Understand the Assignment
Read the assignment carefully to understand what kind of paper you are being asked to write. Who is the intended audience? Is the use of first person allowed or appropriate? What is the purpose of the paper? Should the thesis be analytical (informing the reader about a topic without “choosing sides”), or should it be argumentative (taking a position on a topic and attempting to persuade the reader to concur with that position)?
Organize Your Paper
Although many disciplines have specific formatting conventions, almost all academic papers follow the general structure below. Don't feel that you must write these sections in order: Many writers find it easier to write the body paragraphs and conclusion before writing (or revising) the introduction.
The INTRODUCTION tells your readers what you are going to tell them. It should:
- Grab your readers' attention with a pertinent quotation, significant image, or striking statement.
- Express the purpose and goals for the paper.
- Convince readers that the topic is important.
- “Tell them what you're going to tell them” in a clear thesis statement that serves as the controlling idea for the paper. The thesis statement should indicate what the paper is about and should suggest the approach that you plan to take. It often appears as the final sentence of the introduction.
The BODY tells your readers what you want them to know.
Its length will depend upon the number of major points covered in the paper. Do note, however, that the “five-paragraph essay” taught in many high schools does not provide adequate development for most college-level papers. Also,
- Be sure to describe and discuss the topic in sufficient detail. Unless instructed otherwise, imagine a generally well-informed reader who is not an expert on your topic.
- Avoid over-generalizing. Support your points with concrete details, examples, and evidence.
- Use quotations sparingly. Try to paraphrase when possible. Paraphrasing shows that you understand the sources you are citing and allows your voice to dominate the paper.
- Do not neglect any opposing views. Instead, address and analyze counter-arguments to show that you have considered all sides of an issue.
- After you have written a first draft, look over the topic sentence for each paragraph. Would a reader be able to follow the logic of your paper simply by reading the topic sentences? If not, strengthen your transitions and check your paragraphs for unity and coherence.
The CONCLUSION tells your readers what you told them.
It reiterates the main points, perhaps providing a brief summary. A conclusion should not, as a rule, incorporate new information. Depending on the nature of the paper, the conclusion may discuss the implications of your findings, propose taking some specific course of action, make a prediction, or pose a question for further study.
See also our tips on “Writing a Thesis Statement,” “In the Beginning: Writing Effective Introductions,” and “And in Conclusion: Strategies for Writing Effective Conclusions.”
Logical Ways of Organizing Ideas
Just as drivers without road maps may wander around and may even fail to reach their destination, writers without logical plans for organizing their ideas may wander around and fail to achieve their purpose—to illustrate, to persuade, or to inform. To avoid getting lost— or losing your reader—develop a plan for organizing your paper.
That said, few writers sit down, cup their chin in their hand and say, “Ah, I believe I shall write a cause and effect paper today.” While the patterns below reflect the way that people think and process information, and thus can be quite useful in outlining a paper, they may be even more helpful in the revision stage of writing. If you have written a draft that seems jumbled and disorganized, study it with these patterns in mind. Ask, where could I use one or more of these patterns to improve the flow or my paper or to make it more logical and comprehensible? The following are some of the most common patterns of organizing information:
- Illustration or Example patterns flesh out a main idea by providing relevant examples, such as anecdotes, case studies, testimonials, or hypothetical scenarios. Ideas may be organized from general to specific or from specific to general. For example, if you were writing an argumentative paper asserting that it should be illegal to drive while using a cell phone, you could start by describing a specific accident that was caused by a driver talking on the phone, and then broaden to a more general statement of the problem. Conversely, you could begin with a general overview and then move on to specific examples and details.
- Description patterns create a portrait of a person, place, or thing by providing specific, concrete details and by using figurative language, such as metaphors and similes. An effective description will appeal to one or more of the five senses. It will create a scene full of sights, sounds, and textures in your reader's mind. And it will show rather than merely telling. For example, you may tell your reader that “weasels are tenacious,” but it is more effective to show this tenacity, as Annie Dillard does in the following excerpt from “Living Like Weasels”: “One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palms, and soak him off like a stubborn label.”
- Narration patterns use a sequence to recount an event. The minutes of a meeting, a technical manual describing how to use an MP3 player, and the story you told everyone after your first date are all examples of narration. Depending on the nature of the narrative, it may recount events chronologically or it may use flashbacks and/or flash-forwards. Just as in a good comedy act or suspense film, the true art of narrative lies in its timing: An effective narrative illustrates the significance of an experience and creates tension by emphasizing key moments. Be creative and thoughtful about what you choose to focus on—for example, devoting four paragraphs to that first kiss—and what you choose to convey more fleetingly—for example, writing that “three weeks later, we broke up. Then I met my true love.”
- Comparison-Contrast patterns are used to show how ideas, people, or objects are similar and/or different. Usually, a “point by point comparison” (discussing one point of similarity or difference for both subjects, then the next point, and so on) is preferable to “comparison of the whole” or the block format (discussing every aspect of one subject before beginning the other). The block format can be effective, but if not handled properly, it can result in two separate papers clumsily joined by a transitional paragraph. If you do use this technique, be sure that your introduction links the topics and that your conclusion analyzes your findings sufficiently. It is also a good idea to refer periodically to the second item in the first section and vice versa. (See also “Writing a Compare & Contrast Paper.”)
I. Getting Started
To ensure that your group gets off to a good start, it may be beneficial to:
- Take time for all members to introduce themselves, including name, background, and stating specific strengths in contributing to the overall goals of the assignment.
- Nominate or vote to have someone act as the group leader or facilitator or scheduler. If the burdon might be too great, comsider deciding to rotate this responsibility among all group members.
- Exchange current contact information, such as, email addresses, social media information, and cell phone numbers.
- Consider creating an online workspace account to facilitate discussions, editing documents, sharing files, exchanging ideas, and to manage a group calendar. There are many free online platforms available for this type of work.
II. Discussing Goals and Tasks
After you and the other members of the group agree about how to approach the assignment, take time to make sure everyone understands what it is they will need to achieve. Consider the following:
- What are the goals of the assignment? Develop a shared understanding of the assignment's expected learning outcomes to ensure that everyone knows what their role is suppoed to be within the group.
- Note when the assignment is due [or when each part is due] so that everyone is on the same schedule and any potential conflicts with other class assignment due dates can be addressed ahead of time by members of the group.
- Discuss how you are going to specifically meet the requirements of the assignment. For example, if the assignment is to write a sample research grant, what topic are you going to research and what organizations will you solicit funding from?
- If your professor allows considerable flexibility in pursuing the goals of the assignment, it often helps to brainstorm a number of ideas and then assess the merits of each one separately. Ask yourselves as a group: How much do you know about this topic already? Is the topic interesting to everyone? If it is not interesting to some, they may not be motivated to work as hard as they might on a topic they found interesting. Can you do a good job on this topic in the available time? With the available people? With the available resources? How easy or hard would it be to obtain good information on the topic? [NOTE: Consult with a librarian before assuming finding information will be too difficult!].
III. Planning and Preparation
This is the stage when your group should plan exactly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and who should do what. Pay attention to the following:
- Work together to break the project up into separate tasks and decide on the tasks or sub-tasks each member is responsible for. Make sure that work is equally distributed among the group.
- Assign due-dates for each task, keeping in mind you must have time at the end to pull everything together.
- Develop mechanisms for keeping in touch, meeting periodically, and the preferred methods for sharing information. Discuss and identify any potential stumbling blocks that may arise that could hinder your work.
NOTE: Try to achieve steps 1, 2, and 3 in a group meeting that is scheduled as soon as possible after you have received the assignment and your group is formed. The sooner these preliminary tasks are completed, the sooner each group member can focus on their particular responsibilities.
While each member carries out their individual tasks, it is important to preserve your group's focus and sense of purpose. Effective communication is vital, particularly when your group activity extends over an extended period of time. Here are some tips to promote good communication.
- Keep in touch with each other frequently, reporting progress regularly. When the group meets for the first time, think about about setting up a specific day and time of the week for people to report on their progress.
- If someone is having trouble completing his or her area of responsibility, work with that person to figure out how to solve the problem. Be supportive and helpful, but don't offer to do other people's work.
- At the same time, make it clear that the group is depending on everyone doing their part; all group members should agree that it is detrimental to everyone in the group for one person to show up at the last minute without his or her work done.
V. Finishing Up
Be sure to leave enough time to put all the pieces together before the group assignment is due and to make sure nothing has been forgotten [e.g., someone forgot to correct a chart or a page is missing]. Synthesizing each group member's work usually requires some negotiation and, collectively, overcoming any existing obstacles towards completion. Technically, this can be done online, but it is better to meet in person to ensure that everyone is actively involved in the process.
If your group has to give a presentation at the end, go through the same process--decide who is going to do what and give everyone enough time to prepare and practice ahead of time [preferably together]. At this point, it is vital to ensure that you pay particular attention to detail, tie up any loose ends, and review the research project together as a whole rather than just looking over individual contributions.
VI. Writing Up Your Project
Writing the group report can be challenging; it is critical that you leave enough time for this final stage. If your group decided to divide responsibility for drafting sections, you will need to nominate [if not done already] a member to pull the final piece together so that the narrative flows well and isn't disjointed. Make it their assignment rather than assigning that person to also write a section of the report. It is best to choose whomever in your group is the best writer because careful copy editing at this stage is essential to ensure that the final document is well organized and logically structured. Focus on the following:
- Have all the writers in your group use the same writing style [e.g., verb tense, diction or word choice, tone, voice, etc.]?
- Are there smooth transitions between individual sections?
- Are the citations to sources, abbreviations, and non-textual elements [charts, graphs, tables, etc.] consistent?
Barkley, Elizabeth F., Claire Howell Major, and K. Patricia Cross. Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014; Boud, David, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Sampson, editors. Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2001; Collaborative Learning/Learning with Peers. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Espey, Molly. "Enhancing Critical Thinking using Team-Based Learning." Higher Education Research and Development 37 (2018): 15-29; Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Collaborative Pedagogy." In Composition Pedagogies: A Bibliographic Guide. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 54-71; INDOT Group Work and Report Planning Handout. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Working in Groups. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Working in Groups. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Group Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Golde, Chris M. Tips for Successful Writing Groups. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Presented November, 1994; Updated November, 1996 at Association for the Study of Higher Education.