…and you haven’t started it yet. I’m going to help you make it great. The next couple of posts will be devoted to how to write exactly the kind of critical paper your professor wants. (Note that the rules are very different for creative papers.)
This week let’s focus on how to get started. Find out exactly what your professor is looking for in the critical paper because each professor is looking for something a bit different. Read the syllabus closely for how long it should be, what kind of style to use for citations, etc. Every semester, I tell students not to put their names on the paper (just ID numbers so that I can grade them blind), but every semester some students still put their names on it.
Typically your professors are looking for some critical analysis of either the class readings or readings that you are supposed get yourself from the library or online. This means that you must read very closely these materials before you start your paper to make sure you really understand what you are analyzing in your paper. One of the most common mistakes I see is when the students present a “straw-person argument”, which means that they have presented a simplistic version of what the reading really said so that they can easily criticize the reading. You’re not going to do that!
So this week, re-read the stuff that you will be analyzing in your paper. Jot down good criticisms that occur to you as you read. Perhaps you noticed some flaws to the authors’ reasoning, some weaknesses in their research design, or some contradictions between their conclusions and the findings of another paper. Start to formulate a central theme to your paper, also called a thesis or position that you are going to advance with your paper.
Then work on your opening paragraph. Start with something provocative and interesting (yet still professional) to catch your professor’s interest. Keep in mind that your professor likely has a huge pile of papers to grade and finds grading to be a grind — so make yours stand out and easy to read.
In those opening paragraphs, make absolutely sure that you very clearly state your purpose or thesis of the paper. Also, give an overview of the arguments that you will be making to support your thesis, so that your professor knows what is coming and can more easily follow your train of thought in the rest of your paper. The easier your paper is to read and grade, the more your overworked professor will be inclined to give you the A you deserve.
Next week we’ll talk about the body and conclusion to your paper. (If you can’t stand the wait or want a step-by-step guide for paper writing, you can grab a copy of my Clever Student paperback at the Notre Dame Bookstore or click on the book link to order it on this blog and read the chapter called “Writing a Great Paper for that Professor.“)
Please post your questions. I’m here to help!
I often find that the first sentence of a paper is the hardest to write, as it is extremely difficult to write a good hook that is relevant to the topic of your paper without making it look too cheesy. Instead, I usually find myself falling into the trap of writing a huge generalization that could probably be the start of many papers, for lack of anything better or more applicable to write. Do you have any tips on where in the paper the hook should draw from? Should it somehow be indicative of the direction of the argument, or just an interesting fact or question to get the teacher’s attention?
I love this question because everybody is likely to have it.
You can make that first sentence an observation that you personally have made or interesting fact from the relevant literature that somehow ties into the main points you will make in your paper.
If you get stuck on any sentence of the paper, including the first, just skip it for now. When you work on an idea and then sleep on it, you actually can solve the problem in your sleep. The next morning or the next day, perhaps some relevant observation will pop into your head that you can then stick right at the top of your paper. My point is that sometimes being a little more passive and just waiting for an idea to come is the best way to go.