One of the common complaints professors often espouse is that when their students turn in work it lacks in quality. It can be extremely painful for a professor to read a paper that has some good ideas in i, but that needs a lot more work. Instead of writing papers at the last minute, edit them.
There's No Slush Pile - Understanding Your Professor
Unlike editors, professors do not have a "slush" pile to place the work in that they really don't want to deal with. Professors are often a bit less brutal than editors in that some magazine and book editors will throw submitted work into the trash and send you a form letter if it doesn't meet quality standards.
Professors, on the other hand, are required to assign a letter grade to your work no matter how brilliant or terribly written it is. After about five papers where there are misspelled words, grammatical errors, and argument fallacies, professors begin to develop headaches.
If your paper is the one that shines after a few papers - it is clearly written, well-organized, and poses well-thought out arguments, your professor will smile. Believe it or not, they want to give people good grades and see students succeed, so it pleases them when quality work is handed in. The key to being the person who makes the professor smile is understanding the process for editing academic papers and then following it.
1 - Writing the Icky First Draft
When you write the first draft from your outline, do not worry about finding the perfect word or putting together the perfect sentence. If you come to an impasse in a certain section, type "TK" and keep going. (TK is editor-speak for to come, it makes it easier to search the document later to find where you need additional information).
The purpose of the first draft isn't to write a perfect paper. It's to get all of those imperfect, underdeveloped, and crackpot ideas down on paper. This is why you should never turn in a first draft to your professor. Give yourself permission to write the worst paper that's ever been written. It will take the pressure off you. The beauty of computers is you can go back and change things without wasting paper, ink or your hand muscles. Get your thoughts down. You'll come back and fix that section you're not sure of, take out that quote you decided you didn't want to use, and put this part over there where it makes more sense.
2 - Let the Paper "Cool"
Now that you have the worst paper ever written, save it (you ideally will be saving it every five minutes or so anyway), exit out of it, and go and do something else. Ideally, you'll let your paper cool off for a few days so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. You should never wait until the last minute because this is a vital part of the editing process.
3 - Re-Outline Your Paper
Now that you've let your paper sit for a while, it's time to come back to it. Read your paper from start to finish. Grab a spare sheet of paper. On that spare sheet of paper, you're going to outline the paper you're looking at. Does it flow properly? Did your points make sense? Do you need to take out a section? Are you unconvinced? Is there information you need to look up? Make sure that the organization of the paper is as tight as it can be, and then go through your work and re-organize it if necessary.
4 - Open a Brand New File and Re-Type the Paper into It
I recognize the fact that this may sound nuts to some, but if you truly want to write a great paper, this is an important step in the process. If you're lucky enough to have an external monitor, move the original document to that monitor. If you must, print out what you have. Now, you're going to retype your paper from beginning to end. I cannot tell you how many errors, bad arguments, and faulty reasoning I have found by doing this. Plus, taking this step helps you to break away from a commitment to that horrible first draft. If you have a better sentence, go ahead and use it. If you know a better quote, go ahead and put it into your paper. If you've found more research or have a new idea, great, put it in there. My second drafts never look anything like the first draft.
5 - Peer Review
If you have a friend who is willing to comment on your paper especially if it is a final paper for a class, that's great. If not, many professors are happy to help students who put in the effort. Take your paper to your professor. Explain that this is the second draft and you'd be interested, if he or she has time, to go over concerns about the paper. Some professors will read through and help point out references you may have missed. Peer review is a great resource. You may also consider taking your paper to your university's writing center for more assistance should you desire it.
6 - Final Revision
Now that you have your feedback (aim to get at least one, preferably two, people to comment on your paper), it's time to go back to the writing block. Incorporate suggestions, ensure that concerns are responded to, and bolster your paper. At this stage, it's unlikely you'll need to make drastic changes, so you can forgo the re-typing process if you wish (though I still retype). Once you finish your revision, you'll set it aside again, this time for a day or two. If you haven't already figured it out, you need to plan ahead if you want to get an A on your college paper.
7 - Check Your References
When you come back to your paper this final time, you'll need to check your references. Make sure all quotes and paraphrases have been cited properly using the format your professor indicated. Make sure all footnotes are properly formatted and that your works cited list is in the proper format. Check for page numbers, dates, and the correct spelling of authors' names.
8 - Proofread Your Paper
After you check your references, proofread your paper. Print it out and read it aloud. Watch out for typos, commonly confused words, drop-off sentences, grammatical errors, and missed references. Read it from start to finish and make a note every time you find an error. Do not stop to start correcting in your word processing program. Mark it on the paper. That's most likely how your professor will be reading it. Once you get to the end, take your marked up paper, turn back to your word processor, and enter in your corrections. Read through it one more time, on screen, aloud. Make sure you didn't miss anything. Don't rely on spell check, grammar check, or style check. You may run them, but they won't catch typos or the usage of the wrong word.
9 - Turn Your Paper in to Your Professor
After you print your paper, (make sure you allow a few minutes before its due to go through it one last time real quick). When you hand your paper into your professor, your paper will have undergone two revisions and intensive proofreading. Your paper will be in a stack with other people's papers that were written in the wee hours of the night when they needed toothpicks to keep their eyes open. You will stand out. Congratulate yourself on a job-well done!
Ronda Roberts has successfully completed both a bachelor's degree program and a master's degree program as a student among the top of her class. She hopes to help others with her knowledge of academic writing gained as a student and as a teaching assistant who yes, had to grade a giant stack of papers!
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