Writing a DraftStart early. When you begin right away, you lengthen the amount of time you have to write a strong paper. With this extra time, you can stop when you get tired or stuck and come back to it later. Extra time also means you have a better chance of getting interlibrary loan items in time to use them in your paper.
Make a schedule. Instead of thinking of a paper as a huge project, think of it as a series of manageable stages, such as taking notes, creating an outline, writing a draft, revising this draft, and proofreading. Make a schedule in which you commit yourself to completing each of these stages by a certain date; then, break down each stage further into steps and schedule a specific day and time when you will complete each step. See the sample schedule.
Take notes. Rather than write your research notes by hand, set up an outline in a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word. As you read your sources and review the findings of your interviews or observations, type notes directly into your outline. Each note should appear on a separate line and should be a complete sentence containing a statistic, anecdote, observation, response to a survey or interview, a paraphrase or quotation of expert testimony, or perhaps another form of evidence.
Organize your outline. After you have taken extensive notes on five or more sources, look for patterns among this evidence. For example, you may notice that two statistics, a quotation from a survey respondent, and a paraphrase of a scholarly journal all refer to the same type of support for your claim. Create a heading for this branch of support and move all of the related evidence under this heading. If a piece of information does not support your working claim but rather merely contains a definition or other background material, place it under a heading called "Background." Continue this process until every point is under a heading. Look for ways to combine or divide headings and points so that they occur in bunches of three to five. Read your entire outline and then write a working claim based on the information it contains. At the top of your outline, create a heading called "Introduction" and place this working claim under it. Now read your outline again. Move headings and points until the outline seems relatively logical and well-organized. See the sample outline.
Write effective paragraphs. For each point in your outline, write a paragraph. The most important unit in a paper, the paragraph presents organized support for your claim. There is no single way to write an effective paragraph, but I suggest that beginning writers start each paragraph in the body of a paper with a topic sentence, a sentence that both summarizes the material in the paragraph and refers back to the claim to show the reader how this material supports the claim. In other words, a good topic sentence looks both forward and backward. The remaining sentences should support this topic sentence and should appear in a logical order. Again, your outline will guide you. If you have taken thorough, accurate notes in your outline, you can even save yourself a lot of typing by simply cutting and pasting points from your outline into your draft. The sentences in an effective paragraph should be organized according to levels of generality. That is, a paragraph should contain perhaps three to five sentences that are only slightly more specific than the topic sentence; each of these sentences may be followed by other sentences that are even more specific, and so on. Finally, add transition words to indicate connections among the sentences in your paragraph. In this paragraph, for example, I used words and phrases such as "In other words," "Again," and "Finally" to help the reader see the direction of my ideas.
Don't give in to writer's block. Because you have typed your notes directly into an outline, you do not have to confront the ugly and terrifying blank page. If you still have trouble getting started, however, you may be worrying too much about minor things such as style and grammar. To free your mind of these distractions and focus on getting a draft done, try writing a "speed draft." Give yourself two uninterrupted hours to write the entire paper. Set an alarm to go off when your time is up. Even better, use a watch that beeps every fifteen minutes or half-hour. Force yourself to produce a complete draft in this time. The finished product will be very rough, of course, but you will have a chunk of material to revise, which is easier to do than to write.
Claim: sometimes known as a thesis statement, a claim is a statement that offers an interpretation of facts. A strong argumentative claim is substantial, contestable, precise, and clear. Example: The popular music of the 1990s reflects the widespread apathy, despair, and malaise of American teenagers.
Substance: the amount of meaning and interest in a claim. To test your claim for substance, ask yourself, "Who cares?" or "What difference does it make?" Example of an insubstantial claim: The students at UNC-Pembroke have a lot of school spirit. Example of a substantial claim: The strong sense of community at UNC-Pembroke, evident in students' commitment to campus functions and organizations, challenges the prevailing characterization of Generation X as apathetic, confused, and lazy.
Contestability: the degree to which a claim is open to argument. Example of an uncontestable claim: Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Example of a contestable claim: The rise of domestic terrorism reflects a growing disillusionment with American institutions.
Precision: the degree of specificity in a claim. Example of an imprecise claim: Some people have a distorted view of Asian Americans. Example of a precise claim: Stereotypical characterizations in movies and television shows in the last decade have given many Americans a distorted impression of Asian-Americans as bookish, overly serious workaholics.
Clarity: the effectiveness of a claim in communicating a particular interpretation. Example of an unclear claim: The rise of the computer has implemented a dramatic effect. Example of a clear claim: The dramatic increase in the use of computers in business, where they have replaced many unskilled workers, has increased the importance of a college education for people who wish to obtain secure, high-paying jobs.
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