EIGHT-STEP GUIDE to Academic Paper Writing

1.         PAUSE. Don’t panic! Even if you feel in over your head, these feelings are normal and much more common than you may realize. Take a deep breath and relax!

2.       WRITE. Many people find it helpful to begin with free writing. You may have heard this expression: “Writing is thinking.” That just means that sometimes we don’t know what we want to write about until we write it. Putting random ideas down on paper without concern for organization, spelling, punctuation, or “correctness” is a good way to get the ideas flowing. Somewhere on that piece of paper you will probably find the kernel of a very good idea.

3.       RESEARCH. Unless you are writing a personal reflection, you will probably be required to do some research. Your instructor and/or a Lightner librarian can help if you are unsure about what direction to take with this. Be sure your sources are scholarly—that is, they are peer reviewed (examined and approved by experts in the field). If you are unsure what constitutes a scholarly source, ask a librarian for help. Keep careful notes so that you can credit all your sources.

4.       READ. Once you have the articles you want to use, read them through carefully. Rarely will one reading be enough! The more complex the topic and the more sophisticated the language, the greater the odds that you will have to read the paper several times in order to fully comprehend it. Read like this:

 -   Start by reading the abstract.
 -  Then read the introduction.
 -  Then read the conclusion.

Why? Because the MAIN IDEAS of the article are located in these three areas.

-  Finally, go back and read the entire paper.

Look up any words or terms with which you are unfamiliar and write the definitions in the margins of the article. (After all, you can’t understand the whole article if you don’t understand parts of it!) If you are still struggling to understand something, try paraphrasing it (putting it into your own words). This often helps build a bridge between a difficult text and our own comprehension.

5.       CHOOSE. Now is the time to select your argument. This is also called the thesis or the central idea of your paper. All papers should have one. Here are some key characteristics of a thesis:

a.       It should be a single sentence

b.      It should be a statement, not a question.

c.       It most often appears as the final sentence of your introductory paragraph. It does not have to be there, but that’s a good place for it.

d.      It should be something with which someone can reasonably disagree. For example, “People should not drive drunk” is not a thesis, because no one is going to argue that it’s a good idea for people to drive drunk. On the other hand, “Since people should not drive drunk, cities should provide free cab rides when the bars close” is a thesis, because someone could easily argue against it, perhaps by discussing the costs to the city of such a service.

e.      Your thesis should be an expression of your opinion, but you should provide some justification for it. To illustrate: “Since people should not drive drunk, cities should provide free cab rides when the bars close, reducing alcohol-related deaths and saving the cities money that would be spent on emergency services at accident scenes” is an even stronger thesis than the one above, because it gives a clear justification for the position taken.

f.        It should be flexible. If you choose a thesis/main idea and then discover, in the course of your writing and research, that you have become convinced of something else, it is a good idea to change your thesis to match your conclusions. Think of your thesis as a “working thesis.” If it stops working, change it for one that does.

g.       Thesis evaluation is one of the services the writing center provides. If you are struggling with formulating a thesis or in knowing whether your thesis is acceptable, send us an email and we will be happy to help.

6.       OUTLINE. Organization of material is important if you are by nature an organized person and crucial if you are not. Writing down the major points you want to make in your paper on index cards allows you to shuffle them around into the best arrangement.

-  GOOD NEWS #1: order comes “built in” to your paper writing:

                                                         i.            Introduction + thesis

                                                       ii.            Body of paper

                                                      iii.            Conclusion

-  GOOD NEWS #2:  A well-written thesis will provide you with an outline. Using our example from 5.e, above, let’s see how this works:

a.       Introduction + thesis. This could include some background information on the costs, both economic and social, of drunk driving.

b.      Explanation of the solution you’re proposing, that cities should provide free cab rides when the bars close. How, exactly, would this work?

c.       How, exactly, would alcohol-related related deaths be reduced? Can you estimate a number of deaths that might be avoided? How many people might take advantage of this cab service?

d.      How would the cities save money on accident-related costs? What do cities currently spend on responding to accident scenes, and how does that compare to what it would cost them to run the cab service?

e.      Conclusion:

·      Tie everything together

·      Circle back to your thesis. You don’t want to repeat your thesis, but you definitely do want to remind your reader how your conclusions support it.

·      END WITH A BANG! Go out with something memorable. This is the last impression you’ll leave your reader with.

- GOOD NEWS #3: A well-written outline means that the rest of your paper will almost write itself. This sounds crazy, but it’s true. The better and more detailed your outline is, the easier your paper will be to write. Therefore it is worth the time it takes to create a solid outline.

7.       SUPPORT. You now have your outline. Each point in your outline represents one idea, and each paragraph discusses one idea. This is how your paragraphs should look: T-S-D-C. That is Topic, Support, Discussion, and Conclusion:

T.       Main idea of paragraph expressed in a topic sentence.

§ Your topic sentence should relate clearly to the thesis or main idea of the overall paper.

§ Your topic sentence should be your own idea. It should not be a quote or other source information.

S.      Support for main idea. These things should illustrate your point. What kind of support can you use?

                                                               i.      Quotations

                                                             ii.      Paraphrases

                                                            iii.      Examples

                                                           iv.      Anecdotes

                                                             v.      Statistics

D.       Discussion of each item above. Don’t just drop in your quote, paraphrase, statistic, or example and then move on to something else. It is up to you to tell your reader how ideas connect. After each item, be sure to provide some analysis.

C.      Concluding sentence of paragraph and transition to next paragraph.

8.       POLISH. This is the final stage of paper-writing, where you take a look at your paper and ask yourself, "What can I do to make this better?" (A paper can always be made better, so “nothing” is an unrealistic answer!) In this stage, you will want to both proofread and edit. Proofreading is:

-  Looking for typos

-  Checking for spelling errors

-  Being sure that you haven't left out any words or included words that should be removed

 Going over your punctuation to be sure it is correct

-  Looking at the format. Are the margins right? Is the spacing okay? Are your paragraphs properly indented? Are your header and title page correct?

Editing is:

Reading your sentences to be sure you have expressed your ideas as clearly and as strongly as you can. Here's a little trick: reading your paper OUT LOUD feels silly but is a valuable tool because it helps you hear mistakes that you cannot see.

Taking a look at the overall organization of your paper. Do the ideas make sense the way you have arranged them?

Checking your topic sentences. The best way to do this is to list just your topic sentences on a separate sheet of paper, all by themselves. If they reflect all the main ideas of your paper in the order you want them, that’s good. If they don’t, rewrite or rearrange them (or add topic sentences where they are missing).

Double-checking that your introduction and conclusion do what you want them to do.


That’s it! Those are the eight steps to writing a solid academic paper. Of course, that's not all there is to it. There’s a difference between a strong paper and a weak one. Below are some practical suggestions that might help you strengthen your paper even further:

INTRODUCTIONS:  First impressions are important!

Make a good one in your paper by starting strong.

Work to make your introductory paragraph clear and interesting.

 This is not the place to jump into detail. Rather, give a broad overview of your topic before getting down to the nitty-gritty of your thesis statement.

Some good ways to begin are:

Start with an anecdote. Do you know an interesting story? For the thesis example we used above, you could begin with a story of a person whose life was affected by a drunk driver. That kind of story gives a “face” to the details that will follow.

You could also start off with a surprising or even shocking fact or statistic. If it surprised you, chances are it will surprise your reader. They will want to read more, and that’s exactly what you want them to do.

Another way to craft an interesting introduction is to begin with a mystery. Is there an unanswered question related to your topic? You might not be able to answer it in your paper, but maybe you will offer (and support) a suggestion.

BODY PARAGRAPHS: Remember that ONE paragraph discusses ONE idea. If you start with A, you should end with A, not go from A to B to C to D to E to F.

CONCLUSIONS: This is the last impression you’ll leave in your reader’s mind, so make it a good one. Some ways to end strong:

If you began with an anecdote, conclude the anecdote here. Update the reader on what happened or else provide the end of the story, giving only the first part of the story in the introduction.

If you began with a shocking statistic, explain how it can be changed.

- If you began with a mystery, can you now provide some sort of solution to it?

Discuss the larger implications of your argument. In our paper about drunk driving, maybe you will want to discuss how the evidence you’ve presented in the paper supports the idea that no amount of taxpayer money is too much when it comes to preventing drunk-driving fatalities. If you have written a paper about the value of higher education for the children of the urban poor, perhaps you will want to conclude by discussing the kinds of contributions these educated young people can make to their communities.

IMPORTANT: Do not end with a moral or a cliché. “The world would be a better place if no one drove drunk” = yawn. “In conclusion, you should never get behind the wheel of a car after drinking” = double yawn. Your reader does not want to be “improved.” They want to know something interesting!

TRANSITIONS: Be sure to have transitions not only from one paragraph to the next, but from one sentence to the next. It may be obvious that there is a connection, but it’s up to you to make that connection explicit for your reader. Here’s an example of several sentences without transitions:

The coffee shop was out of decaffeinated coffee today.

I had to drink regular coffee.

I am extremely sensitive to caffeine.

I once was awake for an entire day after consuming too much regular coffee.


Clearly, these ideas are all related, but the short, declarative sentences make the writing sound choppy and awkward. Now let’s add some transitions (highlighted in yellow):

The coffee shop was out of decaffeinated coffee today, so

I had to drink regular coffee. Unfortunately,

I am extremely sensitive to caffeine.

For example, I once was awake for an entire day after consuming

too much regular coffee.


Writing that includes appropriate transitions is much smoother to read and eliminates any guesswork on the part of the reader as to how the writer thinks the ideas connect.

(Check out our transition resources on the Writing Resources Page if you need additional help with formulating transitions.)

A few “don’t”s to keep in mind:

Don’t write “I believe” or “In my opinion.” The reader rightly assumes that you are writing things that (a) you believe and (b) are your own opinion. You don’t need to state this.

Likewise, don’t write “it might,” “it seems,” “it could be,” "I'm not sure about this, but..." and other phrases that signal to the reader you aren’t very sure about what you’re saying. If you don't have confidence in your conclusions, why should your reader?

Don't be redundant. Mix up your language. If you notice that you are repeatedly using the same word, find some synonyms. You don’t want to put your reader to sleep!

Don't switch tenses, from past to present to past again. Write consistently in past tense.

Avoid clichés. They don’t have any place in your paper.

Don’t use “you” or “your” in a paper. Ever. Say exactly who you mean or else use the word “one.”


Need help with APA or MLA?

The writing center can answer any specific questions you have

or provide you with feedback on any aspect of your paper, including citations,

as well as give you a general sense of how the entire paper works.

We look forward to working with you!