So You’re an Undergraduate Student and It’s Your First Paper

By Emma Louise Backe

We’ve all been there. You’ve gone through Freshman Orientation, bonded with your dorm, combed through the Course Directory to select the most interesting classes you could find, and even figured out how to use the library database. But now it’s your first paper, and your teacher seems kind if a bit intimidating. You haven’t yet felt comfortable raising your hand in class, but you want to blow the reader away with your intellect, insight and writing skills. You did get into the school for a good reason, after all. As a former undergraduate student who also worked at my school’s Writing Center, I received specialized training on writing pedagogy and rhetorical strategies. I’ve talked with numerous professors from different departments about departmental conventions, expectations and approaches to writing for the academy. I’ve also worked as an editor for a number of publications. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up throughout my academic and professional career.

  1. A good writer is also a good reader. As a little kid, I was a terrible writer. I devoured all the books at my local library, but I didn’t think that I could ever write like the authors I so admired. The watershed moment came for me in second grade when my English teacher asked me who my favorite writer was. During the Harry Potter mania, I immediately responded that it was J.K. Rowling. My teacher told me that I could try writing like Rowling. It was a revelation. The same kind of advice has been echoed to me throughout the years. Find writers that you admire and try to identify why they are so compelling. Attempt to emulate their writing style. If you want to grow as a writer, it will always behoove you to read widely and critically. If you read a magazine article that you think is dreadful, that’s helpful to you too—think about what made the piece so terrible and consider what you would have done to write it better. As long as you do not plagiarize others’ work, you are allowed to follow in the footsteps of authors before you, adopting and adapting their writing approaches for your own projects.
  2. Cite your sources. Do your research and find out who else has written about the topic you are writing on. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1921), “No poet, no artists of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him along; you must set him, for contrast and compensation, among the dead.” Now, your sources don’t necessarily have to be deceased, but, a lot of the time, this research will help you clarify your thesis or argument. As a good rule of thumb for your Freshman year, try to find at least three reliable academic sources so that you can situate yourself within a larger academic dialogue. Writing for the academy is essentially a conversation—a negotiation with what other people have said, positing your own ides or perspectives. But you also have to be sure that you cite your sources, even if you are synthesizing or summarizing someone else’s ideas, to avoid plagiarism.
  3. Create a map or outline about how your paper is going to be structured. There is no hard and fast framework on how a paper should be constructed, because the structure of your essay depends on your argument and your style as a writer. Once you have a thesis, which should be the central argument—something that can be defended and argued for—figure out how you want to organize your thoughts so that each paragraph builds on the previous one and develops in a logical, coherent way. Try to remind yourself how the central idea of each paragraph relates to the overall thesis of the paper. This plan will help you clarify the writing process and ensure that your paper develops without any gaps in your argument. Essentially, your paper will ultimately guide the reader through the subject matter as clearly and logically as possible, and mapping your essay out ahead of time will help you strategize how to best accomplish this. Richard Graff (2005), a professor of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, teaches about how writing is essentially a recursive process. You brainstorm, plan, research, draft, and revise. But at any stage during the writing process, you may realize that an example you put in paragraph three would actually better suit the argument you make in paragraph five. You may have to step back and reevaluate the organization of your paper as new ideas emerge, develop or interweave. Planning the paper out before you begin to actually write will make the writing process easier, guided by a structure you yourself created.
  1. Write the abstract and/or introductory paragraph last. I often get stuck on the introduction, because there’s so much pressure to be interesting and immediately grab the reader’s attention. But you may find the most succinct clarity on your piece after having written the whole piece. By writing the essay before the introduction, you already know the ebb and flow of your argument and the rhetorical trajectory the piece takes. This ensures that your introduction adequately reflects the content of the piece. You want the introduction to completely lay out the argumentative structure for the reader, so that they know what to expect, as well as the complexities and vicissitudes of your thesis. You’ll find that your introduction is more informed and confident once the rest of the paper is out of the way.
  2. Analysis vs. description. When you’re transitioning into academic writing, you’re also going to have to move beyond the summarizing and description typical of high school writing assignments to focus on critical theory and analysis. Simply reiterating the plot or content of an ethnography or scholastic article is not analysis. Whereas in high school, your teachers wanted to make sure that you had actually read the assigned reading, your college and university professors want to know your thoughts and reflections on the pieces. What did the writer do effectively? Do you find the argument compelling? Do you find elements of the argument lacking? What do you think about the style, prose and use of examples? What could the writer have improved on or done differently? Would you recommend this piece or use the article in the future? Analysis shows your professor, your peers or your readers that you are thinking critically about assigned material and considering the various components that make it an effective, flawed or interesting piece. Your opinion and your perspective on an article or form of media is what makes your paper and your insight different from all the other papers in the class. 

    Analysis vs. Description via Learn Higher

  3. Anxiety, self-confidence and writer’s block. It can be scary submitting your first piece of undergraduate work. You may feel paralyzed with self-doubt, second-guessing the strength of you thesis, whether the paper is well-written, whether the argument is original, or whether your professor or TA will like it. These thoughts run through the mind of every student. But, as T.S. Eliot once said, “we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing” (1921). We can’t live our lives worrying about how others will judge us, and any feedback your reader gives on your work is meant in the spirit of growth and encouragement. You might compare yourself to other writers and think your piece isn’t good enough. This is part of the “anxiety of influence” (Bloom 1973)—feeling like you’ll never measure up to past writers and everything that can be said about something has already been said, and maybe said better. But you have to remember that everyone has a different approach and style. The academics that you are reading also have years of technical and rhetorical training, editorial help and peer reviewers before publication. Professor also understand that transitioning into academic writing without proper guidance can take a while, and occurs through a series of lessons and consultations. Writing is a continual process and you only grow as a writer if you continue to write and learn from your mistakes. One of the most important things about writing is having confidence in your work. If you are riddled with self-doubt, then that hesitancy will be evident throughout your paper. To liberate myself from my own writing insecurities, I try to put myself in a space of fun and self-acceptance. Throughout my undergraduate career, I would wear a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shell or a yeti hat when I wrote. You can’t take yourself very seriously when you’re wearing a funny hat, and you remove the pressure of being great. You also want the writing process to be a source of self-satisfaction, not shame and misery. If every essay assignment gives you crippling stress, you have to find a way to enjoy the writing experience and creatively explore the topic. Only by finding your own personal techniques and approaches to writing can you discover your voice, hone your craft, and grow as a writer.
  4. Talk to your professors. Try to schedule meetings with your professors about your essays. Even if you got a good grade on your first assignment, it is always useful to find out what your professors’ expectations and standards are. Every person has their own writing quirks and preferences, and you can adapt your essays to suit the conventions and structures your professor expects. Even if you think your professor has unrealistic expectations or asks you to write in a way you don’t enjoy or jive with, this practice will teach you different ways to write, which is a useful skill to possess across disciplines. Learning different approaches to writing means that you have more tools in your writer’s toolkit. As Stephen King writes, “I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work” (2000:114). Adjusting your argumentative structure, style and tone are all important parts of your academic toolbox. These meeting will also create more dialogue and transparency between you and your professor, showing your teachers that you want to take the initiative to improve, which professors respect. Writing is dialogical, which means it is a conversation, and talking about writing with professors and peers makes you more cognizant of your process and your product. Talking to your professor can also help with the planning and drafting part of your paper. They may have salient sources or interesting ideas you can incorporate into your paper. Part of the undergraduate environment strips away the solitary aspects of writing, and encourages students to interface with one another about their work. After all, professors have to publish too, and they may have important advice for your writing projects based off of their own experience.
  5. Learn the citation guidelines. Look up MLA, Chicago, or AAA style guidelines online. Find out if your professor has supplementary information for you on citations such as footnotes or endnotes. Find samples you can use as source texts or examples to model your work off of. And talk to your librarians. Often times, your librarians or Writing Center staff are specially trained to help you with the conventions and minutiae of citations. Even though there are citation machines you can use online to generate your references, learning and mastering citations will make your life infinitely easier, especially when it comes to longer, more complicated projects later on in your academic career.

Remember, not every writing assignment has to be perfect. Many professors will often give essay assignments to assess certain skills or your progress as a student and a writer. Overall, your professors want to see that you have thought the assignment prompt through, formulated an interesting and original argument, backed up that argument with analysis and outside sources, and composed your argument into a structure that makes sense and is compelling to the reader. The more you write, the easier it will become and the more creative license you can take with your essays. Good luck!

Great Sources for Anthropological Writing Advice

“Anthropology: Writing About Culture.” UVM Writing Center.

“A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing in Social Anthropology” (2010). Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.

“Department of Anthropology: Writing Across Boundaries” (2013).

McGranahan, Carole (2014). “Anthropologists: Ready, Set, Write!” Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology.

Parish, Steven M. (1981). “The Student’s Practical Guide: Writing Term Papers for Anthropology (and Related Subjects).”

“Writing in Anthropology.” University of Rochester.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold (1973). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Eliot, T.S. (1921). “Tradition and Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood.

Graff, Richard, Arthur E. Walzer, and Janet M. Atwill, eds (2005). The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition. Albany: SUNY Press.

King, Stephen (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

“MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” Purdue University Online Writing Lab.

“Publishing Style Guide: AAA Style.” American Anthropological Association.

“Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 2 comments

  1. Sue Archer

    You’ve made some great points here about essay writing that apply well to other forms of writing, too. I always use # 4 (write the introduction last) when I write professional business documents – in my case, business cases or requirements documents. Thanks for a great post!


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