Advice for Short Papers

Are you a first-year student or planning on entering University/College? If so, it may be a bit daunting knowing how best to approach your first set of assignments.
Here is a list of advice that I provide my students with on how best to approach their first set of short essay assignments. Hope you find it helpful! 

Who is your audience? What can you assume about your reader’s prior knowledge and how do you put your subject in context?
What matters? Research more evidence than you need and edit that material down into its fundamental components so that there is a sense of latitudinal and longitudinal development. Don’t just discover the minimum of what is required: go beyond that so that you have significant material to work from in order to craft a coherent and compelling analysis.
Remember, you are not telling a story but discussing a subject through analytical, expository prose!
Edit, re-edit and re-edit again. Ask yourself if you have stated the content of your paper as effectively as possible; does the analysis flow from paragraph to paragraph into a unified and coherent whole? Does your language reflect the quality of your research and thought? Does your diction (choice of words) reflect the assignment and the subject; and have you logically structured the evidence to lead your reader to sound conclusions?
Check all names, references and illustrations to be sure that you are constructing useful and correct examples. This is especially true in a series of examples: do all of the examples in a list conform to the same categories?
Be particularly careful of research online, as the material is very often sloppy or unprofessional. Use at least one authoritative print source: all books pass through an editor and most are peer assessed for accuracy and content, while internet sources generally are not reviewed by anyone. Avoid encyclopedias, as the information is often old. Use recent titles to reflect the most current scholarship.
If you do not recognize a name, place or thing, look it up in a RELIABLE source to ensure accuracy. Mistakes in accuracy detract from your authority. Never be vague; always be confidently authoritative. If you are unsure or skating over material you do not know well, it shows and again makes your reader question your results. Know as much as you can about your subject!
In a complex subject, divide it into its component parts, organized by category, chronology, and/or function. Developing an analysis of something over a long time period or something that changed use or location requires care to ensure that the reader understands these elements and that the process of change over time is clear and explained.
Don’t be fooled: Short assignments are much harder than long assignments. Make every word count; use a sophisticated sentence structure to subordinate ideas and reinforce the most important points through syntax, rhetorical style and a carefully chosen vocabulary.
If you are not confident about what you have written, then return to it constantly until you are; or, even start again to relieve yourself of the baggage of an unsuccessful first attempt. It is very hard to edit out junk from an essay.
Finally, and again: edit means reducing, cutting, subordinating. It does NOT mean adding more words to clarify obscure points or infelicitous constructions. Make it clear and say it well in the exposition of your subject.
Most importantly, good luck and have fun! Beginning the journey into tertiary or post secondary scholarship can be as exciting as it is daunting, so ask lots of questions and get the most out of your education.

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