Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
Life > Academics

10 Tips for Writing a College Paper (From an English Major)

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Denison chapter.

The first paper you write for a college class can be daunting. Essay assignments can strike fear into even the brightest students throughout their college experience. Still, writing doesn’t have to be a frightening or unpleasant experience. In fact, I have grown to love so many different forms of writing to the point that I added a second major in English. Even if you never find a true love for it like I did, there are many ways you can hone your paper-writing skills and make completing assignments easier, perhaps even enjoyable.

Disclaimer: Every writer is different! These are just some tips that have worked for me when it comes to writing papers well. Do whatever is best for you.

  1. Find a comfortable way to work!

When you think about what it looks like to write a paper in college, a very specific image might come to your mind. A student sitting silently at a desk in the library, effortlessly typing on their laptop and only leaving once they’ve finished the entire thing. But- who says you can’t work on your essay hanging out on your dorm floor, while chatting with your roommate about ideas you have? Or even using text-to-speech to structure a basic outline for your essay?  We all work best in different environments, and sometimes ideas come a lot easier if you don’t put pressure on yourself to work in a specific way. My only note on where not to write: your bed, so that you can keep that space specifically for sleep!

  1. “Brain dump”

As soon as you sit down to write, read over your prompt and take a few minutes to just think. Don’t stare at the blank page on your computer screen. It’s sometimes a lot less intimidating to think about a topic than to write about it. Take a walk, scan over your text, or chat with a friend, and accept whatever ideas come to you. Whether that’s a specific phrase that you think would be really cool, or a quote that you remember that could be helpful, or even just a really good word that you could implement somewhere in your paper, just get ideas out there. Staring at a blank page and trying to force yourself to write a full sentence, or even the first bullet point of an outline, can sometimes feel too much like jumping off the deep end. Instead, just get any of those disorganized thoughts that you might have onto the page. I call this a “brain dump.”

Knowing that you have some ideas will make the writing process feel less intimidating. Plus, that way you won’t forget a really good idea later on just because you didn’t write it down. Even if some of these ideas don’t make it into your final draft, those first few minutes of thinking about your topic are crucial to writing a good paper before starting to outline, which I highlight in the next couple tips.

  1. Write your paper “backwards.”

Believe it or not, you don’t have to write your intro and thesis statement of your paper first. In fact, it’s often much easier and more effective to let yourself consider a variety of different possibilities to answer an essay prompt by creating an outline instead of creating a specific thesis and forcing yourself to stay in its bounds from that point forward. When I get a prompt for a paper, I read over it once and think about words, phrases, concepts, etc that immediately come to my mind. From there, I build an outline about what I want to say and write the body of the essay before writing the introduction.

  1. Structure is key!

You might have amazing ideas in your paper, but if it isn’t organized effectively, those great ideas won’t translate well to your reader. Again, outlining is really helpful here. A good essay builds on itself. A good rule of thumb: if you could switch around two or three of your paragraphs into a totally different order and it doesn’t make a difference in how the paper reads, something is off in how you’ve built the logic of your essay. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially because we’re often taught in grade school to structure essays in very specific ways. Instead, think about structuring your paper as “this, then this” so that by the time you reach your conclusion, you’ve fully defended your thesis through a series of claims that follow each other sequentially.

  1. Vary your sentence structure

Adding a good mix of complex and simple sentences in your paper will make it easier to read. Don’t force yourself to speak in a certain cadence. Think of your argument like you’re explaining it to someone else verbally, just using more professional language than what you might say colloquially. If you only write in one sentence syntax, you run the risk of making your essay sound either choppy or long-winded (or heaven forbid both). 

  1. Cite, cite, cite!

It might sound intuitive, but for any argumentative or analytical paper you write, you’re almost certainly going to need to cite in-text quotes and/or outside sources. What I like to do for these is to find as many sources and quotes that I think might be helpful for my paper before writing my outline. Instead of writing a claim and then searching for evidence to support it, learn about what evidence is available, and make an educated claim from there. It’s a lot less painful, and takes a lot less time. Finding evidence this way also makes sure that you aren’t cherry-picking lines from sources that might actually mean something different from what you’re claiming they are. 

An aside- if you aren’t 100% sure that an idea you reference in your paper is yours, you need to cite it.  Colleges are really strict with plagiarism rules, and even doing so accidentally could mean a failing grade or worse. Read over your final paper at least twice before turning it in to catch any non-cited ideas that aren’t common knowledge, and make sure that your citation style is consistent with whatever format your professor indicates you should use.

  1. Don’t be afraid of a long page requirement

When you get assigned your first 15-20 page paper, sometimes the quantity of writing you’re about to have to do can be pretty alarming. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and it takes time, but these types of papers are totally manageable (especially compared to some of the beast-sized papers written by people in graduate, master’s, etc programs). Writing a paper might not always seem like a positive thing, but think of it this way: more words means more chances for your professor to find good in your paper. 500 not-so-great words will have a worse impact on a 700 word essay than on a 5000 word one. As much as you can, let the ideas flow, and don’t constantly check the page count, because you can end up using filler words just to meet a length requirement, which usually doesn’t end well. You can even mess with the margins or spacing of your document so that you’re not tempted to look at how long it is.

  1. Don’t forget to edit!

It can be so easy to finish typing the last word of your paper and instantly submit it (especially if you’ve procrastinated and are working against an 11:59 PM deadline). If you have even just a few minutes, check your paper at least once over, preferably more, to scan for typos, missed citations, or grammatical and syntax errors. A great story to illustrate this point: when my dad was in college, he had a friend who was notorious for not double-checking his papers before submitting them. He made the mistake of leaving his paper out with his friends when he left the room, and upon receiving the graded essay from his professor, the word “bigfoot” had been circled in the middle of an otherwise great sentence, with a little question mark next to it. So, proofreading your essays not only will make them stronger, but could potentially prevent you from being the brunt of a prank!

  1. Walk away from your paper

Writing fatigue is real. Revision is a lot easier a day after you finish writing a draft than ten minutes after. Put some space between yourself and your paper before reading it again. New ideas may come to you, and you’ll be able to catch mistakes more easily and read it with a more critical eye.

  1. Chat with your professor/TA/tutor/writing center

Depending on your university, the resources available to you for support when writing papers may vary. If you can, going to your professor or TA’s office hours can provide some great insight into what they’re looking for when they’re grading your paper, and you can get some useful feedback. Other tools like writing centers and tutors may also be available to strengthen your writing skills.

Emily Bost

Denison '25

I am a junior biochemistry major and English literature minor on the pre-med track at Denison! I'm involved in choir, disability advocacy, theatre, newspaper, and medical volunteering alongside Her Campus, and I love to read, play piano, crochet, and thrift in my spare time. I'm passionate about environmental sustainability and breaking down the stigma of mental health and disability on college campuses.