How to write an effective paper

What are the expectations of structure and content for a good essay at the graduate level?


1. There is no substitute for learning from personal experience

a. Practical tip: A young, aspiring writer once asked the acclaimed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: “What advice would you give a young writer starting out?” She replied, “Read and read and read and write and write and write. That’s all.”

2. Your task is to develop a well-researched, well-written essay that addresses a focused, relevant research question, and that presents your own thinking about the answers to that question.

a. Well-researched: a research paper needs to show you have evidence in support of your conclusion.

b. Well-written: a research paper needs to have a cohesive structure that makes your presentation of information easy to follow.

c. Research question: a research paper should be organized around the task of addressing one significant research question.

d. Your own thinking: a research paper needs to present your own conclusion or interpretation in response to the question at hand. Your own “voice” needs to be heard. Remember: a mere compilation of quotations from your research notes does not constitute a research paper. Most professors will either reject a
“collection of quotes” entirely, or give it a very low mark.

3. Abide by some basic “rules” of good writing

Note: A classic work on this topic is: William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (New York: Macmillan, 1959). The direct quotations below are from this source.

a. Carefully plan the structure or design of your essay before you start to write.

b. Clearly articulate a thesis statement: “The purpose of this essay is …”

c. “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.” Each paragraph should have one main idea being discussed. Use short, clear sentences rather than long, convoluted ones.

d. “Use the active voice.” (Avoid the passive voice, since it makes writing less direct, less bold and less concise. Contrast: active “I shall always remember my first visit to Boston” vs. passive “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered…”).

e. “Put statements in positive form.” (It is better to say “I believe…” rather than “It is not unreasonable to believe…”).

f. “Use definite, specific, concrete language.” (Avoid the tendency toward long, abstract nouns and technical jargon so common in academic writing.)

g. “Write with nouns and verbs.”

h. “Omit needless words.”

i. Avoid vagueness (meaning of a word is unclear or imprecise in a given context).

j. Avoid ambiguity (meaning of a word can be understood in at least two ways in context).

k. Avoid “chameleon” words (words with no accepted limits surrounding their use, e.g., feminist, liberal, radical). Be sure to provide a definition of any such word.

l. “Avoid a succession of loose sentences.”

m. “Avoid fancy words.” (Abstain from technical terms and theological jargon.)

n. “Do not overstate.” (Don’t argue for too bold a claim.) Humility is a virtue of academic life.

For other examples, see J. Straus, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2007), or the University of Victoria Writer’s Guide.

4. It is acceptable to make appropriate use of the first-person

a. Tyndale Seminary faculty agree that it is acceptable to use the first-person in your papers. We would rather have you say “I will argue that Smith is mistaken” rather than “this writer will argue” or “one might argue” or “we will argue that Smith is mistaken.”

b. Statements such as “I believe” or “I conclude” or “My view is” are acceptable, even if you have been told in previous academic work that this is a cardinal sin.

c. However, do not overuse the first-person. Your research paper should not make constant reference to “I” and “my.”

5. Develop a coherent structure for your essay

a. A solid essay needs a strong introduction, a well-developed body of the paper (presenting evidence in support of important ideas and claims) and a strong conclusion.

b. Practical tip: If you organize your research notes into an outline of your findings, then edit that outline into your working outline for the essay itself, your paper will never suffer from a poor structure.

c. Practical tip: The biggest weakness in Tyndale Seminary student essays is the lack of a coherent structure, rather than a lack of good ideas. Be sure to avoid the “string of pearls” essay which is a loosely-connected series of ideas or quotations.

6. The essay should have a well-crafted introduction

a. Write this section of your essay last, when you have completed the body of the essay and the conclusion.

b. A good introduction should introduce the whole paper, not just the first page of it.

c. Take time to write a strong introduction—it is your “first impression” as you greet your reader, and you want to establish the reader’s interest and desire to read the paper.

d. An introduction should establish a context within which the issues or ideas can be located (“…this topic currently is being vigorously debated among Protestant theologians…”).

e. An introduction should announce a specific intention or subject matter (“In this paper I will examine…”).

f. An introduction should use a thesis statement to identify the one question you are wanting to answer in your paper. An introduction should tell the reader how you will go about answering the question under investigation (i.e., the method used to approach the question).

g. Where appropriate, an introduction should relate your work to views of others (“I will examine the contrasting views of three leading scholars on this subject…”)

h. An introduction indicate the importance or relevance of your work; it should show the reader why this is worth thinking about.

i. An introduction should generate interest and stir up the reader’s curiosity.

7. The body of the essay should be well-developed

a. You should probably write this section first.

b. The body should aim at rational persuasion, since you want the reader to share your point of view.

c. The body should make it plain what claim you are making, what conclusion drawing. Do not leave your reader searching for the main points.

d. The body should show what reasons and evidence support your conclusion (why are your reasons relevant? Adequate?). Practical tip: Beware of overstating the conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence.

e. The body should not merely list the data or report findings you’ve made (“Smith says X, Jones says Y”) but should interact with the data (organize it, sift it, evaluate it).

f. Ideally, the body should implicitly (if not explicitly) defend your position against possible criticisms or counter-arguments.

g. Ideally, the body should have a strategy to supply a “thread” stylistically: moving from the clear to the unclear, the obvious to the unobvious, the easy to the difficult, the least interesting to the most interesting.

h. Practical tip: The most important single insight you should gain from this guide is simply that your essay needs to make a point. Do not leave your reader wondering, after 15 pages, “What was the point of this essay?” Your point is the answer to your research question. Your answer need not be completely original, in the sense of breaking new ground in the academic world. The important thing is that you show the reader that you have made the material your own—it has been chewed over and sifted and organized good ideas about the topic into an answer that makes sense to you, for reasons you explain clearly to the reader.

i. Practical tip: The typical 15-20 page paper can have only one point. It is a common weakness of student essays to attempt to address lots of research questions rather than focusing on making a single point that answers a single,relevant research question. The result is a superficial essay that jumps around from one good observation to another, without developing an argument or presenting sufficient evidence to be convincing.

8. The essay needs a strong conclusion

a. You should probably write this section before the introduction but after the body.

b. The conclusion should pull together all the threads—decide what is most important!

c. The conclusion should draw out the implications and consequences—why does this matter? In short: so what?

d. The conclusion should leave a lasting impression with a vivid ending.

9. A good essay has been carefully edited

a. Search out and annihilate useless words! Be concise, never wordy.

b. Scrutinize your essay’s thesis statement – is it strong and clear?

c. Examine your topic sentences in each paragraph – are they lucid?

d. Examine your transitions – is there a flow that is reader-friendly?

e. Examine your supporting sentences – have you made your case?

f. Look at your verbs: use active voice, avoid “academese.”

g. Don’t forget to proofread – consider getting someone else to proofread, too

10. A good essay avoids the most common stylistic problems

a. Wordiness – don’t beat around the bush!

b. Rambling, convoluted sentences.

c. Paragraphs that contain too many diverse thoughts.

d. Excessive quotation – avoid producing a “string of pearls.” Practical tip: “one way to keep from putting together a patchwork of quotes and ideas from others is to write a rough draft without all of your research notes in front of you” (OBC “Manual for Writing Research Papers”).

e. Too many long quotations – avoid citing passages more than 3 lines long. Use longer quotes only if they are absolutely necessary evidence to support your argument. If you cite a passage more than 3 lines long, you should use a block quotation—indented and single-spaced. If you use a block quote, be sure to explain it and really engage its significance. Be sure to avoid more than one block quote per page.

f. Gender-exclusive language (e.g., “man’s problem is sin”) – use inclusive language, as per Tyndale’s style policies. Some examples of gender-inclusive alternatives:
• Use humanity or humankind rather than man
• Use people, society or humanity rather than mankind
• Use worker rather than workman
• Use brothers and sisters rather than brethern or brothers
• Use clergy, member of clergy, pastor rather than clergyman
• Use lay person or laity rather than layman

g. An overly-casual, excessively first-person style.

h. Use of jargon: avoid it as much as possible, make clear what you mean by a technical term.

i. Use of slang expressions.

j. Use of contractions (e.g., “don’t” or “can’t” must be avoided).

k. Spelling mistakes – use “spellcheck” on your computer and proofread. Practical tip: the most frequent spelling mistake on Tyndale Seminary papers is the misuse of “its” and “it’s” in essays. The word “It’s” means “It is.” The word “Its” is the possessive of it, and is anomalous in English because it has no apostrophe. Never make this mistake.

l. Improper punctuation – proofread.

m. Attempts to flatter the professor by citing his/her lecture notes—please don’t!

n. Misspelling the professor’s name or the names of the authors you cite – this can be very embarrassing!

11. A good essay avoids the most common forms of logical error

a. Appeal to nostalgia: use of the past as an unquestioned authority (“If we don’t dramatically change direction, ten years from now we won’t be living in the same country we grew up in.”)

b. Slippery slope: fallacious use of a sequential form of reasoning (“If we tinker with the health care system, eventually our whole social order will collapse.”)

c. Straw man/ Straw person: misrepresenting an opponent’s argument or view to make it easier to attack, or attacking weaker opponents while ignoring stronger ones (“My opponent is saying we should cut taxes so that the rich can get richer…”)

d. Ad hominem: either an attack on the person or source of the idea rather than the idea itself by using an argument (“We can dismiss Nietzsche’s philosophy because he went insane in his final years”), or a personal, emotional appeal to the reader rather than argument (“Any sincere Christian will have no use for
Nietzsche’s ideas about religion”).

e. Begging the question: assuming what you have to demonstrate.

12. A good essay avoids bloopers through attentive proofreading – these are real examples from real papers your professors have received!

a. “Life begins at the moment of conceptualization.”

b. “Since there are so few livers available for transplantation, how are they to be allocated in a just and fair manor?”

c. “...the construction industry is an industry known for fowl mouth communications.”

d. “a fully disorganized Persian Empire was not achieved until 480 B.C.E.”

Continue to Formatting Essays Properly.

Disclaimer: Unofficial Academic Information
For official academic information such as degree requirements, course descriptions, prerequisites, and schedules, please refer to the Office of the Registrar website.