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4.2: General Paper Guidelines

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    To be able to effectively respond to paper topics, you should know the following:

    1. Follow standard paper guidelines and know expectations.

    Paper topics come in all shapes and sizes, but in general for an English class, you can expect to find the following requirements:

    • Meet stated page length requirements. Turning in papers that are under the required page length sends a message that the assignment was not taken seriously and that a lack of time, effort, and consideration was put into the project.
    • Adhere to due dates. Plan ahead and break down the project into manageable stages, so you don’t cause yourself undue stress by doing things “last minute” or by hurting your grade through missing due dates and not being able to turn in assignments.
    • Use the stated paper formatting standards. In an English class, the most common paper formatting approach is MLA. See Chapter 5 on MLA Conventions.
    • Follow the assignment. It is essential that you follow the guidelines of the assignment or else you risk receiving little to no credit for your work. English classes are also teaching students how to successfully complete college-level tasks, so take some time in the beginning to ensure you are doing what was asked.
    • Apply writing standards in your paper. This Rhetoric walks you through the fundamental essay components, so apply these concepts to your writing. There is also an Essay Checklist in Chapter 4 that you can use to ensure you have covered all the bases your instructor will be expecting in an academic paper:
    • Seek opportunities for additional help. Writing can be an isolating experience but it does not have to be. Use campus resources to help you formulate your writing plan and to get outside perspective and feedback on your writing. You can visit your instructor during office hours at any stage in the writing process. You can also use the tutoring services offered in the Learning Center: Getting feedback is one of the most effective ways to focus and improve your writing.
    1. Be prepared for different types of writing assignments.

    When responding to and analyzing the written work of others, sometimes you will be asked to form your own response and to create your own paper topic on what you read. Other times, you will be given a writing assignment (also known as a writing prompt) by your instructor. It is important to have the skill of developing your own paper topic as well as being able to breakdown and follow the paper topics given to you. What follows is information on how to do both.

    1. Creating your own paper topics in response to texts:

    If you are asked to create your own paper topic in response to the assigned reading, here are some easy steps you can follow to come up with an argument (thesis):


    To arrive at a good topic and a strong thesis try this process:

    • Brainstorm all the issues, ideas, and themes raised in the reading.
    • Create complex questions using the journalist questions about the ideas raised in the brainstorm.
    • Answer several of your best questions about the reading with your opinion.
    • Deepen your answer by answering “so what?” So what is the significance? So what can be learned?
    • Gather strong supporting evidence to illustrate and prove your argument.

    This process is covered in more detail and with an example in the section “How Can I Create a Thesis?” in Chapter 7.

    1. Breaking down and understanding writing assignments/prompts:

    If you are given a writing assignment (also known as a writing prompt) then be sure to use techniques to effectively break down and fully understand that prompt before you begin the writing task. This will ensure you do not write off topic or miss important elements of the assignment.

    It is essential to understand and identify key words within any writing prompt. Here are some commonly used command verbs used in prompts. It is not guaranteed these words will be used, but if they are, be sure you understand what each command is asking you to do:

    Key Words Commonly Used in Writing Assignments/Prompts:

    Describe: Write about the subject so the reader can easily visualize it; tell how it looks or happened. Use adjectives, adverbs and descriptive language to paint a mental image for you reader.
    Compare: Analyze the similarities and the differences between two or more items.
    Contrast: Look only at the differences between two or more items.
    Explain: Give the meaning of something often answering the question “why”?
    Discuss: Provide a broader range of possibilities that critically explore your topic.
    Argue: Present a point of view or take a position and prove it. Don’t be concerned about taking the “right” or “wrong” position; just support a position soundly and consistently.
    Analyze: Break the subject down into parts, and explain and critically examine the various parts.
    Criticize/Critique: Point out both the positive and negative aspects of the topic.
    Evaluate: Give your opinion of the value of the subject; discuss its strengths and weaknesses.
    Illustrate: Make the point or idea by giving examples.
    Trace: Tell about an event or process in chronological (time) order.
    Prove: Show that something is true by giving facts or logical reasons.
    State: Give the main points in a brief, clear form.

    BREAKING DOWN A PROMPT: An approach for linear thinkers

    (1) Read the prompt carefully and several times.
    (2) Sum up the topic in a few words (What is the focus of the prompt?)
    (3) Restate the prompt in your own words to help you fully understand it.
    (4) Circle and/or underline the key words.
    (5) Identify and count the required steps in the writing task.
    (6) Make a list of the paper requirements.

    This page titled 4.2: General Paper Guidelines is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Skyline English Department.

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