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Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft into a Final Paper

Writing Term Papers—How to turn a messy draft into a final paperJoanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 3 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

In my first two posts, Beating Term Paper Panic and Avoiding Verbal Gridlock, I promised I’d discuss how to develop an outline from a messy first draft and use it to transform your first draft into a finished paper.

There’s no law that says you must have an outline to write a draft. Indeed, you may find it easier to craft an outline after you’ve written your first draft

Like most students, you’ve probably had it drilled into you that before you sit down to write you must create an outline. But to return to my Legos metaphor, dumping and sorting often helps you build faster and more efficiently; dumping your ideas and sorting them afterwards can often help you write faster and more efficiently. It’s easier to see patterns and trends after you’ve gotten them all down on the page.

However, you do need an outline to write a paper. Your outline is the road map that will take your writing from draft to finished paper.

So, what’s the next step?

Group together the information that defines the topic of your paper. Papers, no matter what the topic, are a type of storytelling; think of this as your “scene setter” or your “once upon a time” paragraph. To use a simple example, if your paper was about Little Red Riding Hood, this would be the paragraph that explains who Red Riding Hood is.

Group together the information that explains the history, or background, affecting your topic. To continue the storytelling metaphor, think of this as the “back story” paragraph. Once Red Riding Hood is introduced, we need to understand what motivates her to go into the woods.

Group together the players, or elements, that are affected by, or have a stake in the topic. Who are the characters waiting in the woods, or the elements of the woods, that will affect Red Riding Hood’s journey?

Decide an “order of importance. When you group together the elements of your topic or story, the amount and type of information in each group should give you a sense of what order to place them in. You may find organizing your paper by most influential to least influential element works best, or you might find a chronology works best. Either way, choose the method that makes your “storytelling” easiest and clearest. (Editor’s note: Don’t be afraid of easy. If you’re doing something right, it should feel easy.)

If you’re struggling to make an idea clear, try breaking it down into more detailed parts.

  • A good rule of thumb is that a well-constructed paragraph contains five sentences: Your first sentence introduces the idea or concept you’re going to address in the paragraph, your next three provide evidence/facts/quotes/or arguments that reinforce the idea or concept. Your final sentence wraps up the idea and/or draws a conclusion. It may also introduce the transition to the next paragraph’s idea.
  • If your paragraph is too long, chances are your outline needs more categories. The more you separate out and simplify your ideas, the easier it will be to express them, and the clearer your writing will be. The story of Red Riding Hood works better if the wolf, the grandmother, and the woodcutter are each introduced separately rather than all at the same time.
  • If your paragraph is too short, you probably need more evidence to make your argument. Look for quotes, events, or other specific details that will support the argument you’ve made in the paragraph’s introductory sentence. If you can’t find any, it may be an indication that the idea or argument isn’t significant enough, or persuasive enough to fit into your paper.

Your topic “groupings” become your outline. Write them down. Your outline will serve as visual map of the structure of your paper.

Don’t forget to refer back to your original assignment. Make sure your outline incorporates all the topics and actions you’ve been asked to include.

Use your outline, the assignment, and any rubric you’ve been given as a checklist before you turn your paper in. Don’t forget to run a spell check and to Google any terms, titles, or authors’ names to make sure you’ve got the correct spelling and punctuation. Finally, read your paper out loud. It will help you catch missing words and errors a spell check will miss.

A Final Note

You probably know your outline should include an introductory paragraph and a concluding paragraph. But just because you list the introductory paragraph first, doesn’t mean you must write it first.

In my previous blog, I talked about “verbal gridlock.” Verbal gridlock is often caused by trying to get part of the paper “perfect.” Students are frequently told that a strong introductory paragraph is the most important part of a paper.

Strong introductions are important, but they’re often easier to write after you’ve completed the bulk of the paper. Unless you’re required to hand in a thesis statement in advance of your paper, you might find it easier not to write your introduction first.

Think of it this way; after you’ve recounted Red Riding Hood’s adventures, you’ll have a clearer sense of who she is and what impact her character and actions have had on the story. Not surprisingly, you’ll now have an easier time of writing a more in-depth introduction to her. And after you’ve written your introduction, you will probably find writing a conclusion comes more naturally.

Try writing your introduction and conclusion one after the other. Conclusions are essentially the companion piece to the introduction. For example, if the introduction discusses Red Riding Hood’s character and its impact on the story, the conclusion might discuss a moral, lesson learned from her character and behavior, or what might have happened had she behaved differently.

Now relax. You’ve got this.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic

Writing Term Papers–How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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Writing Term Papers—How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock

Writing Term Papers—How to avoid verbal gridlock

Joanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 2 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

In my previous post, I wrote about the late-night call I’d gotten from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming and he was panicking.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he wailed. “I don’t know where to start.”

“Send me what you’ve got,” I replied, having learned from experience that when students say they don’t know where to start, often what they really mean is they’ve started writing and gotten stuck.

Sure enough, my panicked student had run into verbal gridlock.

What’s verbal gridlock? It’s when you put all your ideas for an assignment into a single sentence or paragraph, leaving yourself no room to write.

Suppose, for example, a professor has asked you to write about your favorite dessert. You write, “I like rocky road ice cream cones.” Then you stare at the page wondering what else there is to say.

What you may not realize is that your single, concise sentence can be broken out into individual discussions:

  • Your affinity for chocolate (Do you like dark, milk-chocolate or white? And how do you feel about vanilla?)
  • Marshmallows (Just in ice cream, or raw or fire-roasted or packed in cookies? And how do you feel about Peeps?)
  • Fudge swirls
  • Nuts (Peanuts? Pecans? Walnuts, and if walnuts, wet or dry?)
  • Ice cream (Pure or with “stuff”? And does frozen yogurt really count as ice cream?)
  • What about cones vs. cups? (Not to mention the question, who makes the best rocky road ice cream?)

Worried that detail sounds like “filler?” It’s not; it’s your analysis of the subject. Using detail demonstrates that you’ve thought carefully about the question, that you understand all its aspects, and that you’ve evaluated each one. Indeed, you could dive deeper into this simple question about dessert preferences, discussing regional preferences (frozen custard, gelato, shaved ice), their historical origins, manufacturing processes, and chemical compositions.

The more specific details you add, the more you demonstrate your understanding and mastery of the subject. If you’re writing an academic paper, your understanding of the subject is what your professor wants to determine from your work. Were you paying attention in class, did you do the reading, did you read additional materials, do you “get” what he or she has been teaching? Never assume that your teacher knows that you understand the subject matter. Show it.

Verbal gridlock doesn’t only occur at the start of a paper. One student I worked with had a terrific beginning, but ran into trouble in the middle of her paper at a section where she really needed to do some tricky, in-depth analysis. Instead of working through that section, she kept starting the entire paper over. When she finally came to me she had three drafts, all stopped at the same place, and her writing at the beginning had become increasingly over-written and stale.

When you run into verbal gridlock in the middle of a paper, keep writing. Think of it like Legos. If you played with Legos as a child you probably started by dumping them out and then sorting them into piles based on color, shape or size. The sorted piles made it easier to see what you could build. Dumping and sorting also helped you build faster and more efficiently. Writing works the same way; it’s easier to see patterns and trends after you’ve dumped out all the ideas and information.

If you can’t write through verbal gridlock, write around it. A lot of students get stuck trying to write a perfect first draft. If you know you need a paragraph on a particular topic but you can’t figure out what to say, try using a trick lots of novelists use. Simply make a note, “Analysis of X goes here” and keep going. You may be surprised how well this technique works, but you’re basically reassuring the panicky voices in your head that you know something needs to go there and you’ll get back to it when you get the rest of the paper done.



Fun fact: Novelists often change fonts when they run into writer’s block. It’s amazing how little things can make your brain feel like you’re making a fresh start.

As I wrote in my previous blog, polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page. In my final post, I’ll discuss how to do just that—how to develop an outline from a messy first draft and how to use it to transform your first draft into a finished paper.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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Writing Term Papers—Six Steps for Beating Deadline Panic

6 Steps for Beating Term Paper Panic

Joanna NovinsGuest blogger: Joanna Novins
Part 1 of the Series “Becoming Unstuck”

The other night I got a call from a college student with whom I’ve worked in the past. The deadlines for several papers were looming. “I don’t know how I’m going to get this done,” he said, his voice cracking with a mixture of panic and fatigue. “I don’t know where to start.”

“What can I do to help?” I asked, trying to calm him down.

“Do you have a time machine?” he muttered miserably.

While I couldn’t set the clock back so he’d have more time to work on his paper, after nearly thirty years of working as a professional writer and researcher, I could share some of the simple steps I’ve developed to help relieve deadline panic.

Step One:

Stop beating yourself up. Yes, you could have started earlier, yes, the clock is ticking, but making yourself feel worse about the situation isn’t going to help. Focus on the things you can do now. To fight deadline panic, you need to take both mental and physical control over your situation.

Step Two:

Read the assignment instructions again. While this may seem simplistic, reading the instructions to make sure you understand the parameters of the assignment is an important first step. All too often unfinished projects become like monsters in the closet, their dimensions growing larger and more frightening with each passing moment they’re kept locked in the dark. Take a close, careful look at what the professor is asking you to do. Chances are it’s not nearly as overwhelming as you imagine.

Step Three:

Can’t find your assignment? Clean up! Often when you allow work assignments to pile up, you also allow other things in your environment to pile up.  And while, yes you do need to start your project, it’s worth it to take 10 or 20 minutes to straighten up your room, desk top, and or backpack. Think of it as “administrative time.” File paperwork according to subject matter, class, or assignments.  Mark upcoming assignments and other deadlines on whatever calendar system you use—computer, paper, post it notes on the wall. Throw out papers you don’t need. You may be surprised how much calmer you feel when your workspace looks (and is) less chaotic.

Step Four:

Still can’t find it? Don’t understand it? Reach out to classmates or your instructor. Never hesitate to contact an instructor if you’re running into problems; you’ll have a far better chance of resolving them if you ask for help before the situation becomes a crisis than after you’ve failed to turn an assignment in. It may be embarrassing, but bear in mind that you’ve been given the assignment because your instructor wants you to learn the material, not learn to fail. (Note: Keep in mind that you’ll make a better impression on your professor if you can show what efforts you’ve made to resolve a problem, and possible solutions, rather than simply asking him or her to “fix it.”)

Step Five:

Break the assignment into manageable chunks. As you’re reading your assignment, pay close attention to the verbs your instructor has used. For example, are you being asked to describe, compare, and assess/analyze/or give your views on a subject?  These are three different actions. Tackle them separately.  Are you being asked to write about the impact of an event or issue? Define the event or issue first, lay out the history or background leading up to it, then describe the players and their concerns or conflicts. The more detailed and specific you are about breaking out the components of your subject matter, the easier you’ll find it is to write about the subject.

Step Six:

Write a messy first draft. The most important thing to do when you’re writing under a deadline is to get your ideas down on paper. Don’t worry about crafting the perfect introductory paragraph, whether you’re starting in the “right” place, or how the parts will fit together. Most importantly, don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good. All too often, what stymies the writing process is a desire to write a final draft rather than a first; I’ve seen plenty of students waste precious time rewriting the beginning of a paper or trying to polish an introductory paragraph. Polishing comes later. You can edit and organize anything but a blank page.

Stuck on the first paragraph? In the next segment of this series, I discuss how to avoid “verbal gridlock.” Finished your messy first draft and wondering what’s next? In the third and final post, I discuss developing and using an outline to transform your draft into a finished paper.

Read the entire “Becoming Unstuck” series:
Writing Term Papers—How to Avoid Verbal Gridlock
Writing Term Papers—How to Turn a Messy First Draft Into a Final Paper

If you need help with your writing skills, First Impressions College Consulting can guide you through the writing process to make it easier and more effective. Gain confidence in your writing. Contact www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com.

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author and writing consultant Joanna Novins understands the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or marketing yourself or your work. She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna is a writing consultant for First Impressions College Consulting. You can reach her at www.joannanovins.com or www.firstimpressionscollegeconsulting.com

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