When you are first faced with the task of writing a long essay or term paper it can be intimidating, but you make your job and the reader’s job much easier by following some basic rules of thumb. Of course, if your professors offer you any specific guidelines about writing be sure to follow those first. Otherwise, incorporate the advice that follows into your papers wherever appropriate.
Of course, papers should always be typed, double-spaced on 8-1/2 x 11 paper on one side of the page only, and letter-quality print or better is always expected. Often you are expected to supply a cover sheet giving the date, your name, the title of the paper, the class, and the professor’s name. Tables and figures should be numbered consecutively throughout the text, and if there are a good number of them, then separate lists of tables and figures at the beginning of the paper may be expected. Tables and figures should always have descriptive captions, and if they come directly from sources, the sources must be specifically credited in the captions with the same citation style that you use throughout the paper.
A paper’s title should be succinct and definitive, individual and informational. Clearly, the title "An Overview of the Hydraulic Fracturing of Methane-Bearing Coal Formations" is more complete, satisfying, and informative than "Hydraulic Fracturing." The title is important because it announces the paper’s specific content and typically serves as a pathway to the paper’s thesis.
Your introduction is your opportunity to be at your most individual. You should get your reader’s attention immediately by announcing the paper’s subject or by launching into a relevant scenario or narrative that informs or illustrates your overall argument. A paper illustrating the costly effects of poor mine design, for instance, might open with the scenario of how a poorly designed pillar at a salt mine in Louisiana once collapsed, fracturing the surface above and draining an entire lake into the mine. A paper on the supply and demand of nickel might begin by straightforwardly announcing that the paper will explain the uses of nickel, detail its market structure, and use data to forecast the future supply and demand of the metal.
In brief, a paper’s introduction should define and limit the paper’s scope and purpose, indicate some sense of organization, and, whenever possible, suggest an overall argument. Another important principle in technical writing is that the introduction should be problem-focused, giving the reader enough background so that the paper’s importance and relationship to key ideas are clear. A rule of thumb about the introduction’s length: about 5-10% of the entire paper.
As examples of how creative an introduction can be, here are the opening lines from a geography paper and a paper on optics, both of which use narrative technique to arouse our interest. Note how the first excerpt uses an "I" narrator comfortably while the second excerpt does not use "I" even though the writer is clearly reflective about the subject matter. The first excerpt is from a paper on the generic nature of America’s highway exit ramp services; the second is from a paper on shape constancy.
The observation struck me slowly, a growing sense of déjà vu. I was driving the endless miles of Interstate 70 crossing Kansas when I began to notice that the exits all looked the same. . . .
Our eyes often receive pictures of the world that are contrary to physical reality. A pencil in a glass of water miraculously bends; railroad tracks converge in the distance. . . .
Thesis Statement / Objective
Most papers have outright thesis statements or objectives. Normally you will not devote a separate section of the paper to this; in fact, often the thesis or objective is conveniently located either right at the beginning or right at the end of the Introduction. A good thesis statement fits only the paper in which it appears. Thesis statements usually forecast the paper’s content, present the paper’s fundamental hypothesis, or even suggest that the paper is an argument for a particular way of thinking about a topic. Avoid the purely mechanical act of writing statements like "The first topic covered in this paper is x. The second topic covered is y. The third topic is . . ." Instead, concretely announce the most important elements of your topic and suggest your fundamental approach—even point us toward the paper’s conclusion if you can.
Here are two carefully focused and thoughtfully worded thesis statements, both of which appeared at the ends of introductory paragraphs:
This paper reviews the problem of Pennsylvania’s dwindling landfill space, evaluates the success of recycling as a solution to this problem, and challenges the assumption that Pennsylvania will run out of landfill space by the year 2020.
As this paper will show, the fundamental problem behind the Arab-Israeli conflict is the lack of a workable solution to the third stage of partition, which greatly hinders the current negotiations for peace.
Body Paragraphs / Section Headings
Never simply label the middle bulk of the paper as "Body" and then lump a bunch of information into one big section. Instead, organize the body of your paper into sections by using an overarching principle that supports your thesis, even if that simply means presenting four different methods for solving some problem one method at a time. Normally you are allowed and encouraged to use section headings to help both yourself and the reader follow the flow of the paper. Always word your section headings clearly, and do not stray from the subject that you have identified within a section.
As examples, I offer two sets of section headings taken from essays. The first is from Dr. Craig Bohren’s "Understanding Colors in Nature" (1), which appeared in a 1990 edition of Earth & Mineral Sciences; the second is from a student’s paper on the supply and demand of asbestos.
Section Headings From "Understanding Colors In Nature"
- Color By Scattering: The Role of Particle Size
- Color By Scattering: The Positions of Source and Observer
- The Blue Sky: The Role of Multiple Scattering
- Color By Absorption in Multiple-Scattering Media
- Color by Absorption: Microscopic Mechanisms are Sometimes Elusive
Section Headings From "Asbestos: Supply and Demand"
- Industry Structure
- The Mining and Properties of Asbestos
- World Resources and Reserves
- Byproducts and Co-products
- Economic Factors and Supply and Demand Problems
- Uses of and Substitutes for Asbestos
- The Issue of Health on Supply and Demand
Just by considering the section headings in the above examples, we can begin to see the fundamental structures and directions of the essays, because both sets of headings break the paper topic into its natural parts and suggest some sort of a movement forward through a topic. Note how these headings—as all section headings should—tell us the story of the paper and are worded just as carefully as any title should be.
Most importantly, then, you must use your section headings in the same way that you use topic sentences or thesis statements: to control, limit, and organize your thinking for your reader’s sake.
Most papers use "Conclusion" as a heading for the final section of the text, although there are times when headings such as "Future Trends" will serve equally well for a paper’s closing section. When you are stuck for a conclusion, look back at your introduction; see if you can freshly reemphasize your objectives by outlining how they were met, or even revisit an opening scenario from the introduction in a new light to illustrate how the paper has brought about change. Your conclusion should not be a summary of the paper or a simple tacked-on ending, but a significant and logical realization of the paper’s goals.
Beware of the temptation to open your final paragraph with "In conclusion," or "In summary," and then summarize the paper. Instead, let your entire conclusion stand as a graceful termination of an argument. As you write your conclusion, concentrate on presenting the bottom line, and think of the word’s definition: a conclusion is an articulated conviction arrived at on the basis of the evidence you have presented.
What follows is an excerpt from a conclusion to a paper entitled "Exercise in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis in Women." Note how the conclusion reflects directly on the paper’s hypothesis and spells out the bottom line, gracefully bringing closure to the paper’s argument:
The majority of evidence presented in this paper supports the hypothesis that exercise positively affects bone mineral density in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Significantly, exercise has been shown to increase bone mineral density in premenopausal women even after the teenage years, and it helps preserve the bone mass achieved in the following decades. There is also evidence that exercise adds a modest, yet significant amount of bone mass to the postmenopausal skeleton. As these findings demonstrate, women of all ages can benefit by regular weight-bearing exercise, an increased intake of calcium-rich foods, and—for postmenopausal women—the maintenance of adequate estrogen levels. For all women, it is never too late to prevent osteoporosis or lessen its severity by making appropriate lifestyle choices.
Any sources cited must be correctly listed on a References page using the Author-Year or Number system (see Chapter 5 of this handbook).
Jerz > Writing > Technical >
This document describes how to write a process description (or process analysis), a variation of the short report designed to help a reader understand how a change takes place over time, through a series of stages.
You might use a process description to examine the photosynthesis of plants, the migration of animals, or the impeachment of presidents.
By contrast, the mechanism description focuses on an object in space (e.g. the physiology of a plant), andinstructionsfocus on actions the reader takes to make the process happen (e.g. how to care for a plant).
Parts of a Process Description
What follows is a general structure, which you should adapt to fit the specific needs of your writing task.
- Step-by-Step Description
While the reader sees the abstract first, the author should expect to write it last.
We live in a tl;dr world. Summarize any professional document more than a few paragraphs long, for the benefit of a busy reader who may be reading hundreds of similar documents each day.
An abstract is a compressed summary that boils down the most important contents into a few sentences. (See “Short Reports: Begin with the Conclusion.”)
An abstract is not a list of promises. Don’t think of it like a “stay tuned, we’ll tell you who won the big game and we’ll show you the best plays after these messages from our sponsor” teaser. Instead, an abstract actually gives the final scores and shows the game-winning play.
In general, break the whole process up into smaller stages, and describe each stage in order. If the process is part of a continuing cycle (such as the evaporation and condensation of water), say so.
Caution: Students who are unfamiliar with the “process description” genre sometimes confuse it with “helpful hints,” by which I mean a collection of many details that do not need to take place in any particular order.
|If neglected, pets’ teeth will succumb to tooth decay. A simple process is available to all pet owners that will help in the fight against tooth decay. The process outlined will be using a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, mouthwashes, dental treats, and yearly dental appointments. This process involves both owner and veterinarian intervention….|
|This author is really describing instructions for the care of a pet’s teeth. The writer has almost complete control over where each element of the process goes… for instance, do you have to use the toothpaste first, and then the mouthwash? Maybe there is some scientific reason, but the above passage isn’t set up to explain the science. The end result is that instead of a process, we get a list of pet dental hacks, without a strict chronological organization.|
|Veterinary dentistry includes the cleaning, adjustment, filing, extraction, or repair of your pets’ teeth and all other aspects of oral health care. These procedures should be performed by a veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary dentist. Subject to state or provincial regulation, veterinary technicians are allowed to perform certain dental procedures under the supervision of a veterinarian. —Pet Dental Care (AVMA)|
|The author successfully introduces the various “procedures” that comprise veterinary dentistry. It’s not designed to be a step-by-step set of instructions for pet owners to follow, nor is it written for veterinary dentists to follow. It’s not a set of instructions at all — it simply describes a complex process by breaking it down into separate procedures.|
A good introduction is a concise paragraph that will accomplish two things:
- define the overall process in a single sentence.
- describe the document (you are describing the scope and purpose of the document you are writing; this is not the place to demonstrate your ability to introduce the field of knowledge you are about to draw on in order to help your reader understand the process)
Your introduction should be a concise paragraph that supplies a good sentence definition of the process.
|One of the greatest environmental threats to our nation’s agriculture is the growing acid rain problem.|
|This introduction is too general; the paper appears to be about “threats to our nation’s agriculture” instead of acid rain.|
|Acid rain is one of the greatest environmental threats to our nation’s agriculture.|
|While this version does properly emphasize “acid rain,” it merely makes a claim about the significance of the subject, and seems to introduce a comparison with other environmental threats (each of which should probably properly be dealt with in separate documents). We still don’t know what acid rain is.|
|Acid rain is environmentally harmful precipitation that forms after the combustion of fossil fuels releases nitrogen and sulfur oxides into the atmosphere.|
Purpose and Scope of the Document
Like any technical document, it should also state the scope and purpose of the paper.
|This document describes the process in general terms, in order to demonstrate the necessity for increased government regulation in sensitive areas.|
|This paper cites recent studies by Smith and Jones (1997, 1998) to assist EPA officials with their efforts to determine which parts of the country should be designated “at risk” or “potentially at risk” over the next five years.|
3. Brief Description
As part of a brief paragraph (or, for a shorter document, possibly the same paragraph as the introduction), answer the question, “How does it happen?”
Provide any necessary context, such as who or what performs the action, under what conditions, and how is the process significant. Give a concise overview of the process. This brief description should stand alone — that is, it should not refer to details, facts, or terms that aren’t explained within the summary.
You will probably have an easier time writing this section if you save it until you have written out the complete description. Conclude this section by breaking the process up into stages: “The principle stages of writing process are planning, drafting, revising, and proofreading.”
Your next section will work through each stage in turn.
4. Step-by-step Description
For each step in your description, write a miniature process description:
- define the step
- state its purpose (or function within the process)
- providing the necessary context, and
- include brief mechanism descriptions for any components that may be involved
Divide this stage up into substages, if necessary.
Without being excessively redundant, review the major steps in the process. Walk the reader through one complete cycle, emphasizing how the completion of each stage contributes to the final overall effect. You might provide multiple different examples, or troubleshooting tips.