On Writing Academic Papers

Dear Promising Undergraduate Scholar,

I recently found an old paper I’d written that made me think of you. At the time I wrote it I was teaching at high school classes and had just started my doc program. My professor asked me to write about academic writing. My response was a little cheeky, which is no surprise to those of you who know me. It began: 

I teach my students the five-paragraph essay so that they can rage against it. Formulas belong in math. Yet, as an emerging scholar, academic writing seems wrought with formulas. For me, writing is personal. I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. Yet, here in higher education the negotiation between the “creative” and the “scholarly” seems volatile. Since entering the Ph.D. program, I’ve already noticed some changes in my writing. Change can be hard. I recognize I am both learning a new genre of writing and writing for a new audience of readers. 

Now that I’m on the other side of my Ph.D., I work as a faculty member in the College of Education. In that capacity, I have the honor of teaching you and your peers.

I find you precocious, compassionate, engaged, and often ill-equipped to write academic papers. 

Much to my dismay many of you did not learn the five-paragraph essay, much less how to effectively rage against it. I’m here for you, just as I am for the students in my lecture classes. Below are some basic tips for starting to write in the ways your professors are most likely looking for.

When writing academic papers:

You need a thesis. A thesis:

  • responds directly to the prompt/question/assignment.
  • serves as a road map to your paper.
  • makes a compelling claim that others might disagree with.
  • is specific.
  • can be identified in a single sentence, usually at the end of the introduction.

You need evidence/support.

  • Cite your sources. If you didn’t think up an idea on your own, cite the scholar(s) who pointed you to that idea.
  • The Owl at Purdue is your friend.
  • Always include a reference page.
  • Cite readings from the class you are writing the paper for. Professors want to know you are doing the reading and thinking about it.

Organize your paper.

  • You simply must use paragraphs.
  • Your paragraphs should have topic sentences directly based off of your thesis statement.
  • You need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Please find more tips on this in the outline section below.

An outline is a beautiful thing. Here is one you can use.

I. Introduction
What is my hook?
What am I going to prove?
End with your thesis.

II. Body Paragraphs
Point 1 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 2 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 3 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Etc. (Note, each new point is a new paragraph)

III. Conclusion
What did I prove?
Why does it matter?

A few more tips for good measure.

  • Read your paper out loud slowly to catch any errors you may have missed. Do this even if it feels odd.
  • Title your paper.
  • Number your pages.
  • Make sure your name is on your paper.
  • If you are turning in a hard copy, for goodness sake, staple the pages together.

We still have more to learn together. College is such a wonderful time for learning. When we next chat, let’s visit about evaluating sources, showing instead of telling, and developing voice. However, it’s getting late and I have a feeling your paper is due tomorrow morning. Good luck, scholar. Take care of yourself. 

Encouragingly yours,


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