Why do We Write Papers in Schools?
Essays as a literary form are attributed first to the French writer Michel de Montaigne, and second to English writer Sir Francis Bacon. The form wasn’t officially called essay (essais) until Michel started writing them in the late 1500s. What set the essay apart from other writing was the informal, conversational tone.
Despite having an informal tone, early essays still broached important topics and subjects. This is probably why essays have become among the most commonly taught forms of writing in schools. To be clear, informal does not mean slang.
Modern essays are written in prose (with a few exceptions, including photo or poetic essays). This article will only address prosaic essays.
Students are assigned essays to teach reading, thinking, and writing logically. Despite its origins as an informal alternative to other writings, the currently formal nature of essay writing is noted by teachers and professors as a seemingly useless exercise.
By the same token, this useless exercise is used to teach students how to write. And students who write essays are able to articulate their thoughts logically and cohesively.
The reason teachers still assign essays can be boiled down to two essential points:
- Essay writing teaches you the skills you need to read and write effectively in the real world. Essays are useful as tools for helping walk students through the process of learning how to analyze and explore texts and ideas critically. However, there are other useful teaching tools that get overshadowed by the ubiquity of the essay.
- Western education places an unnecessarily strong emphasis on essays. This value means that essays might not be the best tools to teach reading or writing skills, but are taught anyways as a cultural construct. However, just because essays are not the best tools for certain jobs doesn’t mean that they are completely useless.
Regardless of why teachers assign essays, students have to write them. So what essays do you need to write?
“Any” Means Any
Different papers follow different rules, so here’s a brief recap of things to focus on depending on the kind of paper you’re writing:
- Opinion paper. Typically shorter (1-3 pages), a successful opinion paper is based on the logical presentation of your opinion. Support your opinion with sound logic.
- Persuasive paper. These papers (usually anywhere from 3-12 pages) use argumentative logic to convince someone of a point. Evidence helps make your logic stronger.
- Compare and contrast paper. Typically shorter (3-5 pages), these papers simply demand that you compare two or more objects or subjects to one another. Sometimes you may want to prove that one of these objects is better than the other object(s).
- Research paper. Typically longer (5-12 pages), these papers are either based on the presentation of research in a logical manner, or the use of research to support an argument.
- Close-reading paper. I’ve only seen these kinds of papers in English and Philosophy. Typically longer (5-12 pages), a close-reading paper takes evidence from a text (multiple texts can be close-read at the same time) and formulates an argument based on the evidence.
- Lab report. Ranging from 2-20 pages, lab reports are detailed reports of how in-class experiments were conducted.
- Academic paper. These are the papers college professors write. Often based on their own personal research, an academic paper ranges from 5-50+ pages and is a highly formal combination of a research and a persuasive paper. Most academic papers answer questions from previous papers and then ask more questions for future academic papers to answer.
In standardized testing you’re often asked to write an opinion paper, a persuasive paper, a compare and contrast paper, or a close-reading paper. The prompt should explicitly tell you what the goal of your paper is, even though it won’t tell you what kind of paper to write.
The 6 Step Process to Writing Any Paper
This is a process that works, every time, for any paper.
- Write out your main points. Any ideas or thoughts that you want to make about your topic, just write them down. (This should include some sort of a thesis statement.) If you need a longer paper, you’ll need more points – I calculate about 3-4 points for every double-spaced page required. (So an 8-page paper is about 12-16 points, including your introduction and conclusion).
- Organize your points logically. Sometimes that’ll mean making an argument, sometimes that’ll mean presenting information sequentially. The type of paper you’re writing will determine what logic you should follow.
- Flesh out each point in your outline into a paragraph. Do the research you need, apply it to the point, and boom. You’ve made a bullet point into a paragraph.
- Add or edit your transition sentences. One way to check if your paper flows is by only reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph. If your paper or argument still makes sense while only reading your transitions, then you know you have a strong paper.
- Write in your thesis. Now that you’ve written the paper out, you know what your paper is actually about. Edit your potential thesis into a solid statement, and make sure your conclusion answers any questions posed by your introduction.
- Edit. If you have time to edit your paper (at least for grammar and readability), do it. If you have time to get a second opinion on your writing, that’s even better.
Train yourself to use this process, especially if you are preparing for AP or standardized tests. It will help! It makes writing your papers quicker, simpler, and more consistent.
Tips and Tricks to Make Your Paper Shine
Here’s some extra advice that you can use to fill in the cracks of and personalize your paper-writing process. Alas, not all of these will apply to standardized tests.
- Try handwriting it first. I’ve only had one professor who was adamant about this, but it actually worked. Because of the different approach that your brain takes to writing a paper by hand versus typing it, if you write the paper by hand and then edit it as you type it up, you’ll automatically write a better paper. You’ll also automatically take longer because of how long it takes to handwrite papers.
- Read your paper out loud (or have a program read it to you). Awkward phrasing tends to come alive when you read writing out loud. You can use Google Translate (translate from English to English and then press the read aloud button) if you don’t feel like reading your own stuff out loud, or have a friend read it to you while you make edits on your computer.
- Use a thesaurus. Word choice is a nit-picking move you can make while editing. Finding the best word for your sentence can be beneficial for clarifying your argument. A thesaurus will also help grow your vocabulary, which benefits your future writing.
- Strike a balance between a formal and conversational tone. Readers typically prefer a conversational style, but most academic papers require formal tone. Strike a balance so that you enjoy writing the paper, and still meet your paper requirements.
- Style everything at the end. If you’re on a computer, worry about formatting your paper to fit your professor’s guidelines (or MLA, APA, Chicago…) after you’ve written the content. This will help you to focus on writing rather than bothering about semantics.
What did I miss? What’s your process for writing papers – how do you ensure that you write an awesome paper every time you sit down to write them?