Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

1 Comment

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

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 or