How to Write a Good Critical Paper

As a senior English major, I cannot express how many times people ask me, “How do you write all those papers?”, text/call/FB message/DM me for paper help, email me rough drafts, etc. And I get it – listen, just because I’m in this field doesn’t mean I enjoy staying up until 4 in the morning typing up ten-page papers. But it does mean I’ve found some ways to make it easier, and I’m sharing them with you before finals hit. 

1. Set yourself up for success. When you’re finally done with your paper in the crappy hours of the morning, you definitely don’t want to be thinking about all the formatting you might get docked for if it’s not perfect. For MLA, this means, left alignment, double spaced, 1 in. margins, right-aligned headers with your last name, and page numbers. I like doing this immediately as I set up my paper, because it gets me in the mindset for writing too. 

2. Think before you write. Outline/brainstorm/do whatever it is you do, but at least think about your paper for a little bit before you write it. This sounds like an obvious tip, but it’s amazing how far a little sketch of an outline can go for you when you’re staring at a blank Word document. I just bought these shower crayons they sell for little kids to draw in the shower with, but it’s been such an awesome way to jot down my ideas where I tend to have them, when I have them. It looks crazy, but I’ve already written two papers since getting them, and it’s been SUCH A LIFESAVER. 

3. SOURCE AS/BEFORE YOU GO. Sometimes I like doing a works cited page with all of the research articles I’ve got pulled up before I even start writing. If I don’t end up using that article, who cares? I can just delete the entry. There’s nothing worse than forgetting to cite something properly, or forgetting to cite it at all. PurdueOwl is bookmarked in my Google Chrome browser for a reason, EasyBib can become your best friend, and a lot of the library databases like JSTOR self-cite. Also, if you think it’s common knowledge but you’re not sure if you should cite it, cite it anyway. It never hurts. Plagiarism is not a good look, guys. 

4. You don’t have to write it all in order. There’s no shame in typing in a colorful font, “[ADD MORE ABOUT THIS HERE]” and moving on to another paragraph when your ideas aren’t flowing but you have to hit a specific word count or just make your point more clearly. Make sure that font is really bright, or highlight it, or something though, to make sure you catch it later (Trust me on this one. I’ve sent that embarrassing “Please disregard that comment and read this perfectly PG-13 draft instead” to a professor before.) 

5. Check in on your logic. Of course, it's always good to start out with a good thesis, but also make sure to go back and read your thesis often to ensure that what you’re talking about makes sense and follows logically from that thesis. If your thesis is an argument (which it should be!) then it should have supporting arguments implied, so you should go ahead and prove those supporting arguments in your paper. If it turns out your paper is going in a totally different direction, consider editing your thesis instead of revamping your whole paper. One of my professors told me she should be able to read a thesis and all the supporting sentences at the beginning of each paragraph together, and it should all flow together logically as if it were just one paragraph by itself. She called it the “spine of the paper”, and it’s been such a good trick to look at for critical papers ever since.  

6. End powerfully: restate your thesis, imagine your professor reading it and asking, "So what?" and respond. Why should people care about what you've said? It's best to think about outside the context of the book/film/whatever it is: why is this important for people in the real world? If you can't answer that, you haven't written an argumentative thesis. 

BONUS TIP: If it’s a paper on a book and you’re dead tired of digging through 600 pages looking for that one quote, find a pdf of the book online and control+F a couple of words that you remember from the quote. If you don’t remember enough words from the quote to be helpful, google what you do know along with the book title, and search the Goodreads entry for that book. Someone’s bound to have it. #englishmajorlifehacks.  

Writing a paper isn't always fun, but it also doesn't have to be super painful. You're a strong person, and you've made it this far into college. You have good ideas, and sometimes it's just difficult to get them out there. Hopefully some of these tips help with that! 

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