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How to Write an Academic Paper Using Method Instead of Madness Jim Janossy 10/31/2005

Writing papers is, for many students, a difficult, trying, and intimidating task. This is truly unfortunate because typically at least half of the courses students take in college use paper-writing as a form of academic exercise. Expressing yourself well in writing is often a crucial skill in the professional world. Yet whereas being articulate and knowledgeable in written composition in the workplace is a prized skill, academic writing demands even more. To do academic writing you must not only develop the ability to express yourself in words but also the ability to gather information from a variety of sources and select and present relevant nuggets of fact from those sources. You must be able to appropriately sprinkle in your own observations, determinations and conclusions. And you must document precisely where you obtained your facts. Academic writing is not about expressing your own opinions alone but rather expressing facts established by others and your reasoned observations and conclusions based on them. What makes paper-writing a dread to many students? My observation, after two decades of teaching at the college level, is that the answer to this question is simple. The dread comes from not knowing how to do it. No one teaches you a method for going about it! You’ll find any number of references on how to format bibliographic entries, how to use search engines, how to create an outline, and how to use word processors. But you very likely won’t find a short, simple description of a modern method to locate and extract information, build a paper in stages, and scale the effort to the rigor of the assignment. I have looked, and I haven’t found such a thing. It took me a long while to realize that this was sorely needed. I hope to cure this deficiency in this brief document. I’ve arranged this method in numbered steps. Start with step 1 and continue to step 15. 1. Start early. If you’re busy now but think that you’ll have more time later, think again. The future only seems uncluttered because it hasn’t arrived. When it arrives it will be as cluttered as the present. How does something get late? One day at a time! You won’t have a clear block of time later so take the next step (below) no later than the day after you get the assignment. If you don’t you will already be getting late. One day at a time. 2. Start with a page budget. Let’s say the assignment you face is a descriptive essay or an equally typical “compare and contrast” paper. Let’s say the assignment is: Compare and contrast the role that Comiskey Park played in the lives of immigrants to Chicago between 1880 and 1980 with the role played by Wrigley Field in the lives of immigrants during the same period. Let’s say that the assignment is intended to be a paper of 2,000 words, which is about 8 pages in length (1” margins all around, double spaced). Let’s further state that the paper is not to have a cover page, and that the required page count does not include the bibliography. A page budget for a paper is a plan. You decide what parts the paper is going to have and

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© 2005 Jim Janossy

Last printed 10/28/2005 10:55 PM

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allocate a number of words or pages to each part. In the example assignment, a reasonable page budget would be: .5 page Opening statement; what the paper is about, what you are going to present in it, what you are going to explore or determine or prove Facts about Comiskey Park – where it is located, when it was built, who plays there, noteworthy events that happened there, what is played there: baseball. Facts about Wrigley Field – where it is located, when it was built, who plays there, noteworthy events that happened there, what is played there: baseball. Immigration to Chicago in general, what immigrant groups came during the time period and when, interesting facts related to each group you cite...
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