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Secrets to Writing Great Papers

Secrets to Writing Great Papers illustrates how to work with ideas—develop them, hone them, and transform them into words. It provides techniques and exercises for brainstorming, choosing the right approach, working with an unknown or boring assigned topic, overcoming writer's block, and selecting the best point of view.

Why do so many students draw a blank when they're assigned to write a paper? Even crack grammarians and master spellers have trouble deciding where to begin, how much to say, and how to say it. What many students never really learn is the art of working with ideasdeveloping them, honing them, and transforming them into words. Secrets to Writing Great Papers fills this gap by helping the student get past the difficult beginnings of putting ideas on paper.

Concise and readable, Secrets to Writing Great Papers deals specifically with ideas and how to work with them once you've done your preliminary thinking. This guide provides techniques and exercises for brainstorming, choosing the right approach, working with an unknown or boring assigned topic, incorporating subtopics, and working with length requirements.

What the reviewers said:

In Secrets to Writing Great Papers, Judi Kesselman‑Turkel and Franklynn Peterson attempt to demystify the writing process for students. They claim that writing strong papers is essentially a simple step‑by‑step process. If students follow this process, they are guaranteed to produce better quality papers.

"Through the book, students follow a linear progression in which they begin with a writing assignment, generate ideas, follow one of five main approaches to convey their ideas, and develop and follow an outline to paper completion. The authors take an interesting approach in the first half of the book: They acknowledge the ways that students must negotiate between their personal interests and a teacher's demands (the student's audience is always the all‑powerful teacher). Students first learn to deconstruct a writing assignment to identify their teacher's expectations. Next, students generate ideas and choose an approach. While the authors encourage students to find ways to bring their personal interests into the paper, they also suggest that, to earn favor with the reader/grader, students should consider the teacher's interests as a prospective topic.

"In the second half of the book, the authors focus on how to develop and follow an outline, which requires the most work in the writing process. The outline serves as a blueprint from which to construct the final paper, and students are encouraged not to stray from it because it is "the quickest, easiest, and most effective way to organize [ ideas j" (p. 43). The final chapter includes a quality control checklist for assessing the final draft.

"The audience for this text consists of students who dread writing. As the authors note, 'Unless you're a natural‑born talent (in which case you don't need us), hang in there. You've also probably never written two sweat‑free grade‑A papers in a row' (p. 42). With their stripped‑down approach, the authors throw romantic notions about writing out the window. Suggestions, such as the following ones, remind the reader that the authors' intention is not to encourage a passion for writing or for viewing the written word as a great art form: 'If you can't write an introduction in five minutes, you're trying too hard. For most school papers, you'll get a high grade if you simply take a forthright approach' (p. 59) and 'Building the body of a paper is just like building the body of a car. You can do it as painlessly as if you were a robot standing on an assembly line' (p. 65). Rather, the authors attempt to deliver the basics of paper writing for those who feel lost. Survival Guide to Writing Papers would have been an even more appropriate title.

"As an advisor, I would share this book with writers who are still developing their writing skills for college­level study. However, the book could help any person, even advisors, who could benefit from a refresher course in writing. While it may not show students how writing can amount to anything more meaningful than fulfilling an assignment, it will help readers develop their writing skills to meet the demands of work and school."

Shannon L. Young, Academic Advisor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Carnegie Mellon University, writing in NACADA Journal, Issue 25 (reprinted with author's permission)

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An excerpt from Secrets to Writing Great Papers:

Decide on Size

Before you take a dive into a strange pool, you're wise to check the depth of the water. And before you think about putting your ideas on paper, you should know how much paper to aim to fill. So the first thing to do is to decide on size.

It stands to reason that a paragraph on cars has less to say about cars than a paper on the subject, and that neither one is as complete as a book on cars. Yet few teachers stop to make the point that a brief paper on cars has to be written differently from a long paper. In order to write a paper that the grader considers outstanding (or even adequate), the first thing you must find out, or decide for yourself, is the length to shoot for.

The most specific way to describe length is in terms of word count. In some ways, it's too specific. It seduces you into counting words instead of focusing on ideas. But you can avoid that trap if you keep in mind that if you're assigned a 700-word paper, no grader counts every word to see if you've gone over or under by 52 words. Writing up to 10 percent over or under the suggested length is usually safe.

Because many students misunderstand what's meant by an 800-word paper and count every word before they hand it in, some teachers prefer to assign length by pages rather than word count. Figuring a paper's length by the number of pages is an extremely variable measurement. It depends on whether you type on a computer or write in longhand, on the width of your margins and the space between your lines, on whether you write big in longhand or choose a word processing font size and style that takes up more space. If you're given a length by pages ("Write a three-page paper"), try to get the paper-assigner to suggest how many words he'd like to see. If you can't get a word length specified, ask whether computer-processed or handwritten pages are meant.

If you’re assigned a certain number of pages, it’s generally safe to use the old standard assumption (left over from typewriter days) that a page contains approximately 250 words. It does if you set your computerized page margins so that they're about 75 letters (columns) apart and then type 22 double-spaced lines to the page.

Handwriting varies a great deal. So if you turn in hand-written papers, count some pages of a previous paper to establish your usual words-to-page equivalent. If you can't memorize the number, write it down here:

I write an average of _________ words to the page.

A warning: Don't write extra-large or skip lines if you turn in handwritten papers (unless you're specifically told to do one or the other), or the grader will assume that you're padding a skimpy paper. There is one place that you are always permitted to skip a line when writing in longhand, and that's between paragraphs.

1ST PROBLEM: No specific length is assigned
SOLUTION: Determine from clue words

Often, you're not told how long a paper to write. Instead you're assigned a "short theme," a "brief description," or a "term paper." Sometimes you can find out what length is expected simply by asking a direct question. Sometimes you have to make assumptions based on past assignments.

If you have absolutely no other guideline, use the following table. It’s based on the experience of many students.

Average Expected Word Length for Papers
Paragraph: 50 to 150 words
Short paper: 150 to 350 words
Medium-sized paper: 350 to 750 words
Long paper: 800 to 1,250 words
Term paper: 1,500 to 2,500 words
Thesis: 3,000 words or more

Notice that we’ve purposely left out some numbers (like the numbers from 751 to 799), and overlapped others (like 150). That’s to remind you that no suggested word length—even ours—should be treated as a hard-and-fast rule.

This excerpt is copyrighted. Readers may print one copy for their own use. If you want to print more than one copy of any excerpt, or would like an article on another topic written for publication, email the authors by clicking here. 


Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Judi K-Turkel, Franklynn Peterson, P/K Associates, Inc. 
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