Helpful tips for making it through the final stretch of a semester
With the end of every semester comes an abundance of final papers, tests, and assignments for students. In particular, end-of-term papers can be stressful and require strict time management. On top of choosing an intriguing topic—and one that, you hope, none of your peers are writing on—there is the task of researching, finding the correct number of sources, and properly inserting quotations to ensure the essay has a cohesive argument and flow.
Even when you have obtained the information you need and have written many pages of notes, applying your ideas to the blank Microsoft Word document before you can be daunting. So, what happens when writer’s block prevents you from writing a paper? Here are three pieces of advice that have helped me and that I hope will help you.
1) Start writing the body of the paper first
For some students, beginning to write a paper with the introduction can be intimidating. The introduction, after all, must clearly present the entire remainder of your essay, how its ideas will be organized, and a thesis statement representing your essay’s central argument. By beginning to write a paper at the body, however, you are already introducing one of the arguments supporting your thesis statement. From here, one paragraph is already successfully written and you will have a better sense of how its ideas fit into the rest of your essay, and how your argument will proceed. This makes it easier to either write the next paragraph or to finally go back to write the introduction with newly found confidence.
2) Write an outline
If staring at a blank document and trying to write from a series of messy research notes proves too overwhelming, perhaps instead try writing a complete outline on paper before beginning to type. Write down your thesis argument and then the topic sentences of each paragraph you plan to later compose. Under the topic sentence, you can insert quotes from the works you wish to cite. Suddenly, all that is left is typing out the arguments already written down on paper!
3) Go to your professor or to the Writing Centre
If you feel completely lost trying to write your research paper, do not fret! It is entirely normal to feel confused, particularly if you feel the topic chosen is difficult to research and write on. This is why asking your professor for ideas can be a valuable experience.
Remember, most professors have both researched and written widely in their fields. Approaching a professor and asking about finding sources usually leads that professor to provide the names of authors who have written on your topic and of journals to peruse for relevant articles. The librarians at the Queen Elizabeth II Library are also helpful in learning how to use the library database and how to narrow down a search.
If you still feel confused about your topic, you may consider changing it. This is why beginning to think about research paper ideas at an early stage is important; is prevents you from being stuck writing about something you do not like. Additionally, if you need help with writing style, the Writing Centre provides one-on-one sessions with students. In my fourth year, I still visit the Writing Centre to have a second pair of eyes look over my paper to catch the flaws I inevitably read over.
Personally, I find reading broadly about a topic that interests me and writing down specific, intriguing quotes from sources helps me begin my essay. From there, I normally put together a thesis statement and begin typing the paper. Although I have written out paper outlines in the past, I find they can be restricting; sometimes my argument moves in a different direction than I initially thought it would.
Remember, though, that everybody approaches their essays in different ways, and the best way to write is the way that works for you. But if you experience writer’s block and feel the anguish of staring at a blank Microsoft Word document, there is no harm in trying a new approach to get your ideas flowing.