What to Avoid When Writing a Paper

Do you ever find yourself staring at a blank computer screen, trying to summon the words you need to finish a paper? Do you sometimes re-read a paragraph you just wrote and wonder “What am I even saying?” Do you wish your paper would write itself and that you hadn’t procrastinated?

Writing papers doesn’t have to be this way! When you have a solid game plan for whenever you have to write a paper, it can be a breeze. If you avoid the following mistakes when writing a paper, you’ll wonder why you ever struggled in the first place.


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1. Avoid procrastinating

I’ll be the first to say that this advice is cliche and overshared, but it’s so easy to leave assignments untouched until the last minute. Here’s one way to help ensure you don’t procrastinate again.

Whenever I’m assigned a paper, I break down the process into four stages:

  1. The brainstorm stage
  2. The outline stage
  3. The 1st draft stage
  4. The revision stage

Depending on the paper length, I’ll calculate how long it’ll take me to do each stage. I then look at the due date and figure out when I can do each stage.

Let’s look at an example together. Let’s say you have a five-page paper that’s assigned on a Monday and due next week Friday. That’s about 12 days.

Step 1: Let’s schedule one day to brainstorm ideas, arguments, and sources.

Step 2: Then we’ll plan for one more day to outline the paper.

Step 3: If you can write about 2.5 pages a day, then you’ll need two days to write a 1st draft (for 5 pages total).

Step 4: Finally, let’s allot two more days to do revisions.

That’s a total of six days. Between the day the paper was assigned and when it is due, pick six days when you know you have free time to work on the paper. This process will help prevent you from realizing at 11pm the night before the due date that you have to write five pages from scratch!

Everyone works at a different pace, so adjust the timeline accordingly. You’ll notice that I don’t just tell myself that I’m going to write one page a day. That’s because by taking the time to properly brainstorm and outline, the writing process itself is very easy. It also allows you to ensure that the paper is cohesive.

2. Avoid jumping straight into writing your paper

Never start writing without a game plan.

By taking the time to thoroughly prep before typing a single word, you’ll find that writing the paper itself will be the easiest part! When it comes to the four stages of writing, it may seem like too much time is spent on the brainstorming and outline stages. But by front-loading the work, you find yourself essentially just translating outlines into paragraphs.

To brainstorm effectively, make what’s called a mind map. Start by getting a piece of paper and writing down the prompt in the middle of the page. I then jot down the relevant concepts, different perspectives, and multiple sources around the prompt. After that, draw lines in between these components to flesh out relationships. Once you’re done, you’ll have a web of connected ideas!

After brainstorming, it’s time to come up with a thesis. From there, try writing your outline. You can start by figuring out how many paragraphs you’ll need. Then take a look at your mind map and determine how you want the ideas in the paper to flow. Once you identify the major concept you want to tackle in each paragraph, fill in the details of that paragraph (i.e. Note which ideas, arguments, and sources you’ll want to include along with some of your own analysis). You’ll find that this outline will be so thorough that it’s essentially your paper—it just isn’t formatted into your usual paragraphs.

3. Avoid repeating facts and not analyzing them

We know you’re smart. You know it, too. But no one reading your paper—like your teacher—will know if you don’t express your thoughts.

A common writing mistake is to “parrot” ideas from readings and not analyze them. Even if you can synthesize different arguments, it’s important to actually comment on how and why you came up with your points. By demonstrating deep analysis, you can elevate your paper and help ensure that you get a good grade!

To avoid parroting facts, a simple trick is to have your commentary sentences start with phrases that set you up to do analysis. For example, when you use phrases like:

  • “The author’s argument illuminates how…”
  • “This data illustrates…”
  • “These ideas exemplify…”

…you’re forced to comment on the argument, data, or ideas. Set yourself up for success with phrases like these!

4. Avoid citing just one source or a limited number of sources

An MLA Works Cited page with just one source is unbalanced and kind of boring. Unless your teacher requires you to analyze only one author, you want to show that you’ve dissected multiple perspectives on your paper’s topic. That way, you have a well-rounded paper. The best way to do this is simple: do your class readings. That way, when the time comes to write your paper, you’re already armed with lots of arguments.

When you’re in the brainstorming and outline stages of writing your paper, another way to have diverse resources is to start by determining which readings in your syllabus are relevant to your essay. You can then assign each reading a notecard. From there, jot down that reading’s key arguments and examples. Once you’re done, you can spread out your notecards and see what you need from your readings and how you can use them in you paper. What’s great about using notecards is that you can shuffle them around and start thinking about the order in which you want to include these readings in your paper.

5. Avoid Not Citing Sources Until The End

Citing sources (usually in MLA or APA format) as you research and write ensures that you don’t miss any sources you’ve used or mentioned. Also, don’t forget to include APA or MLA in-text citations when you write about information from a source. This will help ensure that you’re writing ethically. Plus, it’s no fun going back and trying to figure out who said what. Be sure to cite while you write!

By planning ahead, writing a strong outline, genuinely analyzing arguments, and using multiple sources, you can avoid some of the most common mistakes when it comes to writing a paper!

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About the Author

Sheena Santamaria

Sheena Santamaria has a MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and a BA in Global Studies from UCLA.