What Stephen King Can Teach You About Writing Essays

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Stephen King wrote an autobiography called On Writing back in 2000.

In the book, King recounts his various experiences as a writer along with his strategies for creative writing and plot development.

Anyway, we found a great list of writing tips taken directly from the book. Even though this advice applies more toward creative writing, many of these suggestions also apply toward writing/editing an essay for a class.

Here are some of the most practical writing tips:

Get to the point.
Don’t waste your reader’s time with too much back-story, long intros or longer anecdotes about your life. Reduce the noise. Reduce the babbling.

Write a draft. Then let it rest.
King recommends that you crank out a first draft and then put it in your drawer to let it rest. This enables you to get out of the mindset you had when you wrote the draft and get a more detached and clear perspective on the text. It then becomes easier to edit.

Cut down your text.
Remove all the superfluous words and sentences. Removing will de-clutter your text and often get your message through with more clarity and a bigger emotional punch.

Read a lot.
If you want to be a better writer you need to read a lot to get fresh input, broaden your horizons and deepen your knowledge.

Check out other writing tips on the Productivity Blog.

How to Write Your First Draft

I’m finishing up grad school right now, and I’ve been extremely busy writing a 90-page paper. I also have another 20-page paper that’s due in several weeks.

I don’t have much time to spend on rough drafts, so I have to make every minute count.

Here is some personal advice on how to start writing your first draft:

1. Take a break.
Before writing anything, you need to take a break from your research. You need to give your mind time to mull over the topic. I suggest taking a day – or even a few days to let your mind soak it all in. If you don’t have the luxury of time, then take a nap before beginning your assignment.

2. Set goals for yourself.
Write a list of everything you want to accomplish during the time you’ve set aside to write. And designate a time for each task. Giving yourself a time limit puts pressure on you to accomplish your goal. It’s better to enforce a time limit on yourself (ahead of schedule) than writing your paper the night before it’s due.

3. Write an outline for your paper.
To get your mind focused, it’s always best to work from an outline. Your outline is a starting point to help you think about how your paper will be constructed. If you’re not sure how to write one – simply look at the structure of well-written journal articles.

4. Don’t think too hard. Just write.
When you’re writing your rough draft, you need to focus on writing. Don’t get stuck on trying to craft perfect sentences. Just let go – and let your mind crank out some ideas on the page. The sooner you start writing, the better. You can always polish it up later.

5. Write down every idea.
If you think of something interesting, but not sure how you’ll “fit” it into your paper – just write it down. Don’t worry about all the details. You can always eliminate it later – or find a creative way to weave it into your essay.

6. Talk about it.
One way to stimulate more ideas for your paper is to talk aloud about the subject. Pretend like you’re giving a lecture and think about how you would argue your case in front of your peers.

7. If you get stuck, move on to another section.
Sometimes you might run out of ideas on a certain section of your essay. That’s okay. It’s bound to happen. The simple way to defuse this is to move on to another section. Refer to your outline and find another area to work on. Sometimes I’ll just start working on my bibliography or abstract to distract me. The goal is to just keep moving along – and to keep adding content to your paper.

8. Take exercise breaks.
If you sit at computer too long, you’re bound to get tired. Make sure to take brief breaks to stretch and clear your mind. It will help you write more clearly.

9. Eat and drink wisely.
My last suggestion is to eat and drink wisely. I love to drink coffee and green tea when I’m writing – it helps me focus. Make sure to keep your body hydrated – and only eat foods that will give you energy. Try to avoid heavy foods that might make you sleepy.

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How to Write a Killer College Application Essay

I know a lot of students struggle when writing their college application essay.

Here is some advice from actual college admissions officers on what they look for in a quality college essay:

Be Original
The essays we dislike the most are those that seemingly could have been written by 2,000 or 3,000 other applicants. Were looking for distinctiveness. Think of us hoping that the application will at least figuratively come alive in front of us, so when were struggling to read applications at 10:30 p.m. on any given night, seven nights a week during the reading perio, were looking for personality. Were looking to grasp hold of an individual.

Tell An Interesting Story
A students writing style can sometimes tell us as much about the student as the actual story itself. I like reading something interesting that happened to students. The essays that I dread reading are, of course, the ones that start out about My trip to Europe or something like that. If they do have a story to tell and it is something about their trip to Europe, Id rather hear something about a specific incident that happened rather than a travelogue and summation that says, Now I have a greater understanding of culture.

Be Creative
I dont think everybody has to have some major event that they have to write about in their lives. I think the student has to use some creative juices to come up with an interesting way of talking about the family dog or a relationship with a sick aunt. Those are the kinds we like to read, those that arent the typical 300 words Pikes Peak out-the-rear-window-of -a -car-essay.

Be Concise and Clear
I like to see things that are written concisely and clearly. I dread the long, long, long essay that brings in every unimportant detail about what theyre trying to get across. I really like it when people can express themselves in a brief manner and also be effective at the same time.

Write Straight from the Heart
We want essays that come straight from the heart. Thats the point of the essay. Why do you want me? Why do you want me as a student on your campus? What are you going to contribute? I dont mean by being president of the senior class or being an All-American. There are lots of ways that students can contribute. They need to have a sense of themselves in order to present that in written form.

Show Your Personality
The essay should not be simply a regurgitation of information thats already in a students resume. I like to see students walk out on thin ice and use humor if its natural for them. They shouldnt put on some kind of corporate vocabulary simply to try to impress the committee. Were more interested in personal style and the substance of the writing than how they can impress us with their vocabulary and their sentence structure.

Dont Try to Be Funny if Youre Not
Many people bomb when they try to be humorous because peoples senses of humor dont always match. Someone may think something is funny, and it may be derogatory to someone else.

Please comment with some personal advice on writing college application essays

How to Write a Research Paper – Step by Step

Ive probably written over 70 research papers over the last 7 years of school.

And Ive gotten to the point where writing research papers is like second nature for me.

Its not that Im a better writer than anyone else, its just that I know how to organize information quickly.

So here is my basic process on how I write my papers step-by-step:

Research Phase: Hunting and Gathering
This is probably the most time-consuming part of the research paper. Im a research hound, so I like to spend as much time as possible finding all the research possible. Its during this phase that Im doing the following:

  • Refining my research subject
  • Developing research questions
  • Consulting librarians for their insight on my research area
  • Reading journal article abstracts on the topic Im interested in

Organizing Phase: Reading and Writing
As Im reviewing journal articles, Im jotting down everything I need from the article before moving on; including: citation info, potential quotes, summaries, and any referenced journal articles that look interesting. Im also:

  • Developing a potential thesis statement
  • Creating a meaty bibliography
  • Outlining my paper
  • Inserting notes within my outline – and adding references

Drafting Phase: Writing
Once Ive written my thesis statement and completed my outline, its time to begin working on my first draft. Here are the steps that I take:

  • Just start writing something (I typically start in the middle somewhere)
  • Make sure to cite everything (I go overboard just to be safe)
  • Keep refining the thesis
  • Keeping modifying the outline
  • Pretend the paper is due the next day and just finish it
  • Take a day off after the first draft is done – dont look at it

Revision Phase: Editing Never Ends
Revising as you know means removing and adding content to make the paper better – which means nobody is ever really done. We just turn in our last and best draft. Here are my editing steps:

  • Read it aloud and mark any areas that dont sound right
  • Look at all the punctuation marks – especially apostrophes
  • Make sure every paragraph moves the paper along
  • Eliminate passive verbs whenever possible

So thats my strategy on how to write a research paper. I never feel completely done writing, but those steps help me get a paper finished that Im at least happy with.

What steps do you take when writing a research paper?

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How to Proof Your Paper Like a Pro – 8 Proofreading Tips

I used to work as a proofreader.

It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, but it helped me become proficient at proofreading ads and documents very quickly.

Whenever possible, it’s always best to have someone else review your essay.

However, it’s not always convenient to get someone to edit your paper at the last minute (when most papers get finished).

So here are 8 tips to help you proof your own paper like a professional:

1. Read your paper backward
A surefire way to find misspellings is by reading your essay backward to yourself. This makes every word stand out. And this is a great way to focus on the punctuation of each sentence.

2. Read your essay out loud
One simple way to proof is to read your essay aloud. This will help you focus on the rhythm of your writing, your punctuation, and any glaring errors in your sentence structure. If any sentence sounds confusing, you should revise it.

3. Cut the fat
Eliminate passive verbs whenever possible.

4. Proof in stages
I always proof my papers in stages. This means that I’ll typically plan on proofing my entire paper in a variety of stages. For example: (1) Focus on every word; (2) Focus on punctuation; (3) Focus on subject/verb agreement; (4) Focus on argumentation; (5) Focus on pronouns . . . etc. You get the idea.

5. Pay attention to apostrophes
Examine every word that ends in “s” and ask yourself if an apostrophe belongs there. Remember that apostrophes should never be used to make words plural.

6. Focus your attention on every comma and semicolon
Scan your paper to find every comma and semicolon. Make sure you’re using them properly in the sentence.

7. Proof headers and subheads
You’d be surprised how often headers and subheads get misspelled. This is because most people who are proofing are focusing on the details, and they often miss the big glaring error right in front of them.

8. Proof in the morning
You won’t catch as many errors if you’re proofing right after you’ve finished writing. So take a long break before editing the paper.

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Five Tips for Writing a Successful Thesis Statement

Maxine Rodburg and the tutors of the writing center at Harvard developed a great article about constructing thesis statements.

Heres what they suggest:

1. A thesis is never a question. Readers of academic essays expect to have questions discussed, explored, or even answered. A question (Why did communism collapse in Eastern Europe?) is not an argument, and without an argument, a thesis is dead in the water.

2. A thesis is never a list. For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe does a good job of telegraphing the reader what to expect in the essay—a section about political reasons, a section about economic reasons, a section about social reasons, and a section about cultural reasons. However, political, economic, social and cultural reasons are pretty much the only possible reasons why communism could collapse. This sentence lacks tension and doesnt advance an argument. Everyone knows that politics, economics, and culture are important.

3. A thesis should never be vague, combative or confrontational.
An ineffective thesis would be, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because communism is evil. This is hard to argue (evil from whose perspective? what does evil mean?) and it is likely to mark you as moralistic and judgmental rather than rational and thorough. It also may spark a defensive reaction from readers sympathetic to communism. If readers strongly disagree with you right off the bat, they may stop reading.

4. An effective thesis has a definable, arguable claim. While cultural forces contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of economies played the key role in driving its decline is an effective thesis sentence that telegraphs, so that the reader expects the essay to have a section about cultural forces and another about the disintegration of economies. This thesis makes a definite, arguable claim: that the disintegration of economies played a more important role than cultural forces in defeating communism in Eastern Europe. The reader would react to this statement by thinking, Perhaps what the author says is true, but I am not convinced. I want to read further to see how the author argues this claim.

5. A thesis should be as clear and specific as possible. Avoid overused, general terms and abstractions. For example, Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of the ruling elites inability to address the economic concerns of the people is more powerful than Communism collapsed due to societal discontent.
Continue reading how to construct a thesis statement . . .

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How to Write Abstracts

Ive been very busy these last few weeks working on a lengthy research proposal.

Its been absolutely exhausting – but it feels good to almost be done.

The last step in any research proposal is to write a comprehensive summary (or abstract) about what youre about to propose.

This might sound easy, but I find that this is sometimes the most difficult part.

How do you condense all your research into a brief paragraph?

It can be mind-boggling I know.

After spending some time researching abstract development, I found these helpful tips for writing the perfect abstract:

Abstract Style

  • One paragraph under 150 – 200 words
  • Use related keywords that people might use to find your article
  • As a summary of work done, it is always written in past tense
  • An abstract should stand on its own, and not refer to any other part of the paper such as a figure or table
  • Focus on summarizing results – limit background information
  • What you report in an abstract must be consistent with what you report
  • Correct spelling, clarity of sentences and phrases, and proper reporting of quantities (proper units, significant figures) are just as important in an abstract as they are anywhere else

Abstract Content

  • Motivation – Why do we care about the problem and the results?
  • Problem Statement – What problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your work (a generalized approach, or for a specific situation)? Be careful not to use too much jargon. In some cases it is appropriate to put the problem statement before the motivation, but usually this only works if most readers already understand why the problem is important.
  • Approach – How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? What important variables did you control, ignore, or measure?
  • Results – Whats the answer? Put the result there, in numbers. Avoid vague, hand-waving results such as very, small, or significant.
  • Conclusions – What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant win, be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful). Are your results general, potentially generalizable, or specific to a particular case?

Read more about writing abstracts here . . .

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How to Conclude an Essay Exam in 5 Minutes

As an English major in college, I had my share of essay exams.

I usually kept an eye on the clock when writing, but I’ve definitely had moments when I ran out of time.

So here’s some advice from Harvard University on how to complete an essay when you only have minutes left:

  • Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
  • Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
  • Conclude with a sentence thats compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.

And here’s how you should never end an essay:

  • Dont simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long_more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
  • Avoid phrases like in conclusion, to conclude, in summary, and to sum up. These phrases can be useful_even welcome_in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. Youll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.

Read more tips on how to conclude an Essay . . .

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The Cure for Writers Block -10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Brain

As an English Lit. major in college, I had to write dozens of essays a quarter.

And, unfortunately, I got hit with writers block on a regular basis.

I tried to combat it by spending more time researching in the library, but that just made my problem worse.

You see, even though research is important it didnt help me write my paper. In fact, Ive found that research just helped me procrastinate more.

So how do I cure my bouts with writers block?

Here are 10 ways that have helped me write when Im not in the mood:

1. Relax your mind.
The more you worry about not having ideas, the more youll freeze up your mind. You need to relax and think positively about your writing assignment. Realize that everyone goes through writers block, and the cure is to relax your mind.

2. Take a hot shower.
I dont know what it is about a hot shower, but it really helps me refresh my body and mind. The hot shower helps me relax and focus on my writing assignments. Its also a place where I brainstorm easily. Take a notepad and leave it next to your shower door for when the ideas start flowing.

3. Write freely.
Whenever Im at a loss for words, Ill just start writing. It doesnt matter what you write, just write something. The very act of getting words on a page will help you build confidence, and help your mind to start pumping out your thoughts.

4. Write what you would say to your friend.
Sometimes it helps me to pretend that Im explaining the subject to a friend. By imagining a conversation with a friend, it helps me write what I would say – and this is a great way to trick yourself into writing.

5. Dont worry about punctuation or organization.
When youre struggling with writers block, this is not the time to focus on punctuation or how youre organizing your paper. You want to eliminate everything that stands between you and getting words on a page. So just write and dont worry about anything else.

6. Take deep breaths.
There are many benefits to breathing deeply in meditation, and one of them is to help you refresh your mind. I personally like Dr. Weils deep breathing exercises when Im feeling tired and uninspired:

  1. Inhale through your nose for four seconds
  2. Hold your breath for seven seconds
  3. Exhale through tightly pursed lips, creating back pressure, for eight seconds.
  4. Do this eight times, twice a day, everyday.

7. Move around.
Get your body moving and possibly even try writing in a new location. Just by moving around will get your blood pumping faster and will help you feel more energized.

8. Concentrate on a different section of your paper.
If youre stuck writing your introduction, just skip it. Start writing another section. Dont worry if you dont have the best paragraph structure – just write and the words will start to flow. You can always edit later.

9. Listen to music.
Sometimes listening to classical music or jazz can help you start writing. It doesnt work for everyone, but Ive found that it can help me block out any surrounding noises and focus on my writing. Try music when youre out of words.

10. Dont worry about failing.
Look, a lot of people get writers block because they think theyre afraid of failure – or they think they cant write a good paper. You have to get rid of that negativity and start writing. The more you write, the better your paper will be. You can always edit it later – and find a friend to proofread it to give you some suggestions.

So just start writing . . .

How to Write a Fascinating Thesis Statement

No professors or teaching assistants want to read a boring paper. They want to read a paper that engages them; a paper that is compelling and clearly articulated.

So how do you write one of these papers?

Well, the most important part of writing a fascinating paper is to develop a great thesis statement.

You see, your thesis statement is the spine for your entire paper. Its the glue that holds your paper together. The more complex, specific, and interesting, the better your paper will be.

So here are some steps to breathe life into your next thesis statement:

Get Excited About Your Topic
No matter what you have to write about, you should try and get excited about it. The more interest and excitement you put forth, the better your paper will be. Even if your paper topic bores you, this is your opportunity to get creative and think of a way to make it exciting. Thats your challenge – and you can do it.

Develop A Strong Opinion About Your Topic
Writing a great thesis statement means you need to develop a strong opinion about your topic. This is how radio talk show hosts keep their audiences – they spew strong opinions that attract listeners and phone calls. If youre not sure how to form a strong opinion about your topic, start reading through journal article abstracts. Check out Google Scholar and read through thesis statements pertaining to your topic. Jot down any strong opinions that look interesting to you.

Use Exciting Adjectives to Spice up Your Thesis
Dont just say that something is good or bad, empower your nouns with exciting adjectives that describe what you really think. Adjectives like oppressive, tyrannical, and bloodthirsty are powerful because they portray a strong point of view about something or someone.

Focus Your Thesis On One Main Idea
As mentioned in the introduction, your thesis is the glue for your paper. Make sure your thesis doesnt divert into different directions. Stay focused on one main theme to keep your paper organized and your reader on topic.

Get Extremely Specific in Your Thesis
A generic thesis statement weakens a paper because the reader isnt clear exactly what youre going to be arguing about. However, if your thesis includes specific details about your argument, it will prepare the reader for whats ahead. It also helps you stay on task as you argue your points with specific examples.

Keep a List of Interesting Thesis Statements
Just as copywriters have a swipe file of powerful headlines, you should develop your own list of powerful thesis statements. Whenever you come across a thesis statement that intrigues you, add it to your list. The longer your list of thesis statements, the more ammunition youll have when you need to craft your own.

Here are three examples of thesis statements to get you going:

Weak Thesis:
The North and South fought the Civil War for many reasons, some of which were the same and some different.

Average Thesis:
While both sides fought the Civil War over the issue of slavery, the North fought for moral reasons while the South fought to preserve its own institutions.

Strong Thesis:
While both Northerners and Southerners believed they fought against tyranny and oppression, Northerners focused on the oppression of slaves while Southerners defended their own right to self-government.

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