How do you write an academic paper?

Posted: November 19, 2009 in Uncategorized
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I wish I could say that someone had asked me this question, expecting that I would somehow be an authority on it. But that’s just not true. The truth is, I was wondering about the way I write papers, and how that’s changed over time.

When I was in high school, the one time I had to do a research paper, I had all my sources next to me while I wrote, and just wrote it all out, turning to sources to find quotes or whatever. It was a halting process, but it worked.

When I started college, I did the same thing, but I did go through the sources and highlight things first. It saved time.

As I graduated college, I wrote the paper first, without quotes, putting together the ‘prose’ of it all. Then I would go back through and put in the quotes where they fit, filling in transitions and whatnot where appropriate.

And then began graduate school.At first in graduate school, I wrote the same way I had at the end of college. But as I progressed, I learned that it was better to put the two models together. So I started going through my sources, taking the ‘juicy’ quotes, and making a file with just them. I would put them in as I got to them, but mainly I’d focus on the prose. And for years, that worked for me.

But then I had a bigger paper to write. Much bigger. And finally, after all those years, I started outlining. I wrote a basic outline so I knew what I wanted to say, then used my file o’ quotes and wrote the prose the way I used to.

But my master’s thesis was different. It demanded more. So I went back to the drawing board with the outline. My outline grew more detailed, and I started putting in arguments and quotes to support them. My outline went from a page long to eight pages long, and then to fifteen. Suddenly, all I had to do was fill in gaps, and I had a finished paper. And that worked very well for me.

Recently, I wrote a paper. I started not with an outline, but with a brainstorm. The brainstorm, in which I tried to connect the things I was connecting (Aristotle and Habermas) to each other and to my own research. That brainstorm became an abstract, that abstract became a bare bones outline. The outline led to the page o’ quotes, and that lead to a paper. It’s kind of short (15 pages), but it’s long enough for my purposes.

What’s my point?

Well, there’s a couple of things. For one, I have another paper to write this semester. But more to the point, I’m coming to the end of my ‘student’ time. I mean this in two ways. First, I won’t be in classes anymore after next semester. Second, some time next year I will move from “PhD student” to “PhD candidate.” To do that, though, I need to pass my exams.

And what are exams? Papers. Papers written very fast, on a very large list of readings. Since I’ll have an idea of the questions, and will know all the sources, how do I want to prepare?

Having only 24 hours to write a paper isn’t that stressful if you look at it right. How much time do I actually spend typing a paper, anyway? Putting aside the research, the rumination, the outlining, and the quote collecting, how much time? Five hours? Six? I get to do all the prep work ahead of time, so 24 is plenty.

But I still like thinking about how to do it, and figure out what organization works for me. Also, it’s nice to think back on how my writing has changed (I feel like I’ve had to learn how to write all over again 4 times in my career… and counting), and to see how far I’ve come.


I still don’t do what my high school teachers wanted, by the way. I don’t write a ‘rough’ draft and then a whole separate ‘polished’ draft. I write one draft. By the time I get to it, I’ve done the thinking, planning, outlining, and considering that usually goes into a rough draft, and I edit it as I go, both for content and for surface errors. And often I will get feedback and make a final draft. But I don’t call anything that I write ‘rough.’ I think it’s kind of an insulting term.

But that, I think, is a topic for another time.

  1. Thomas says:

    Just a quick note–I found your blog while doing a search for “epideictic rhetoric.” I’m currently an RSTC student, taking my exams, and hoping devoutly to move from “PhD student” to “PhD candidate” very soon. In the meantime, you seem to be correct. Twenty-four hours is plenty if you look at it right. I may change my mind on that later tonight, however, if I don’t get this last question answered by morning. 🙂

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