Tips for writing papers (adapted from

For easy ways to improve your paper, please see my
English Matters page.

The Thesis

The thesis statement is the single most important aspect of your paper; it is, essentially, the justification for its very existence. A good thesis sentence should contain:

  1. Your basic argument

  2. The blueprint for the organization of your supporting details

Developing the Argument

Topic versus statement - At the outset of your brainstorming, you will likely first decide on a topic for your paper; namely, the particular subject you plan to address in response to the assignment (in some cases, the assignment will already include a specific topic). Your job in formulating a thesis is to find a specific statement to make about that topic.

Examples of Topics: "Natural Imagery in Wordsworth and Coleridge"; "Plato's Treatment of Gender Roles in The Republic."

Examples of Statements: "In The Prelude, Wordsworth uses natural imagery to reflect his increasing awareness of divinity, while in "This Limetree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge's treatment of nature serves to establish his relationship with fellow human beings"; "In The Republic, Plato's arguments for gender equality are characterized by sameness of role, yet still subject to a male-dominated hierarchy."

Using your sources to find your argument - Rather than making an opinion statement (one thing is "better" than another, etc.) your argument must be pulled from textual evidence. Conversely, however, it cannot be a restatement of what your source tells you, but must be an original thought arising from some point of interest, contradiction, or vagary within the text.

Specificity - In writing your statement, be sure to say exactly what you're arguing- do not make a broad generalization. Your reader should know from your thesis what your specific arguments are, not just roughly what they prove. Also, take into account the length you intend your paper to be. In the space of six pages, for example, you can't thoroughly discuss the effects of, say. World War II on America, but you might be able to analyze one aspect of its impact on a specific industry or social group.

Too General: "There are many similarities between Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but there are some differences as well."

More Specific: "Though both Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina pivot around the tension between individual liberty and societal mores, Flaubert concerns himself with the decadence of self-indulgence, while Tolstoy focuses on the notion of feminine entrapment."

Tension - Perhaps most important, make sure that your argument can be controversial. If you set out to prove something that is a given (like "the 1960s were an era of American cultural upheaval" or "Hamlet undergoes numerous psychological changes") your paper is not only uninteresting, but entirely pointless. When you think you've decided on a statement, see if you can make a counterargument to refute it. Your job is to show how the evidence of your sources should be interpreted in a particular light, but crucial to its being worth reading is the fact that other interpretations are possible.

The Thesis as a Blueprint

Framing your paper - In addition to stating your argument, your thesis should give an indication of the particular components thereof. Though it is not necessary for you to include the gist of each subsequent topic sentence in your thesis, it is important that the basic prongs of your over-arching idea be addressed.

Incomplete thesis: "In Moby Dick. Melville renders Ahab as a diabolical figure”

Complete thesis: "In Moby Dick, Melville renders Ahab as a diabolical figure through the contrasting Christ imagery of the Whale, omnipresent Biblical mythology, and a psychological descent analogous to the Fall."

One more note: Contrary to popular belief, your thesis does not have to be just one sentence. If you cannot construct an adequately complex thesis without making a heinous run-on, by all means, break it up.

The Introduction

Once you've decided what your thesis is going to be, you must be able to frame it in a manner that provides an effective entry into your work. No matter how great your argument is, it will not do much good if no one is enticed into reading it. The two most important functions of your introduction are to serve as a grabber (a stylish, creative lead-up to what you’re trying to say) and as justification (an explanation of why your argument is even important in the first place).

Some Basic Guidelines

DON’T summarize - Though it might seem easy to preface your thesis with only a synopsis of the texts you’re writing about, this is a particularly dull way to begin a paper.

DON'T keep reiterating your thesis - Your thesis should appear in your intro as the culmination of the previous thoughts, not just something you mention and then keep restating to fill up a paragraph.

DO ask yourself questions - Why is your thesis relevant? How is its being proven important to the understanding of either text or fact? By linking your argument to a larger issue, you will give your argument both universality and interest.

DO be creative - Think about what aspect of your topic you find the most interesting, and figure out why. Use this to make it interesting to your reader.

Some Freebies

(The following are some pre-packaged introduction ideas. It is important, however, not to just adopt one and use it for every paper, particularly for the same instructor. This practice will become trite very quickly.)

The quotation - Find a quote from one of your sources or, even better, from elsewhere that seems to get at the problem you're dealing with. State it at the beginning of your intro and discuss how it relates to what you're trying to prove.

The question - Throw out a broad question of universal interest, and demonstrate how a possible answer can be related to your thesis (Example: "What do women want? It's a question that's plagued mankind since the dawn of history . . . the works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath yield two different paradigms of feminine self-realization").

The anecdote - This works particularly well for a historical essay, and even better if you have some ability at creative writing. Pick a specific incident that represents the underlying conflict of your piece, and briefly narrate it like a story. Explain afterwards how the instance reflects a problem you're attempting to solve.

Topic Sentences

Each body paragraph of your paper builds towards proving one particular aspect of your thesis, and each of these aspects should be crystallized into a strong topic sentence.

If your paper is quite short, these sentences might represent the main points you mentioned in the blueprint part of your thesis, but they might each be more specific aspects of one of those points, particularly if your paper is longer.

Defining your topics - First and foremost, a topic sentence is a piece of analysis, NOT summary. Think of it in a similar manner to how you thought of your thesis; in other words, an original interpretation based upon the textual evidence of your source. The first of the following examples illustrates a statement of fact, rather than an argumentative topic sentence.

Weak Topic Sentence: "Book Five of Paradise Lost concentrates on the conversation between Adam and the archangel Raphael.”

Strong Topic Sentence: "Throughout Book Five, Milton utilizes images of gardening and nourishment to convey man's maturing relationship to the divine."

Relationship of topics to thesis - Your topic statements should each provide a solid area of analysis by which your thesis is true. They should, however, be more specific than a mere restatement of part of it.

Thesis: "In Journey Through the Twelve Forests, David Haberman apprehends the Ban-Yatra pilgrimage as a realization of the god Krishna's omnipresence, through separate realizations of the journey's cyclical nature, the externalization of the divine, and the relationship between asceticism and pleasure."

Topic Sentence for Second Paragraph: "Throughout the narrative, the physical relationship of the pilgrim to the natural landscape of Braj, as well as worshipped images of Krishna and other deities, reflects the presence of Krishna as an interactive externality, rather than the occupant of an inaccessible sphere."

Building Your Argument Part One: Close Readings

Click here for an introduction to critical thinking that will help you (1) analyze what you read and (2) write persuasive papers.

Close reading is a term used to describe how you ought to be using your sources. The most important element of close reading is questioning; it is imperative that you actively engage the text in order to develop your own ideas to use as arguments.

If at all possible, make your close reading your second reading of the source. If you've read it once already, you will have a basic understanding of the text, and you can focus on a more intensive questioning.

Use highlighters - Take note of any and all points of interest in the text. If you've got a thesis in mind already, use several different colors of highlighter, each for information relevant to a separate prong of your argument. This will make your life much easier when you go back to integrate your sources, particularly if you've got an extensive amount of text to cover.

Look for patterns - Be aware of recurring techniques-both literary and rhetorical-which the author uses to illustrate a concept. Specific sorts of imagery, allusion, or dialogue, which seem to be similar or related inevitably, reveal a larger intention that can be made into an argument.

Ask questions - In expository work, continually ask yourself "Is this true? What evidence supports this statement? Can other conclusions be drawn from the facts of this text?" By deciding whether or not you agree with the arguments of your source, you'll begin to crystallize more subtle arguments of your own. In literature, question the author's purpose in using particular narrative structures. "Why is this metaphor used? What does the comparison signify? Why do we learn this particular piece of information in such a manner? Why is the setting dwelled on so much in this passage? What is the relationship between setting and character?” Write these questions in the margins as you go along.

Get down to the details - One of the most sophisticated close reading techniques you can incorporate into your work is an analysis of the multiple connotations of a specific word. Be aware of every single word the author uses. When you find one of particular interest, literally look it up in the dictionary and consider how each and every definition might be applied to the text. Even if the author uses it with one literal definition in mind, see if the connotations of the other definitions can be applied to your idea (This is particularly true of Shakespeare).

Consider the source in relation to other texts - If something in the work reminds you of something else you've read, there's quite possibly a good reason why. Consider how your source is a response to or a continuation of other texts. Always be on the look out for Christ symbolism and Greek mythological allusions; both are fairly easy to spot and can be effectively analyzed in support of a particular interpretation.

An Example:

From Coleridge's Kubla Kahn: "In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a pleasure dome decree; Where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man; into a sunless sea."

Your assignment is to write about how the poem illustrates the power of human creativity. In light of this, here are some questions to ask yourself right off the bat:

  1. Why does Coleridge select an Oriental locale and a historical figure to open his work?

  2. What is the significance of the word "pleasure," "measureless," "sunless"?

  3. What is Alph, and does Coleridge use it as the setting for his poem?

Answering these questions might involve a consideration of distance, in both time and space, related to the vastness of human capacity. You might also consider "measureless" and "sunless" as descriptive of types of knowledge or ignorance; in breaching the "sunless" sea with his dome, what sort of power is Kubla Kahn exhibiting? A trip to the dictionary (or, more likely, a glance at the inevitable foot note) will provide the information that the Alph is a magical river in mythology. This begs the question, "how does a fantastic setting relate to Coleridge's view of the imagination?

Building Your Argument Part Two: Integrating Sources

Click here for an introduction to critical thinking that will help you (1) analyze what you read and (2) write persuasive papers.

The meat and potatoes of your body paragraphs will be a mixture of textual summary and your analysis of it.

Once you've done your close reading and structured your topic sentence for a paragraph, go back and pull out the details you've highlighted.

In putting these details into your paper, it is absolutely imperative that you balance each one with YOUR analysis of their significance. It might help, at least until you're used to the idea, to maintain a mental ratio: three sentences of your interpretation for every one concrete detail of the text.

The concrete detail - Paraphrase the gist of the actual textual information as CONCISELY as possible. It is important for your reader to understand what you're talking about, but only as an illustration for your own ideas.

The interpretation - Go back to the questions you've asked yourself during the close reading. What answers have you found that you can explain here? As always, remember that good interpretation avoids both summary and opinionyour arguments must be original but crafted from actual evidence.

Example: "Coleridge opens his poem with an immediate statement of locale: ‘In Xanadu’. This fable-like invocation makes the reader immediately conscious of distance, as well as the mystical connotations of the Orient in the context of Victorian imperialism. By choosing a setting with such dual reverberations of reality and fantasy, Coleridge creates a landscape parallel to his view of the imaginationvast in breadth, yet potently accessible."

Note how very little textual detail was necessary to come up with quite a bit of interpretation.

Keep an eye on the big picture - As tempting as it is to fill space with any interesting idea you come up with, do not put a single thought onto the page that you cannot relate directly to the proving of your topic sentence.

Remember, your paper must act as the impetus for an idea, not merely a description of your sources, however subtle that description might be.

Integrating quotes - Sometimes the textual details you include will necessarily take the form of direct quotation, particularly when analyzing language. It is always best to do so as inconspicuously as possible. The quotes should serve only to prove your ideas, not to supplant them. Rather than using big block quotations, wherever possible include only that which is specifically necessary to your point, within the framework of your own sentence.

Bad Integration: Keats describes the Grecian urn as follows: "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness; Thou foster child of silence and slow time; Sylvan historian who canst express; The flowery tale more sweetly than can rhyme."

Good Integration: Keats begins by personifying the urn in terms of human innocence, as an "unravish'd bride" and a "foster child of silence and slow time".

Building Your Argument Part Three: Strategy

Click here for an introduction to critical thinking that will help you (1) analyze what you read and (2) write persuasive papers.

Now that you've done some good analysis within your paragraphs, it's necessary to examine how they fit in to the goal of your overall paper.

Avoid Chronology - When looking at your paper as a whole, it is much better for your paragraphs to relate according to a process of thought, rather than of chronology. If it seems as though your paragraphs are divided according to the order of your source (In other words, "first this happens," then "this happens," then "and finally . . .”), there's a good chance you're lapsing into plot summary.

Ordering according to thought process - Here's where your highlighting becomes useful again. Follow each of the ideas you developed throughout the text individually. If you highlighted in different colors, make all your pink highlights one section, your blue highlights another, and your yellow ones a third. In this manner your writing flows in an ordered progression, but according to the development of an argument, rather than recapitulation of the text.

Make your paragraphs build off of each other - It's best to try to arrange your paper in a manner that grows increasingly more specific. In subsequent paragraphs, try to refer back to what you mentioned in previous ones, and explain how your current subject extends or re-examines it in a new light.

Transitions - In order to give your paper unity and flow, it's important to always make smooth transitions between paragraphs. Consider the relationship between the two paragraphs, and use it as a way of moving from one to the other. You might address a similarity in argument, by saying "In a similar manner . . .", "This argument may be allied to "subject B" in terms of . . .", "Likewise . . .", or "The idea of X recurs again with respect to . . ." To express a dissimilarity, you might use "In contrast . . .", "On the other hand . . .", or "Nevertheless".

Issues of General Structure

Before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) it will make your job much easier to have an idea in mind of exactly how your paper is going to be framed.

"Discuss” and "Analyze” prompts

If you're writing on a pre-assigned topic, its nature will likely affect the way in which your paper is structured.

If you're asked to "discuss" or "analyze" something (for example, "Discuss the effects of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution), it means you need to treat a specific aspect of a broad topic. It is important, in these cases, to stick to the specific focus of the prompt: don't talk about the Enlightenment itself or other aspects of the French Revolution. You must confine your paper solely to the specific relationship between the two.

When thinking about your structure, then, it's best to come up with the general areas you'd like to discuss (this will largely be determined by the amount of space you have), and to divide your paper mentally between those.

The Comparative Analysis

Very often you'll be asked to compare two pieces of literature, and there are several ways in which to effectively set up this sort of essay.

The first thing to remember (which will be explored more extensively in the thesis section) is that your paper cannot just compare the two pieces in general, exhaustively mentioning all similarities and differences with no specific argument.

Once you know exactly what your argument is, your structure will be crucial to the techniques you use to make it.

The sequential method - This means discussing all of text A and then moving on to text B.

Example: The prompt says "Compare Milton's view of Hell in "Paradise Lost" with that of Marlowe in "Dr. Faustus." It might be easier, here, to spend your first pages thoroughly analyzing Milton's view and then moving on to Marlowe's independently. It is then key, however, that your conclusion be a successful integration off he two or else you won't have a unifying argument.

The point-by-point method -This method works well if you have a number of parallel specifics to deal with in both texts, and involves discussing each one in turn, with respect to both texts at once.

Example: The prompt says "Discuss the relationship between symbolism and character in Faulkner's Light in August and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath." In this case, it might be easier to discuss the individual relationships one at time. You could discuss Christ imagery in both texts first, for example, and move on to erotic symbols and so forth.

The Lens Paper

This type of comparative paper concentrates on one particular text, but views it through the “lens” of another.

Example: Discuss "The Rape of the Lock” in terms of mock epic, with reference to Homer's Illiad.

In this case, the second text should be used as a continual reference point, but should not be analyzed in and of itself.

A way to structure this sort of paper is to break down your argument with respect to your main text into a number of points, as you normally would with a "discuss" paper. Within each paragraph, insert segments of analysis as to how your new arguments function within the paradigms established by the lens text.

Some General Grammar and Style Tips

Vary your sentence structure - Nothing seems more unsophisticated than an uninterrupted succession of subject-verb constructions. Take a series of sentences like the following as an example: "Moby Dick can symbolize both a manifestation of God or of the ultimate evil.” Here are just a few of the variations you can make:

Combine short sentences - Try reading your paper out loud. If it seems choppy it can likely be remedied by your grouping short sentences into longer, more complex ones. For example:

"Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy has deeper implications. He becomes obsessed with escaping his own past."

This would be much stronger if combined:

"Gatsby's obsession with Daisy eventually translates into a yearning to escape his own past."

Don’t use passive voice - Plain and simple. It makes your writing weak.

Bad: "This fact was proven by Napoleon's subsequent actions."

Good: "Napoleon proved this fact through his subsequent actions." The object of the sentence should never be turned into the subject.

Maintain consistency in tense - Don't drift from the present to the past to the conditional (from "he is" to "he was" to "he would have").

Some things to avoid wherever possible:

The Conclusion

As the very last impression your reader gets of your paper, the conclusion is your opportunity to sell your argument once and for all. It's a place for reflection, for looking back at the relationship between the numerous ideas of your paper. Most importantly, however, it ought to be the site of your most complex analysis; that which incorporates everything that's gone before.

Some General Cautions

DON'T allow the conclusion to become merely a restatement of the thesis with a couple of linking sentences beforehand.

DON'T view it as merely an ornamental way to end your paper - its role should be to justify your paper at the highest level.

DO analyze how your argument has changed as your paper has progressed. If you haven't proven anything more than merely what you mentioned in your introduction, you haven't really said anything at all. Throughout the course of a good paper new subtleties of argument ought to have manifested themselves, and the place to integrate all these subtleties into a new, more powerful statement of your thesis, is right in the conclusion.

DON'T begin your conclusion with the opener "In conclusion . . .". That makes your paper awkwardly self-conscious and contrived, rather than naturally unfolded.

DO attempt some sort of unified closure, with respect to what you set up in the introduction. If you used one of the previously mentioned clever introductions, make reference again to the quote, questions, or anecdote you incorporated.

DO consider linking your argument to a more universal idea, analyzing its relevance with an eye on the new angle your argument proved.


It’s important to remember that every single piece of information you obtain from a source must be cited in your paper. This applies not only to quotes, but to every single fact you incorporate. There are several methods for doing citations, but it's best just to choose one and remain consistent. Below are directions for doing citations in the MLA style, one of the most widely recognized formats.


The first step is to make a bibliography, inclusive of all works you've cited in your paper. Click here to see examples of proper citations (according to the Chicago Manual of Style).

Editing & Revising

Click here for an introduction to critical thinking that will help you (1) analyze what you read and (2) write persuasive papers.

Read Your Paper Out Loud

To help you polish the term paper even further, read it out loud. You will be amazed at the faulty grammar and awkward language that your ears can detect. This will also give you a good sense of the flow of the piece and will alert you to anything that sounds too abrupt or out of place. Good writing, like good music, has a certain rhythm. How does your paper sound? Is it interesting and varied or drawn out and monotonous?



adapted from