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).
Providing the Detailed Information
A descriptive essay is an essay that is bound to provide some sort of detailed information on a certain subject. Descriptive essay topics are attractive for the readers because they want to learn something significant and new. This is why all good descriptive essay topics should be chosen carefully, or else you might find yourself standing in front of your paper for hours, trying to figure out what you should write about. In order to impress your audience, you need to spend some time working on a topic that reflects best an interesting issue.
Choosing Descriptive Narrative Essay Topics
The reason why many students decide to tackle descriptive essay topics is because they are easy to deal with. Once you have decided on the subject, you can slip with ease into the text and give some first-hand accounts which make it simpler to narrate. The main goal of such a paper is to evaluate the student’s ability for creative writing, as well as his/her perception regarding the world around them. Students need to be able to describe their environment properly, which is why researching topics for a descriptive essay will bring them on the right track to evaluate their learning process. Good descriptive essay topics are regarded as pillars that support the creativity of the student as well as the understanding of his/her environment. Not only that but they also help students engage in conversations that enable them to analyze their surroundings. Writing such essays is also one of the ways to stay motivated in spite of obstacles and failures, as it teaches you to see beauty in everything that surrounds you.
How to Approach your Descriptive Essay
Every student should know that writing is not an easy task, which is why they need to be particularly careful when writing a descriptive essay. As a writer, you need to make your reader feel attached to your essay in an emotional way. If after reading your paper the reader feels like he or she has actually met that person you described or has really gone to that particular place, you did an amazing job in writing the best descriptive essay. Your descriptive essay must be like a painting which shows the scene and not a simple text that tells.
Here are a few pieces of advice to help you approach any topics for a descriptive essay:
The Prewriting Stage
This is when the students decide on which topic they want to choose. Do they want to describe a place or event that they remember from their childhood? Or do they want to talk about a person or a book character that has always been their hero? It doesn’t necessarily have to be an unusual or famous place/person. Students can even talk about the tree house in the back of their neighbors as long as it holds importance. Once set on the topic, focus on the where, what and how questions. Provide a detailed description of all the characteristics. Make sure you have given a thorough description of the object and showed it instead of telling about it.
The Writing Stage
Are you familiar with the class event “Show and Tell”? Well, when writing a descriptive essay, you need to go by the “Don’t tell… show.” Rather than just telling them what’s happening, use descriptive language and form images that describe the subject. Try to avoid using “to be” and “to have” constructions, as they are more narrative then descriptive. Compare The clock was old with The clock has been a member of our family for years, marking faithfully every minute and second of our lives. See the difference? Give your reader an image they can envision.
The Sharing Stage
Feedback is also important when you write a paper. Irrespective of the topic you decided to approach, it is best that you share your work with the class or teacher, no matter how scary it may be. Take whatever advice is given to you and improve your descriptive essays even more. You can even find someone whose writing skills you find the best in this field and ask for their advice.
What are Some Good Topics for Descriptive Essays
There are tons of subjects you can choose from for a descriptive essay. These topics can vary from person to person, depending on both the student and the teacher concerned. Nonetheless, some great descriptive narrative essay topics should contain all the five senses that the human has been blessed with. Sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste, none of these should be absent from your descriptive essay, and every student needs to find a way to incorporate them in his or her paper. Topics can vary from art exhibitions, concert halls, costumes, nature, characters from a movie or a book or even a room that might seem unusual. Sometimes, you have to choose your own topic as a student and other times you might have one handed out during an examination or as an assignment. As mentioned, issues can vary from circumstance to circumstance, depending on the teacher, the course and/or the student.
Here are some good examples of common topics for college essays from students:
- The most imposing building structure you’ve ever seen
- Your favorite historical place
- The scariest place you have ever gone to
- Your ideal partner for studying
- The image of your perfect town
- The experience of bungee jumping
- The tastiest foods you have ever eaten
- The most interesting work of art you have ever seen
- The experience of falling in love
- Your first day as a student
- Your Graduation day
- The most embarrassing day of your life
- An event that changed your life
Actually, there are so many descriptive essay topics out there that it’s quite difficult to choose just one. Students have an affinity for these types of pieces because they are easy to approach, and you can have all the information that you need by looking around you. Plus, it is also pretty easy to deliver in front of the class. So have some fun while doing your descriptive essay, choosing an interesting and nice topic.
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