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Organizing a Paper


There are a wide range of resources available with far more detail than the following. However, this basic plan will hopefully help get you started as you prepare to write.

—Pre-writing
What is your topic? What are the parameters of the assignment? What questions do you (or your professor) want your paper to answer? What kinds of resources do you need to explore? It is important to write on the assigned topic rather than the one you wish had been assigned.

Research and Reading
Are there assigned resources you must use? If not, begin to look for resources that may have answers to your questions. Search for keywords online and on library websites. Take good notes in lectures and as you read, making sure to identify sources in your notes so that you can properly cite information gleaned from all of your different resources. The quote you copied may be terrific, but even if you paraphrase, if you can’t say where it came from, you shouldn’t be using it.

—Determine Purpose and Audience
Is this a research paper, a biography, a sermon? Who is the primary reader? Is it a formal paper or does it focus on your opinion regarding an issue, book or situation? Does your audience share your knowledge of a subject? For instance, are you writing about Presbyterians to a Methodist?  If so, you may need to explain the acronyms or the meanings of other insider language you use such as terms for church leadership like elder and deacon. If writing as a Methodist to another Methodist, you may be able to use similar terms without explanation.

Don’t forget to consider what point-of-view you will use.Generally speaking, first person comments should be kept to personal journals, opinion pieces, case studies and sermons. There are occasional exceptions, but be sure you have a good reason for making one!  The writing center at UNC has good suggestions about how to make your decision: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/should-i-use-i/

—Develop Questions and Outlines
It is easy to begin with the journalist’s traditional five questions - who, what, when, where and why? Which questions are most important to developing your paper? Which are irrelevant? Then consider the perspectives you need to address? What does your audience know or believe about this topic? Why is it important? What effect does understanding this topic have on a person or situation?

Outline your paper based on the most important questions and answers that you have developed and researched. This may begin as an informal list of basic ideas and important points, and then can be developed into a more detailed framework for your paper.

—Compose a Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is your reason for the paper. It should answer the most important question the paper seeks to address. It should be fairly specific, and indicate why the topic of the paper matters. In grade school, you may have been taught to actually write out: “The purpose of this paper is…”, and complete the sentence as your thesis. Without using that phrase, consider whether your thesis tells the reader what your purpose is? As you begin writing, continue to look back to this statement to consider whether what you have written is an argument on behalf of your thesis. It is also possible that you will write an initial thesis statement or introductory paragraph, and then need to revise it as you flesh out your paper.

Writing a Draft
Now it is time to write a first draft and develop the outline you have begun. In this phase of writing, you may need to head back to your resources or find new ones to help you develop your paper further. Save worries about sentence structure, grammar and other mechanics for the last phase of writing. However, you will want to make notes of your citations as you go along. It is much harder to decide what sentences need to be cited if you wait until after the paper is written.

You do not have to write your paper “in order.” It is possible that you won’t want to write your introductory paragraph until you have finished the rest of the paper. Or, you may realize as you write that you need to do more research on a particular topic before you finish a paragraph. Just make a note in your draft “more information about subject x here” and move on to finish the remainder of the draft.

After your first draft is written, go back to your questions and thesis and consider whether what you have written adequately defends your thesis and answers the questions you (or your professor) identified as most important. Do the additional research or development as you noted in your first draft. In this second draft, correct grammar and spelling and sentence structure.

Proofreading and Editing
It is possible to proofread one’s own paper, but even the strongest writers often miss mistakes. A second pair of eyes looking at your paper is the best way to ensure you have done what you set out to do, and also to find mistakes in writing mechanics. Find someone with whom to regularly trade papers who can help you find those grammatical and spelling mistakes. Your word processing program will help some, but those are fallible too.

The final consideration is to make sure that all of your sources are correctly identified and that your citations are formatted correctly, per the professor’s instructions. While there are programs in your word processing programs that will typically set these up correctly, you will need to follow through and proof read, just as you do for grammar and spelling. Style guides are updated regularly, particularly for the fast changing world of electronic resources, but your word processing program may not have the latest updates.


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