The Writing Process

The Outline.

Some form of outline is crucial to planning and organizing your ideas. Identify the main issue and the key points you want to make. List any major themes into which the topic can be subdivided. Include all the ideas you plan to mention. An outline traces the development of your ideas, and provides a reference point to return to if needed.

  • The outline should reflect the three parts of the essay: the introduction, the body of the paper, and the conclusion.
  • The introduction includes the thesis statement and engages the interest of the reader.
  • The body of the paper presents and discusses your evidence and arguments in paragraphs, each of which should have its own unity.
  • The conclusion links back to the introduction. It summarizes the main points of the paper. The conclusion expresses a final judgement.

Filling Research Gaps.

You may find, after you have looked at all your research and finished your outline that you are left with some gaps in your information. Sometimes gaps are not serious and your information can be arranged to remove the gap. Other times the missing facts are important; these should be verified or your paper will not follow logically or flow correctly. Your argument will not be persuasive if you leave the reader with many unanswered questions.

First, check your notes to see if you have overlooked any details.

Check encyclopedias, almanacs, yearbooks or handbooks for concise data or facts. Check with library staff again!

Writing the First Draft.

So, you're sitting in front of a pile of notes wondering how to turn it into the greatest essay ever written... Remember that you are attempting to create a logical presentation of what you know about the topic: the issue in question, the argument you are making, the facts that support your case, and the conclusions you have reached.

Using your outline, your organized notes and your list of ideas, write the first draft of the paper. Remember to have an introductory paragraph that includes your thesis statement, a well-constructed body of the paper with your arguments and evidence, and a strong concluding paragraph.

The introduction should provide the context for what follows; the conclusion should wrap it up. The reader shouldn't be left with questions that were raised but not answered. It won't be enough to save a bad paper, but a strong introduction and conclusion can be a big help.

Some people prefer to plunge right in and write the first thing that comes to mind. But many of these people may already have a mental outline of what they want to say and are prepared to put their jottings into some cohesive order later. Whatever method works for you, it's the end result that matters, not how you got there.

Don't worry if you don't know everything you're going to say before you begin. Often it is only through the process of writing that ideas emerge.

If you are having trouble starting, or if you stall in the middle, write anything! - even random thoughts. Don't wait for the "perfect first sentence" - get the creative juices flowing. You will be able to edit your writing later!

Keep checking your focus: are you still following the intended organization of your ideas? Are you still on track? Do your ideas flow in a logical order? Are you succeeding in developing your thesis statement?

Remember not to make generalizations about facts with which you are not personally familiar. For example, you cannot state that all Americans love to eat cheeseburgers unless you have statistical evidence that 100% of Americans do, in fact, love to eat cheeseburgers. Rephrase the generalization into an opinion: "Many Americans seem to enjoy hamburgers, judging by the number of hamburger fast-food establishments in the country."

Make sure to include all necessary information. Leave out "padding" (irrelevant arguments and facts, extra words). Padding can distract, confuse, and irritate your readers, and most professors can spot it a mile away.

Most first drafts need revision before they become the final result. Check grammar and spelling; don't rely completely on your computer's spell checker and grammar checker. Read your sentences carefully to ensure that they actually say something and that they are relevant and clear. If necessary, replace words with better ones, sharpen sentences or rearrange paragraphs. Check that each sentence does not repeat ideas you have already expressed. Watch for sexist or other inappropriate language.

Most term papers should include a healthy balance of facts, opinions and interpretations, and conclusions based on the evidence in the paper. If you think that a particular piece of scientific research is flawed, a business plan is inferior, or a revered poem is junk, don't be afraid to say so. Just make sure you back up your opinions with evidence.

Because you paid such close, undivided attention in your high school English Grammar classes, you probably know everything there is to know about punctuation, spelling, sentence structure and the other mechanics of writing. If, however, you would like to refresh your memory, there are many good writing handbooks and style guides available. See our Writing Guides webpage.

The Bibliography and Footnotes.

When writing from your notes, make sure you avoid copying an author's words unless you acknowledge the source. For guidelines on documenting sources and compiling bibliographies, refer to a style manual; several are listed on our Writing Guides webpage. If your professor has expressed a preference for a particular format, use it!

Check that each quotation and its acknowledgement are exactly correct. Remember that an author's ideas need to be footnoted whether you quote directly or not.

A Bibliography is a list of all the sources you used in your paper or found useful in preparing your paper. A list of Works Cited contains only the works you cite in your text; other references are excluded. Arrange the list alphabetically by the authors' surnames.

Better Safe Than Sorry... .

It's a very good idea to print out webpages you cite as references for your paper. Sometimes the document, webpage, or even the entire website is not accessible at a later date, and you cannot then prove its existence. It is also a good idea to keep your notes and rough draft(s) available until after the term paper is marked. This way, if there is a question about a source you used, or if you are suspected of plagiarism, you can retrace your research steps with documentation.

A Note About Plagiarism.

Plagiarism (using the words and ideas of others) is unacceptable in all University courses, and may result in academic penalties such as a failing grade and/or dismissal from the University. Well-organized notes can be your best defence against unintentional plagiarism!

An Editing Checklist:

  1. Have you followed a well-organized plan and kept to the point?
  2. Have you included all essential material (and no irrelevant material) from your notes and outline?
  3. Is your presentation logical? Is your reasoning sound? Are your conclusions based on facts?
  4. Have you dealt with probable objections to your ideas?
  5. Have you made the point without exaggeration or over-simplification?
  6. Does your introductory paragraph state the purpose of the paper and draw the reader's interest?
  7. Are your paragraphs unified, emphatic, and fully developed?
  8. Have you made smooth transitions from paragraph to paragraph?
  9. Is your language appropriate and interesting?
  10. Have you followed standard grammar and sentence structure?
  11. Does your last paragraph wrap things up and give a sense of completion?
  12. Are your footnotes and bibliography complete and in the correct style?

A list of information sources on writing and editing is available in the next section under General Writing Guides.

Next: Basic Format Guidlines >>