The essays (papers) you wrote in high school won’t cut it anymore in university! Writing papers in university can be a challenge. Read on to find out how to write great papers for your university (or college) courses.
Making an Outline
In order to create an excellent university-level essay, always start your paper with an outline. The outline allows you to clarify your thoughts and the organization of the paper. It’s also much easier to fill in an outline with full sentences than to rework sentences that have to shift to new parts of a paper.
If you’re not sure what sections should be in your paper, you can use the academic papers you read for your courses. In different fields, papers may be presented in different styles. However, most of them will have similar sections.
If you want to learn more about how to read academic papers (including more details on the sections of a paper), you can also read this post:
An abstract is a one-paragraph long summary of your paper. It will include information about your research and your findings. It does not replace the introduction because it does not have as much background information. The abstract will just have 1-2 sentences about your project or research, 1-2 sentenced on your methods (or what you are doing in the paper) and 1-2 sentences about your findings.
Normally, if your professor wants you to include an abstract they will specifically ask for it, but you can definitely ask to be sure!
This is a short introduction to your topic, including what will follow in the paper. I like to write my introduction at the END, once most of the paper is finalized, so I can summarize it clearly.
You will include a very small amount of very relevant background information that links to your research and findings in the introduction, which is what essentially what differentiates it from the abstract.
If your paper answers a question, you can definitely include that question towards the end of your introduction. Something like, “My research seeks the answer to… this question.” As you read more academic papers, you are likely to see some examples of this.
Typically, in the social sciences at least, the next section will be the background. It’s not always labelled as “Background.” Often, the headers in this section will be the various relevant topics of your paper. For example, because I research equity in higher education, I might include sections on whiteness in universities, equity policies, and demographic changes. You will include the topics that you have researched to better understand the topic of your paper.
In undergrad, you may not have three sections like I’ve listed – it is likely you will only have one section in your “Background.” Do not worry if this is the case! It will really depend on your topic, and what is relevant before you begin your arguments.
The background section (or sections) will start to spell out the story you will tell about your findings. Whatever you discovered (the topic of your paper) has a whole background to it. What will set your reader up to understand your discovery? What information do they need to understand your main arguments?
When I’m making my outlines, I like to use bullet points of what I am finding in my research. Typically I will use direct quotes, and then when I’m doing my writing I’ll put them into my own words. Using summaries are also helpful (instead of quotes) because a lot of the time in the background you will make a more general statement and then you might cite one or more authors to support that point.
In a paper describing primary research, the methods section will be extensive. For a paper in undergrad, you will typically be comparing and contrasting different ideas, summarizing and synthesizing the research you are reading. This means you may just have a couple of sentences on methods. You may not need a whole section. If you just have one or two sentences, you could merge your methods section into your findings.
This is where you share what you learned. If you are researching an event in history, what are the differing perspectives or the “unknowns” that researchers are looking at? If you are researching a social phenomenon, what have researchers said about it so far? In literature, what has been discussed about the work you are looking at, or the works you are comparing?
Your findings will be related to the question you asked in your introduction. They will also be related to the assignment provided by your professor. In the findings section, you will include all the findings – everything you have learned.
As with the background, I build my outline out of bullet points that are either direct quotes (with citations!) or summaries of what I have found.
This is the part where you get to use your brain! How fun!
The discussion section is where you will synthesize the ideas from your findings and turn them into an argument to answer your question.
What is synthesis in an academic paper?
This is about comparing and contrasting all your findings, and figuring out what the main ideas are in all your research that will support your argument. You need to take everything in your background and findings, and distill the key argument or idea that comes from it.
When I am writing an essay/paper, I will build my discussion outline out of bullet points as I come up with the conclusions that I am drawing from my research.
The conclusion will be similar to the introduction, but you will use it to emphasize your findings and link them to other research. Now that you did this research, what would you research next that would be relevant? Or what did you not find when doing your research that would be helpful? You also need to emphasize the importance or relevance of your findings. What can we do with your discovery? Why is it important or helpful?
Writing the Paper
I recommend starting with your outlines of the background and findings first, and then get to the discussion. The introduction, conclusion, and abstract (if required) should be done at the end when you know exactly what your paper will be about.
If you have used bullet points to build your outline, your first step will be to look at whether they are all relevant. Should any of your bullet points be moved to another section? Do any need to be removed/deleted?
The next step is grouping your ideas together into what will become the paragraphs. Put similar ideas together and start to think about how you can best explain how they go together.
Once you have grouped your ideas together, reorganize them into a logical order so you can build them into paragraphs.
When you start writing, if you get stuck trying to write a “better” sentence, just write it and then go back to edit it later. I find that spending a lot of time on being a perfectionist in the initial writing phase is not worth it, because as you edit you may end up moving things or deleting things. When this happens you have to rewrite whatever is there, so it’s not worth spending too much time on it at the outset.
There’s a saying that “it’s easier to edit than to write,” so just keep writing and doing your best as you go. This may also give you more time to spend on editing later on!
Deleting your work
When you have spent hours and hours on a research project or outline, it may be very difficult to delete your work, even if you don’t need it.
If you don’t want to delete something, you can always save it in another document or at the very bottom of your paper. I have a section in each of my working drafts where I will move sentences or bullet points that I am either nervous to delete or think I might bring back later.
Sometimes you might spend ages on a specific sentence or paragraph, or maybe you did some of the most beautiful writing you’ve ever done, and you can’t bring yourself to delete it. This happens to me! If I’m particularly proud of the flow of a sentence or a couple of sentences, I don’t want to just hit DELETE! Saving these sentences at the bottom of a draft allows me to look for ways to use them somewhere else, or just keep them and be proud of my writing.
Saving your work
I always save a few versions of my papers just in case I want to go back and check anything. I’m not sure I even need to include this advice, but I recommend saving a copy every time you make significant changes. You’ll probably want a copy before you move from outline to writing, and then every once in a while as you do your writing, and then even as you do your final edits.
Citations & Reference List
Proofreading & Editing
Do not skip these steps! I have been guilty of this many times – finishing the paper just in time to submit it, and then getting it back and seeing all the marks I lost for typos and other issues that could have been found in a good proofreading process!
Here’s some different ways to just read over your paper to look for typos, weird sentences, etc:
Its important to review at the sentence level. Is each sentence clear and well-written? Are there grammatical errors?
Read each paragraph individually to make sure it makes sense. You can do this by randomly picking paragraphs or reading them in reverse order. Are the sentences in the best order? Are they clearly connected to one another? Have you used a variety of sentence structures and connectors between sentences?
Check to make sure your paragraphs are clearly connected and in the correct order. Do the ideas flow into each other clearly?
The reverse outline is a great way to check the organization of your paper. Basically, what you will do is make sure that your paper still follows an organized outline.
Here’s how you do it: Go through the body of your paper. Summarize each paragraph in one sentence. It doesn’t have to be a well-written sentence, but it should be one simple sentence. This sentence is the topic of that parargraph.
Now, look at everything in that paragraph. Does everything in that paragraph fall under the topic you have in your sentence? If not, it either needs to be deleted or moved to another paragraph.
Most Common Mistakes
When you get your papers back, make sure you look at the feedback. If there are specific pieces of feedback that you get more than once, use this as a lens to correct your work. You may also be able to take your paper to a writing centre at your university to get some feedback, which can be useful.
For example, if you have gotten feedback that you have a lot of run-on or incomplete sentences in your work, go through your essay and just look for these.
If you are making the same error multiple times in one paper, just fixing that one error can have a big impact on your grade. I have seen students who struggle with grammar have huge success with this! Giving a student feedback on errors in subject-verb agreement helps them go through their paper and fix many of the same error, which improves the final product greatly.
Your university very likely has a writing centre or learning commons that can provide help with writing. Make sure you check it out! This is a service that’s included in your tuition so you may as well take advantage. They won’t typically proofread your whole paper, but find out how they can help you!
The University of Toronto has a great set of writing resources for students, check it out here.
Raul Pacheco Vega is a professor who shares lots of research and writing tips on his blog. His writing resources are all listed here. When you have some time, definitely take a look at his other resources as well!