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How to Write an English Paper: Argue, Research, Format, and Edit


My notion of how an English paper should be written has evolved over the last twenty years that I have been teaching undergraduate courses. The paper itself, in terms of its structure, use of evidence, and formatting, has remained relatively stable, but I have gone from assuming everyone should know how to write a paper to spending an increasing amount of classroom time on paper structure, strength of argument, use of evidence and research, as well as the general purpose of a paper.

When I first stood in front of a class, I delivered only the vaguest of instructions about paper format. I am not sure exactly why. Likely, I was mimicking the way I had been taught. When I was an undergraduate student many of my English courses spent little time on the mechanics of a paper's delivery of information. Although our marks were almost entirely dependent on how well we performed that complex task, it seemed beneath the notice of academe or, strangely, beyond the scope of the class' purpose. I also may have been reticent with my students when I first began to teach because I had been given much contradictory advice while working on my first degree. As well, I relied on the students meeting me during office hours and there I figured we could hammer out the exact details in person.

One year, near the beginning of my career, I formalized the idea of professor student interaction by having them come to my office in order to receive their marked paper. I had determined that if they sat through my commentary they would learn more about paper structure. This rather clumsy procedure did much to encourage office visits and rapport, and some gained from that, but the majority would have preferred if I had just taught them how to write a paper in class and saved them the trudge up the stairs.

This book is written with that goal in mind. Rather than have undergraduate students guess, I would save them the climb to an unapproachable professor's dingy office, or a dingy professor's unapproachable office. I am also writing this to lessen your anxiety while you are waiting for your paper to be graded, and the frustration that comes from knowing that you have followed the hazy instructions you were given but were still unable to match whatever unexpressed golden paper haunts the professor's mind.

Over the years I have become increasingly formulaic about paper writing. That is partially a response to lowered requirements for university entrance, faltering English programs in schools, and because I have taught many foreign students who prefer to know exactly what they need to do. Most students would like to know what the paper should look like before they pass it in and receive a poor grade, and it is with that in mind that I thought to develop the formula enough to commit to paper what I laboriously generate while teaching my classes.

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