How to Write an A Paper

Here are my Top Ten Tips on how to write an A Paper:

1) First impressions are critically important. This means a number of things:

a) Your title should be intriguing. In other words, if I have a list of titles in front of me (like you would in a Table of Contents for a journal), yours should be the one I would choose to read first.

Avoid generic titles like "North by Northwest Analysis."

Instead, be creative. For example, in my Great Directors class we are studying the films of Alfred Hitchcock. One of the films we're studying is called The Man Who Knew Too Much.

For her paper, one of my students wrote an essay entitled "Women Who Knew Too Much." It's a nice play off of the film title The Man Who Knew Too Much and it's intriguing. Just from the title alone, I want to read the paper. I want to know what these women knew and why it was too much. Certainly, if I'm looking at a Table of Contents, I'm going to read her article before I turn to the generic one.

b) In film, the opening scene is called the hook. It should be such an attention getter, that no one would get up and get popcorn during the opening. The same kind of thinking applies to a paper. Your opening sentence should be an attention grabber. And your opening paragraph should be so compelling that the reader is forced to read on.

Just like with the title, you want to avoid the generic. For example, don't begin a paper with a cliche like "Alfred Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense" or with a dictionary definition of suspense (avoid these, at all cost).

Instead, your opening line should grab the reader. Wouldn't you rather read a paper that began like this? "He makes you wait for it." I would. I want to know who the "he" is and why he makes you wait and for what. One sentence and there's already three questions I want answered. I'm hooked. Without question I'm going to continue on to read the next sentence. By the way, I think that would be a great line for a paper on how Hitchcock builds suspense.

2) Last impressions are critically important. Just as a poor ending can ruin a film, a poor conclusion can ruin a paper. Keep in mind that your conclusion is generally the last thing a professor reads before grading your paper. That said, it should be the strongest part of your paper.

Unfortunately, when people try to write a paper on the night before or the hours before a paper is due, they often tend to run out of energy by the time they get to the end of the paper. And believe me, it shows. The conclusion ends up being a rehash or just sort of trails off. A strong conclusion like a great dessert tops off the paper.

Do NOT use the rehash conclusion that is taught to you as part of the 5 paragraph essay. No reader, especially this one, wants to be bored by you simply repeating what you've already said.

3) Support the claims in your argument using the 3 E's--evidence, experts, examples. In academia, unsupported claims are a big No-No. You have to prove your claim and you do that by bringing in evidence, citing experts who agree with you, or providing examples from the text/film itself. An unsupported claim is the sign of someone who doesn't know what they're doing.

4) There should be a sense of build to your paper. Think of the sections of your paper as building blocks. A good paper stacks those blocks and creates something meaningful. A lesser paper just has a bunch of random blocks.

If you want your paper to be special, you have to build to something meaningful.

5) Use figurative language. We think metaphorically. Thus, metaphors/analogies/similes help us to communicate more effectively with our audience. (Note how I used the building block metaphor in number 4).

Many times a metaphor can unlock a paper. For example, I'm teaching a class on the American TV family. For the first paper, students had to write about the family as portrayed on TV during the 1950's. This is the era of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. After the students had written a draft, I made them come up with five metaphors. Since this was a brainstorming session, I said I want five metaphors I don't care how bad they are.

Interestingly, most students came up with, at least, one good metaphor that would really help their paper. One particularly good metaphor called the 50's portrayal of the American family a photo-shopped family. This neatly captured how the portrayal was an idealized one and sparked lots of other ideas for analyzing the 50's TV family. Another came up with a wonderful comparison of the relationship between June and Ward Cleaver as opposed to that of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo with the following line: "If June is the perfect harmony to Ward's tune, Lucy is the broken string on Ricky's guitar." Lines like this can make a paper.

6) Make everything in your paper do work. Thus, Paper 1 is not a good title. Similarly, a caption to a graphic should do work. What I mean by this is that they should not be empty placeholders. Thus, the caption for a graphic of the poster for the film Double Indemnity should not say Double Indemnity poster. Your audience can already see that. What is significant about the poster.

For example, in the other class I mentioned above a student used the posters from various TV shows to show how the portrayal of the American family changed over time. In the paper they show a graphic from the television show Father Knows Best that shows the five Anderson family members. For the caption, the writer wrote, "The typical nuclear family of the 50's television consisted of a father, mother, and children. Later in the paper, the writer contrasted this with a graphic from The Brady Bunch and the caption talked about combining families, and later still a graphic from One Day at a Time included a caption about a single parent family. That's what I mean by having everything doing work. In fact, you can see that the graphics and captions here are not only doing work, but they also build.

Again, try to make everything work in your paper including the title, epigraph, sub-headings, graphics, and captions.

7) Be sure to discuss the significance of what you've discovered.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Discussing the significance of whatever you're analyzing is one of the key differences between A writers and lesser writers.

For example, it's one thing to observe that the TV show Bewitched featured your typical married couple, Samantha and Darrin Stevens, except for one catch--Samantha was a witch. It's another to note that Darrin's desire to have Samantha not use her powers and be a typical housewife reflects a major issue in women's liberation at the time. It's better yet if you go on to point out the fact that the show was a comedy also is significant because it enabled the writers to address the issue in a non-threatening manner. And finally, it's even better if you also point out that Darrin was better off when Samantha did use her powers and that we, as the audience, wanted her to use her powers.

8) Ethos. Aristotle said that to be persuasive a writer should employ the rhetorical triangle of ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos, according to Aristotle, is the audience's perception of the speaker/writer. And he believed it was the most important factor in persuading an audience.

Advertisers know this and often employ a spokesperson that the audience likes and respects for their product. For example, Nike is the world's most popular athletic shoe company because they employed Michael Jordan as their spokesperson in the 80's (and now use Tiger Woods).

So how does this relate to writing a paper? Readers make judgments about the character of the writer based on the writing. For example, would you hire a person whose misspelled your company's name when he sent you his resume? Of course not. Why? Well, because if the person doesn't care enough to get the details right when applying for the job, can you imagine how careless they'd be if they had the job.

Similarly, carelessness in a paper directly impacts your credibility as a writer. You've got to get the details right. The film Shadow of a Doubt took place in Santa Rosa not Santa Anna. The senator in Strangers on a Train was the father of Guy's girlfriend not of Guy. (These are but two examples of errors in the papers I received in one class.) Getting these sort of details wrong makes the reader question your reliability.

Or to look at it from a more positive standpoint, think about what gives you confidence in a writer. Writers who choose good examples, writers who seem confident, writers who know how to use sources, writers who can make distinctions and can deal with counterarguments and exceptions, writers who obviously know the material, writers who point out significance, etc. these are things that give a reader confidence in the writer.

So the next time you're getting ready to turn in a paper, ask yourself, "What kind of impression does this paper give of me?" or, more simply, "What does this paper say about me?"

9) Mechanics. This is really a subset of 8; however, mechanics deserves additional emphasis. Poor mechanics get in the way of the reader. They're distracting and confusing. They're also irritating. For example, movie titles should be italicized (or underlined, which before we had computers was a sign to the typesetter to put something in italics and now that the italicize button is right next to the underline button in your word processing format palette seems redundant) not in quotation marks.

Worse yet, some errors indicate pure laziness. Failing to run spell check and failing to proofread your paper indicate a lack of concern as does failing to follow the directions. If the directions say two columns, use two columns. If it says MLA format, don't use APA. This may seem basic, but you'd be surprised how many people don't follow the directions. And obviously, this affects the reader's perception of the writer.

Again, from the professor's point of view, if you don't care enough to follow the directions, then you don't care about your grade and you can expect little sympathy when you complain that you think you deserved a better one.

10) Transitions. Good transitions are another sign that you are in the hands of a skilled writer. Transitions are the bridges that take your reader from point A in your paper to point B without drowning in the river below.

Have you ever been reading a textbook when you suddenly stop and realize you're totally lost. Okay, this can happen when you've been reading for a long time. But often it happens simply because the book is poorly written (as textbooks often are) and lacks proper transitions. Transitions are cues (or clues) that remind a reader of where we've been and tell a reader where we're going.

When a professor writes choppy on your paper, it means there were no transitions. On the other hand, when readers say that a paper flows really well, they're saying you gave them the cues to make reading the paper easy. Remember, you're the tour guide and the reader is a tourist. It's your job to make the trip easy and enjoyable.

11) Okay, so it's eleven not ten. Consider this my version of the baker's dozen. Anyway, number 11 is style.

Most people will write their best paper if they use the following writing process:

A) Write your zero or first draft as quickly as possible focusing on content. By the way, you don't have to write your paper in order. Why start with the intro for example, which is often the most difficult part of the paper to write. Start with a nice body paragraph and build some momentum. Also, it's fine to have holes in the zero draft and to write notes to yourself, like I need a good quote here or I need to find a good example from the movie or I need some research.

B) In phase two of the drafting process, you focus on arranging your material while filling in some of the holes in content. In this phase, you're taking the macro or big picture view of your paper. You might also start putting in some transitions here. You might think about some controlling metaphors during this phase also.

C) Phase 3 focuses on the micro level. This is where you get down to the sentence and word level. This is where you make your paper beautiful.

For example, during a rough draft I might say that compassionate vs. passionate love is like Mozart vs. Bon Jovi. Now that I'm in phase 3, I start thinking about style. The comparison would be better if I used alliteration, so Bach vs. Bon Jovi. That's better. But I think about it a little more and I realize Beethoven vs. Bon Jovi is even better. Why? Because it has the same number of syllables as Bon Jovi. And rhythm is very important in good writing.

By writing your paper in phases, you take the pressure off and you give yourself time to be a writer.

An A paper combines good content with good writing. You need time to think and, sometimes, to research in order to come up with good content. But you also need time to turn pedestrian "See Dick run. Run Dick run." writing into something beautiful. Give yourself the time needed to write an A paper.