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Tips For When You're Stuck On A Paper

Updated on January 12, 2016

I'm sure we've all had those days. When you're assigned a paper and you simply have no idea how to start. Or when you made a great start and then ran into problems part-way through. Or you don't know how to end your paper. This page is here to give you some ideas for getting out of your writing slump.


To begin

Don't panic! Seriously! If you are in High School or college, you probably have access to a writing center full of people who can help you. Also, your fellow students or siblings or roommates may also be able to give you suggestions. If you're really stuck, you can also try asking your teacher for advice.

Please remember: DO NOT PLAGIARIZE! Plagiarizing is defined as taking someone's works or ideas and claiming them as yours. A prime example of this is copy-pasting parts of essays or articles you find online. Even if you change words to synonyms, it is still wrong and you will still get caught. Keep in mind that plagiarizing can lead to a failed class, being kicked out of college, and potentially even worse consequences. Not to mention that you likely won't know the information and this may lead you to fail future assignments. If you are really struggling in a class it is far better to let the teacher know and ask for help than to plagiarize and cheat your way through it.

1. You can't think of a topic

Let's say you've been assigned a paper in English class. The great thing about it? No topic! You can write about whatever you want! The bad thing about it? No topic! What should you write about?

Did the teacher make any suggestions in class or in their syllabus? If so, try picking one of those or something similar to one of those. Try asking your classmates what they are doing or if they have any suggestions. Still no luck? Try googling “good paper topics” or “good paper topics for X class.”

2. You don't know how to start your paper

You have a good topic and need to write an intro paragraph and you're stuck. Do you have even the first sentence down? Do you have an outline yet? Do you have any idea of what the paper is going to say?

If you have a rough outline, good for you! Perhaps the introductory paragraph can mention some of what you're going to say later in the paper. E.g. if you're writing about a battle in WWII, introduce some of the topics in the intro paragraph. If you're doing a basic high school paper, such as a compare-contrast or descriptive essay, google it. “How to start a compare contrast paper.” But remember not to plagiarize. It's best to look at a few examples and go from there. If you're still stuck, you might want to try changing your topic. Or changing the way you're presenting it. Another good tip is to skip the intro and start right in on the body of your paper. Or simply stop and work on an outline for your paper. You can always come back to it when you're done with everything else.


3. You don't know what subtopics to include

You have a good topic, you may even have a good intro paragraph. But now what do you say?

Try googling it! “Why are dogs the smartest household pet?” Think of some good examples you can use and then find subtopics which are related to them. If your essay is about a book, try reading the Sparknotes page on it. Look through the chapter titles of the book or books you have. If they have indexes, skim through those. You can even google for examples of similar essays, but be wary of plagiarizing. It's really easy to get lazy and simply copy large sections of text from other sources, but that will get you in trouble. Also, if there's a paper or article you really like, reread it when you're done with your paper to ensure that you didn't accidentally quote bits of it when you were writing. If you're writing a long paper, consider putting these articles as sources into your bibliography. And remember to put quotation marks around direct quotes and credit properly.

4. You can't find examples

You know what you're going to say, but you can't find an examples to prove it?

If your paper is about a book, try re-reading it, keeping an eye out for examples. If you need an example of the main character being brave, go to the part of the book where he rescues his sister's cat from a tree. You may even have enough examples. Try expanding on the examples you already have. Write each example in two sentences instead of one. Try reading Sparknotes on the book or topic. Try looking in the index of any source books you may have. Take a break and come back to it with a fresh mind.

At least you don't have to write it the old-fashioned way!
At least you don't have to write it the old-fashioned way! | Source

5. Your paper isn't long enough

Your paper needs to be 500 words and you have 460? It needs to be 5 pages and it's 4? Or, worse yet, it needs to be 50 pages and you have 20? Have no fear! Read on for some tips on how to fix your dilemma.

First of all, if you're only five or ten words short, try adding in some modifiers. Say “the happy Pollyanna” instead of just Pollyanna. Change “can bring enjoyment to the reader” to “can bring great enjoyment to the reader.” It won't add a lot of words, but if you don't need many, try it. Next, try adding another example or two. If you're writing about why cats are great, add in another paragraph (or page) about how they're low maintenance. Mention that you don't have to walk them or brush them. If you need a certain number of pages, check the paper requirements. If the font isn't specified, you may be able to find a bigger font. Cambria, for instance, looks a lot like Times New Roman but is slightly bigger. If you're writing a thesis about WWII, bring up another battle and explain why it did or didn't advance the war effort. Google your topic and see what other people say about it. Try reading the Wikipedia article on your topic.

6. You can't end your paper

You're so close to done. You have a good paper with great examples and maybe even some good quotes. But how do you end it?

Similar to starting a paper, a lot of people have trouble with good conclusions. One good option is to start by restating the point of your paper. E.g. “As shown, King Arthur is a better fantasy king than King Aragorn.” And then go on to paraphrase the reasons why your conclusion is the right one. If this isn't a very important paper, you can just paraphrase the first sentence of your body paragraphs and put them in. For the final sentence, one option is to appeal to the reader. Ask something along the lines of, “Don't you think so?” (Please note: some teachers have strong opinions about appealing to the reader, so be careful) You can also restate your thesis statement once again, though by now you're probably having trouble thinking of new ways to word it. And, as always, try googling “good paper/essay conclusions.”

7. All your sentences start the same way

We've all done it. You're half-done with your paper and realize that a lot of your sentences start with the words “later on” or “also.”

Look in a thesaurus for synonyms. Most word processors have a thesaurus under the “Tools” tab. Or try googling the word with “thesaurus” or “synonyms” after it. Try words like “furthermore,” “additionally,” and “subsequently.” Make sure you check their definition to be sure that you're using them right. There's nothing worse than getting bad marks for using a word the wrong way! Try switching around the sentence. Change “Billy was also kind.” to “Kindness was another of Billy's good traits.”


8. You don't have enough quotes

The syllabus says you need at least ten sources and quotes from five of them? Or you need to have at least 20 quotes in the paper?

Go browse the proper section of the library. If you're writing about one of Shakespeare's plays, go find the non-fiction section regarding Shakespeare and that play in general. Flip through the books to find a good quote or two. You don't have to read an entire book to quote from it. The book doesn't even have to be exactly about your topic to quote from it. But do make sure that the quote is referring to what's in your paper. If the library won't work, try googling it. If you know what you want the quote to say, try googling that. For instance, if you want a quote about how Byzantine icons are great examples of the spread of the Christian faith, try googling that. Just make sure that you only quote from reliable sources. Wikipedia and forums do not count, but you can look at the footnotes section of Wikipedia to find where it quotes them from, and possibly use that. Quotes from blogs can be acceptable in some kinds of papers.

9. Your paper is too long

While this isn't a common problem, some people do have trouble with this. But before you start cutting up your paper, you might ask your teacher or a fellow student if it's okay if you paper is six pages long rather than five. Or if 518 words is okay for a 500 word essay. A lot of teachers are okay with that. But if you have a ten page essay instead of a five pager, get ready to delete a lot. BEFORE you start deleting, you should always copy your paper into another file. Chances are, you'll suddenly realize that you should have kept one part that you deleted.

If the font size and type aren't specified, you may be able to fiddle with those to shorten your paper. Change it from Times New Roman 12 to Ariel Narrow 10. If you're way over your page limit, chances are you aren't really following the assignment guidelines. Go reread the assignment. If it says it wants an overview, cut out half of the minuscule details you expanded on in your paper. Or it's possible your topic is too broad. You shouldn't have a 500 word essay on the History of the Roman Empire. You should narrow it down to what one emperor did to advance the roman empire. Or find your best subtopic and cut out everything else and expand on that one idea. You can delete extra examples. If you have twelve examples showing that European cars are more fuel efficient than American cars, that's part of your problem. Cut it down to two or three examples. Delete unnecessary quotations. You really don't need that eight line quote about how bloody the battlefields of Gettysburg were. Or at least shorten them to more reasonable lengths. Consider asking a friend or parent to read over your paper and tell you what they consider unnecessary. (But keep in mind, it's your paper. Trust your judgment, because if they're wrong, you'll be the one getting a bad grade.)


10. How to proofread

You're all done with your paper and want it to look its best, but how do you polish it up? There are lots and lots of articles written about proofreading. Googling it will get you enough information to make your head spin. But if you just need an idea of how to get started, read on.

Spell-check it. Every word processor and email program that I've ever seen has a spell-checker. Use it! It'll keep your paper from being about Medevil hsitry instead of Medieval history. Re-read your paper. Make sure you're using homonyms properly. “To,” “too,” and “two” all have very different meanings, and a spell check will not catch them. The same with “their” and “there.” Read it out loud. If it sounds weird, consider re-wording it. Check for sentence fragments. Like this one. (It needs a verb.) If you're running out of breath while trying to read one sentence, split it into two or more sentences. If your sentences are almost all five words or less, try putting them together using commas or semi colons. Look up an article about using commas properly and apply it to your paper. Have someone else read your paper and give you suggestions. If you've been working on your paper for hours straight, especially overnight, always take a break for at least an hour or two and then proof-read it one more time.

If needed, check your footnotes. Make sure you're using the right format. MLA style, for instance, is different from APA. Check that your source page is formatted properly. Do you have page numbers? Do you need them? Is your title page right?

In conclusion

Use the resources available to you. If you have a friend who is really good at English, you might ask if she can look over your papers or give you advice. Use the writing center, it's there for you! Ask your teacher for help. It is his or her job to help you lean the material. If you teacher isn't helping, try asking another teacher for help. Google it. Go to the library. Look at previous papers for this class and for other classes. Most of all, learn from your mistakes.

Good luck with your papers!


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