write succinctly and if you can combine ideas into single sentences then do so. If you remember you wrote down a quote that is useful to prove a point or show that it’s not just you who thinks it, or that someone else disagrees with you, then write the reference. Avoid writing the quote if you can even if it’s really good because you get more marks for putting things in your own words. From experience, I think markers prefer fewer quotes and more references. One or two per paper max in the quotes area.
At the end of writing go through the quotes that you have written down in your note book, which are the strongest ones that support your argument? Put a little tick next to each one that does. If you have two which say something similar, choose the strongest one. Also put a little tick next to each book reference so that you can be sure to have referenced from as many books as possible and not just from one. You won’t probably be able to reference every single book, though I have, but you should aim for at least 6 of the 10.
Don’t forget that if you do end up quoting someone, you can omit words using …., and add words using [ ] to make the sentence make sense in your sentence.
Write formerly. Write in the style of the authors who you have read in your discipline! But don’t write in such a way that assumes your tutor who reads your work knows what you are talking about, They do, but that’s not the point. When you write a paper you need to write it in such a way that anyone could read it and get something out of it. You need to assume they know nothing. Also keep sentences short where possible! (useful tip…start blogging and learn to write freely and for fun, using short sentence structure. People are used to this on the web and actually I have found it really good for writing college papers!)
Make sure you write a confident conclusion, and don't forget to make a comment about it. The conclusion is a summary of the summaries. And then finally write the introduction!
Cutting down the word count
Chances are you will have gone over the word count, so now it’s time to get ruthless. Go through the paper, avoid where possible deleting information that uses a reference from another book.
Get rid of little side comments, or weaknesses in your own argument. The tangents that don’t lead to your conclusion. Use your conclusion as the basis for this. In our house building analogy, it’s similar to the builders clearing off and leaving someone else to clear up the rubble,. This stage is rubble clearing to make it easier to see the beauty of the house you have created.
So if what you have said isn’t relevant to your conclusion, remove it.
You might be able to combine sentences, do so.
If you read something and can’t quite make it out without a second read through neither will anyone else, re-write it.
Is there a way of saying something with less words?
Often you will get down to the last 10 words over your word count. This is a good time to go in and get rid of filler words like and, but, however…rewrite the sentence if you need to. You will get penalised less for a studious over use of commas than you will for going over your wordcount!
And my final tip…
Once the paper is good enough, then leave it. You could fiddle with it for ever!
If you have found this hub useful, please remember to click the useful mark. Also, bookmark it via twitter, digg or whatever. Send to your friends (try sending it to two!)
And do leave a comment about your own techniques!
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