Tips for Writing a Paper

  • Understanding the Assignment: Before you begin to write your paper, carefully read the prompt/description of the assignment so as to determine what exactly you are being asked to do (for example, even a simple direction such as word length needs to be heeded). Additionally, try to work out what is at the heart of the assignment—what does your instructor want to see mastery of? It is also a wise decision to read the prompt before you even begin reading for the paper, as the directions for assignment can help you read in a more focused way.
  • Time Management: Give yourself enough time to do a good piece of work. Probably the biggest challenge for most writers is overcoming procrastination. Writing, as well as completing the reading and research necessary in order to write, is a time-intensive process, so it is important that you budget your time. This is especially true if you are going to use a tutor from the Writing Center, as you will need to book an appointment at least a week ahead of the meeting and then factor in a few days for getting feedback and making changes.
  • Content: In order to generate content: Read. Think. Brainstorm. Discuss. Writing a good paper takes thought and effort. If you are a Residential student, conversations with fellow students about what you are studying can help you clarify your ideas. If you are a student in one of our Hybrid programs, finding someone to act as a sounding board or conversation partner might not always be as easy, but discussing your ideas—with a partner, a friend, a colleague . . . or a tutor—is a good way to discover and articulate what you think.
  • Drafting: Writers often fall into one of two kinds: those who plan and those who write more organically. If you are a planner, you probably like to use an outline for your paper and map out what you will write. If you write more organically, you write without a definite plan but rather as an explorer, putting down ideas as they occur to you. Both modes have their strengths and weaknesses, and—generally—you should stick with whatever is most comfortable and effective for you. However, if you do write without an outline, consider using reverse outlining (pdf) once you have finished a solid draft. It allows you to check whether the order in which you have presented your points is clear.
  • Introductions and Conclusions: These can be the hardest paragraphs to write. Often it is easier to write a very rough introduction and then significantly revise it when the paper is written. After all, it is hard to introduce a paper when the paper is not yet written! At the Divinity School, many papers require that you have a thesis (a statement that is in the form of a claim you will argue for in the paper) and/or a road map (an explanation of what you will be doing in your paper) in your introduction or early paragraphs. In your conclusion, try to go beyond simply summarizing your main points (unless the instructions for the assignment ask you to do this) and instead draw out the implications of what you have explored, what you have learned, what you would recommend, and/or what you would like the reader to take away from the paper.
  • Paragraphing: Remember that paragraphs usually have a focus (main idea), customarily expressed in a topic sentence. They also present support for that focus by presenting information, including quotations when appropriate, and using analysis and argument.
  • Coherence: Coherence refers not only to whether your essay makes sense, but to whether the relationship between the points you make in any one section of your paper makes sense. If you simply lay out facts, quotations, ideas, etc., and don’t connect them, your essay will be disconnected, hard to follow, and less than ideal. It is often in the process of making ideas coherent that writers develop their best insights.
  • Clarity: As a writer, one of your tasks is to communicate clearly—and not, say, to impress (as this generally leads to obfuscation and can alienate your reader). State what you want to communicate directly so that your reader can see that you truly understand the material and ideas you are conveying.
  • Conciseness: Good writing is generally writing that does not use verbiage. Therefore, write succinctly. This does not mean that you should not include important details and dig deeply into the points you make, but that you should not do so redundantly, with an excess of words. Also, monitor whether you repeat your points unnecessarily. Repetition is of itself not always bad—in a sermon or in oral delivery, repetition is important, and repetition can be used to great rhetorical effect—but when it takes the form of padding or shows a lack of care in what you have written, this is undesirable.
  • Quotations: The primary purpose of using quotations is to support what you say. However, if you use quotations simply to reiterate points that you make (or, conversely, you reiterate your points in the quotations), this becomes tiresome. Ideally, quotations should be interesting and illuminating. Engage them. That is, enter into a discussion with them in order to develop your own analyses. Also, remember to: 1. integrate your quotes smoothly into your own writing—presenting every quotation as a separate sentence is clumsy, so try to make quotations part of your own thoughts/sentences; and 2. neither overuse or underuse quotation. Overuse is especially problematic. If, say, two-thirds of your paper is made up of quotes, then your paper is hardly yours. Underuse is probably less problematic, and in some papers (personal reflection essays, for example), quoting may not be called for at all. If you use quotations, always remember to include proper documentation (to avoid charges of plagiarism).
  • Documentation: At the Divinity School we recommend you use The Chicago Manual of Style (available online through Duke Libraries) and for papers in biblical studies, The SBL Handbook of Style (a student guide is available at https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/sblhssupp2015-02.pdf). You may use footnotes or parenthetical citations (the latter are almost always used for biblical references). Follow your instructor’s instructions in this matter. A comprehensive guide to documentation can be found at the Writing Center’s Sakai site under “Resources” and at the Divinity School Library at https://library.divinity.duke.edu/citation
  • Revising: Allow time to “resee” your paper. By the time you get to the end of what you write, you may find you have shifted your perspective significantly. This means that you will need to go back to the start of your paper and modify what you have written—especially your thesis—in light of your (new and perhaps unexpected) conclusions.
  • Editing and Formatting: Finally, read through with an editor’s eye and look for those pesky typos, misspellings, misplaced commas, etc.

Need further help? Book an appointment with a writing tutor at the Center for Writing and Academic Support.