How to Get an A on Your Final Paper
Read Time: 16 minutes.
Graphics by Claire Dillon.
Fordham may be a business school, but that doesn’t exclude it from being a writers’ school (in theory, anyway).
My name is Liam, and I have been writing as far back as I can remember (further, in fact). You may know me from my never-ending deluge of smash-hit Rival articles such as GAME OF THRONES SUCKS (but also it doesn't), THE ALCOHOLIC'S GUIDE TO MUSIC STREAMING, BLACK MIRROR COMES TO FORDHAM, and NINETEEN EIGHTY-FORDHAM: FREE SPEECH UNDER ATTACK.
The rules of formal written language are important, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about and studying them. There are important structural and compositional deficiencies I see in my friends’ writing that can be summarized with five important rules, which you will find below. If you follow these five rules, you will get an A on any paper.
BEFORE WE BEGIN: YOUR THESIS
Before I share my five cardinal rules of writing with you, we should freshen up on theses. A good thesis will help you in your writing, and your professor in his/her reading. A bad thesis will disinterest your professor before the paper even begins.
Read these theses from papers I wrote in Philosophical Ethics and History of Film 1895-1950, respectively:
--"Kant’s categorical imperative is a compelling response to Hume’s criticisms of objective morality, but because Kant’s philosophy is not strictly empirical and because the philosophers’ basic theories on reason and free will differ, Hume would not accept Kant’s rebuttal.”
--“French Occupation Cinema was a culmination of antecedent traditions of impressionism, surrealism, everyday realism, and poetic realism that represents the end of an ‘evolutionary line’ of filmmaking.”
Notice that in each case you did not have to read the entire introduction to understand the issue, my argument, and the structure of each paper. You might not know what each term means, which is why the rest of the introduction is important. But ending your introduction with a specific thesis leaves the reader perfectly oriented – and interested – to start the meat of your paper.
RULE 1: SCIENTISTS RULE, LAWYERS DROOL
The appropriate way to formulate an argument in a research paper is like a scientist, not like a lawyer. This goes not just for your research papers, but for everything you believe in life.
A lawyer begins an argument with a pre-determined stance, collects information that agrees with his/her case, and casts aside material that does not agree. A scientist begins an argument with a question, then collects information trying to falsify his/her hypothesis. A lawyer’s conclusion is pre-determined. A scientist’s conclusion follows from the information he/she collects. For the more analytically minded: the lawyer starts with a number, then finds two numbers whose sum is that number. The scientist discovers two numbers, then the sum follows.
Argue like a scientist.
This argument process will help you avoid the night-before catastrophe of “my paper sucks because I couldn’t find any info supporting my thesis”. It also takes more time and may require you to change up the order in which you write your paper.
I prefer to write my introduction and thesis after I have written the rest of the paper. The introduction should serve as an outline of the entire paper, and how can I outline something I have not yet written? I typically conduct my research as I write, so my thesis does not yet exist either. The research will reveal a thesis as I report it. If you prefer to write while researching, consider writing your introduction and thesis last. Then edit the rest of your paper so that everything you report relates back to your thesis. If you prefer to conduct all your research before writing your paper, writing your introduction and thesis first will help you stay focused throughout your first draft.
You should use the scientist-method to arrive at every conclusion within your paper, not just your thesis. But this does not mean that you must present every argument as Premise-Premise-Conclusion. Take this excerpt from my paper about the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907:
--"Post-Concert Europe was a politically precarious continent. Nationalism and fierce imperial competition did their most to dent international peace agreements. In the third quarter of the 19th century, once-friendly nations stirred political mistrust as they competed for imperial control over the Mediterranean, Middle-East, and Far East.”
This short argument is structured Conclusion-Premise-Premise. My research showed what the latter two sentences explain, and from that I deduced that Post-Concert Europe was a politically precarious continent. If your conclusion was reached via the scientist-method, it should seem self-evident to the reader by the end of the premises. When your professor encounters a small argument like this within your larger paper, he/she should feel confident that your conclusion was a natural conclusion of the following premises, and not vice versa.
You should have an idea of what you’re writing about before you begin. Use an outline. But the best way to approach research is as a scientist. Do the research, and a conclusion will follow from successful interpretation of the facts. When we write our intro and thesis first, either you hold yourself too rigidly to it, and will only present the facts that agree with your argument, or you’ll have to rewrite the intro anyway. Use an outline.
One last note, here. A critical part of scientific argumentation is that you avoid categorical thinking. Many of your classes equipped you with tools with which you can more easily digest a complex world. But if you commit to viewing reality through a single lens, you will inadvertently fill in the gaps where your lens is inadequate. Behavioral genetics is one lens. Economic utilitarianism is one lens. Evolutionary psychology is one lens. Intersectionality is one lens. You should use all the tools at your disposal, because none of them have all the answers.
RULE 2: SUMMARY < EXPLANATION < ILLUSTRATION
This is perhaps the most important rule here. Understanding this hierarchy is the difference between a B and an A.
The purpose of a research paper is not to collect facts. The purpose of a research paper is to demonstrate your understanding or interpretation of those facts. Summary lands at the bottom of the hierarchy because summary is but mere recitation. Anyone can summarize an argument.
Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote on Film Adaptation. I explain an ‘experiential landmark’, which I define earlier as “the smallest, most instantly recognizable units [of an adaptation] that designate it as that [same] story”:
--“The second experiential landmark of the panel format is something comics share with novels – stories that exist only on paper do not play out in real time the way we know it. According to Film Theorist, Jean Mitry, time in novels is determined by prose, whereas in cinema it is determined by actions. Comics, more similarly to novels than films, construct time and create worlds with written/drawn panels.”
In this excerpt, I condensed a quotation from Mitry’s “Remarks on the Problem of Cinematic Adaptation,” and did not add any commentary to it. This is summary, and it demonstrates no understanding on my part of Mitry’s ideas. This excerpt merely demonstrates that I understand English words. The last sentence is my own idea, but it is merely another fact. It does not connect any other facts together, and the reader wonders how these facts relate other than by proximity on the page.
If you do have to summarize an argument, you should follow with an explanation. Imagine what sorts of questions your reader might have about the facts you just presented. For example, following from the last excerpt:
--“Written and/or drawn stories have a temporal pace unique to the written format that motion pictures cannot replicate.”
Now we begin to explore an idea because I offered an explanation of how the facts relate. An explanation shows that I can deduce facts from other facts, and proves to my professor that I understand my research. In some cases, it also proves that I have an original idea that follows from my research.
But this material still mystifies. What am I talking about? Pinning down what exactly I mean is difficult, so I offer an illustration. Imagery brings your abstractions to life:
--“For example, in Chapter Four of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, the writer and artist use the nine-panel format to replicate how Doctor Manhattan perceives time. Each panel image represents a memory, but because Doctor Manhattan perceives all time at once, including events that have not yet happened, adjacent panels might be from events months or decades apart. This replicates Manhattan’s perception of time in the reader’s mind.
“The Watchmen film directly adapts this scene into a ten-minute montage. Visually, the montage is identical in many places to its source panels. However, the film does not replicate the “concentric circles” experiential landmark of the comic, which disconnects the montage from its source chapter. Some events are presented non-linearly, but there is no repetition of imagery to impress that Manhattan experiences past, present, and future all at once. Consequently, the montage plays as an inferior copy of the original, missing something that was once present and integral to the experience. Had the film opted to bounce backward and forward in time, repeating images we associate with other memories, the scene would have been a successful direct adaptation.”
Here I apply my abstract theory to the film adaptation of Watchmen. I explain how time moves in Chapter Four of the comic, then compare that experience to how time moves in the same scene of the film. I illustrate what I explained, which is that the way time moves in a comic cannot be replicated by cinema.
To illustrate is to make your ideas concrete. Craft something your professor can see, hear, or touch, and you ensure that he/she knows exactly what you are talking about, and that you know exactly what you are talking about. Would you understand this article as well if I did not illustrate my arguments with relevant paper excerpts?
You will need to use all three skills in your paper. The three above excerpts are only slightly edited from my paper, where I presented them in the same order they appear here. For each of your main points, summarize your research, then explain what you summarized, then illustrate what you explained. If you leave off your illustration or your explanation, your professor may [perhaps, correctly] assume that you did not properly consume and digest the material. A well-formulated illustration might even teach your professor something new, or show them a point-of-view he/she had not previously considered. That will really get you an A.
RULE 3: PUNCH HARD AND FAST
This is punchy:
--“It may be no coincidence that the psychedelic and Buddhist revolutions in America unfolded alongside one another.”
This is not punchy:
--“After the Civil War the United States government, whole again, assumed responsibility for both reinvigorating the southern economy and ensuring the safety of newly emancipated African Americans in a schedule called the Reconstruction.”
These excerpts are the first sentences from two different final papers. The first is from a paper I wrote on Buddhism and psychedelics, but you already know that from reading it.
What is the second paper about? The Reconstruction, yes, but what about it? What mystery am I hoping to illuminate? I wrote this paper three-and-a-half years ago, as a wee freshman. Avoid my mistake by following this rule: be punchy.
So what makes the first excerpt punchy? For starters, it has about half as many words as the second. The language of “it may be no coincidence” throws us into a mystery in the first five words. Why is it no coincidence? Is it that obvious based on the facts the author will present? In addition, we have a specific set of foci by the end of the first sentence – Buddhism and psychedelics.
Put in plainest English, your first sentence should grab the reader. It should feel like a cold slap to the face – your professor should be wide awake, curious about your intentions, and possibly a little anxious about what follows. Accomplish this with a bold claim.
RULE 4: TIDY UP WORD CLUTTER
“Word clutter” has two parts: extraneous words and flabby words.
By far the most common syntactic error I see in my friends’ writing is the use of extra words. Take this excerpt from a paper I wrote when I was sixteen. Believe it or not, the paper was about East of Eden:
--“The Australopithecines were a primarily imitative species, making their decision likely one borrowed from another co-existing species. Additionally it would be implausible to assume that something like this was instinctual, given that this particular Australopithecus afarensis was not predisposed to the practice of predation by its own species.”
Putting aside that the Australopithecines were a genus, not a species, did you catch my excess words? It is impossible not to trip over at least a few of them. Try this, instead:
--“The Australopithecines were an imitative genus, their decision likely borrowed from another co-existing species. It is implausible to assume this was instinctual, given this particular Australopithecus afarensis was not predisposed to predation by its own species.”
Note that I did not change the order of these two sentences in any way. I only removed the excess words “primarily”, “making”, “one”, “additionally”, “that”, “something like”, another “that”, “the practice of”, and replaced “would be” with “is”. The source paper is still somewhat baffling to me, but there is no denying that the revised excerpt is much easier to read.
“That” gets more abuse during finals season than freaking Red Bull. So many uses of “that” are totally unnecessary. Read your sentence without “that”. Does it still make sense? Good. Cut it.
Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs are also a big no-no. They make your paper a slog, and your professor will be irritated that he/she has to read it. A simple rule to avoid this is “if an adjective does not modify its noun, cut it.” For example, how is “primarily imitative species” different from “imitative species”? Practically, it is not. The adjective “imitative” stays, because it modifies “species” to “a species that behaves through imitation”.
Sometimes you will encounter phrases like “co-existing species” in your writing. You might argue to yourself that “co-existing” continues to orient the reader to the time of the Australopithecines. Or you might argue that the verb “borrowed from” implies the co-existence of the borrower and borrowee. As long as you are asking whether an adjective is necessary, you are on the right track, and you should trust yourself to make the correct decision if you are unsure. One funky word choice will not derail your paper.
The passive voice is another common source of unnecessary words, but you heard all about that in Comp II. If your focus is the subject of your sentence, use the active voice. If your focus is the object, use passive voice.
Using multi-syllabic variants of common words can add much-needed spice to your writing, but use too much spice and your professor will cry.
This excerpt is from a paper I wrote when I was fifteen. Please forgive me:
--“Since the massacre, “Columbine” has infiltrated the vernacular as a euphemism for school shooting or violence, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are now engrained on the highest pedestals of infamy in the modern ethos, and the media has hopelessly failed to unveil the motives of the shooters to the masses.”
Notice how every multisyllabic word catches your eyes like mud on tires and slows your reading to a crawl. Why even bother reading five, ten, or twenty pages written like this? Does the writer even know what he is talking about? There is no way to tell behind all the sesquipedalian words and passive voice.
Unfortunately, many academic writers write similarly bulbous passages loaded with flabby jargon. Bad writing is all too common in academia, especially among the social sciences. Call it out when you see it.
In the meantime, I can try my best to clean up my own paper from six years ago. In hacking away flabby word choices, and changing flabby passives to active voice, here is what I came up with:
--“Since the massacre, ‘Columbine’ became a euphemism for school shootings and violence. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold now claim some of the greatest infamy and influence in American history. The media did little to unveil the shooters’ true motivations to the masses.”
Is it perfect? No, but it is readable. In a case like this, I would recommend rewriting the sentence from scratch, but I hope I illustrated that any sentence can be fixed. The magic of language, written or spoken, is that there does not exist a thought too complex to communicate. All it takes is a little craftsmanship.
Sometimes, entire passages and ideas are needless clutter. Always ask yourself whether a piece of information is necessary to the logic of your arguments in support of your thesis. If not, cut it.
RULE 5: STOP WRITING
No, really, stop writing. At least every once in a while. No matter what you read from or write on, your eyes will tire, and your mind will follow. It is of the utmost importance that you take breaks from work of any kind during the research and writing process.
First, your eyes will tire after only an hour of reading or staring intently at a digital screen. Every step of the research paper process takes place at the same distance – reading a book, writing notes by hand, typing a paper; our eyes focus at the same depth for the entire time. Every hour or two, focus your eyes on an object twenty feet away for a few minutes. Then focus them on something further. This will give your eyes a chance to flex – the equivalent of standing to stretch your stiff muscles, which you should also do at this time.
After hours of reading and/or writing, you should take a break. Depending on how fatigued you are, consider this short hierarchy of asides:
Get a snack – If you are at home or the library, then snacks are readily available within the building. Take a few minutes to physically travel to where the snacks are. Pick a snack and bring it back to your workstation. This is also a good opportunity to use the restroom and fill up your water bottle.
Eat a meal – Go to the Cafeteria, Cosi, Salt & Sesame, or Urban Kitchen, and eat a meal there. Do not take it back to the library, and do not work on or think about your paper while you eat.
Exercise – Go to the gym and work out, or go for a run around campus. Exercise refreshes your mind and will jumpstart your creativity. If you must study/write all day, work for a few hours in the morning, exercise in the middle of the day, then resume work in the afternoon. You should eat a meal after exercising as well.
Go to sleep for the night – If you are non-functioning, it is time to stop working. Working for six unproductive hours tonight instead of three productive hours in the morning is a waste of your time, and will make the work you do tomorrow worse. Go home, eat dinner (if you haven’t), watch TV, turn your brain off, and go to sleep.
When your mind tires, your writing suffers; and when your writing suffers, your grade goes down. When you write yourself into catatonia, your thoughts become garbled, then your paragraphs become incomprehensible, and ultimately your entire paper becomes a mess (hydration helps with this, as well).
You can do it.