Getting Started

These are ideas and models of how to write a paper from start to finish. We present a lot of options and directions you can take so that you can choose the combination that works best for you

You’re sitting down to begin planning and writing your paper or essay, and you start out by re-reading the writing prompt (the description of your writing assignment). Hmmm. You read it again. Still unclear?

Even if your writing prompt is unclear (or maybe it was only verbally stated in class), your professor still probably has a clear idea of what he or she expects in your paper or essay. Your task is to find out your professor’s expectations. Make sure you can answer this list of questions for yourself before you begin:

  • Purpose: What is the overall purpose of the assignment?
  • Type: Should your paper make an argument or just describe?
  • Audience: Whose understanding should you be writing for?
  • Tone: Should your paper be formal (like a scholarly article), or can it be more informal (like freewriting)?
  • Style: What style handbook should you use (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.)? And are there any formatting requirements you should follow?
  • Sources, examples, and texts: Should you include them, and how many? Are there any specific sources or texts that your professor requires? Can you use your textbook as a source? Can you incorporate any other class materials or lessons in your paper?
  • Due Dates: When is your final paper due? How about an annotated bibliography, a report of your sources, or a first or second draft?
  • Length requirement: How many words or pages should you write?
  • Rubric: Is there a rubric (a breakdown of what is being graded in the assignment and for how much value)? For instance, how much is grammar worth?


Here are a few ways to find out the answers to those questions:

Paraphrase the assignment.
Try to identify the central question in the writing prompt, and rewrite it as a short, understandable question for yourself on the same page. Add a list of assignment requirements beneath your question. You may check with your professor to make sure you’ve articulated it correctly. Refer back to your rephrasing of the question when you feel lost.

Think back.
Reflect on another paper you’ve received from the same professor. Based on his or her feedback on this past assignment, jot down some observations about your professor’s expectations.

Ask a friend.
If you were absent on an important day, be sure to contact a fellow student to get the missed information.

Check with your professor.
Well in advance, ask your professor during class or office hours some of the precise questions listed above. Ask your professor to approve your topic or research plan.

Request samples.
If you and your fellow classmates are uncertain about the writing assignment, you can politely request that your professor provide examples to the whole class of what he or she expects.

Assume the highest standards.
If you don’t have anyone to check with, keep these thoughts in mind: Nearly every formal writing assignment requires you to make an assertion and back it up with evidence, it’s better to err on the side of formality than informality, and professors will appreciate it more if you do a little extra than if you try to get away with doing as little as possible.

A large assignment may seem overwhelming, but it can always be broken up into smaller, manageable steps. In WAC, we call this scaffolding because you create multiple levels to complete, sort of like playing a video game. When your professor assigns a research project, you can break it down into parts and create a timeline for yourself for when each section of your project is due. Read on for a list of tasks you can follow.

When planning, remember to be realistic about how long it will take. No one does his or her best work at the last minute. It’s a good idea to give yourself at least a month (or more) of writing time before the assignment is due. Aim to complete two of the following tasks per week. If you happen to be making a plan at the last minute, it’s still a good idea to scaffold the writing tasks, but with shorter deadlines.

Tip: If you know you struggle with deadlines, work with another student. Exchange your written ideas for each of the research steps below with a classmate. “Hand in” your work to your partner so that you can discuss and edit each other’s work throughout the semester.

Here are the stages of a basic writing assignment (add in any other stages you may need for your particular assignment):

Check out the "Understanding the Writing Assignment" tab before you decide on your research question.

Formulate a research question and task.
Choose a question you really would like to answer. Try to connect your research to your major, your career, or things you think about outside of class. This strategy will help you to be an expert on an interesting topic before you even hit the job market. Once you’ve decided on your research question, write it down on the same page as your writing assignment instructions.

Research task: When you’ve chosen your research question, decide on your task. What texts will you read? What databases will you search? What terms will you enter? Write out your research task as a sentence beneath your research question.

Compile an annotated bibliography as you research.
Research isn’t just reading quietly in a library or at your computer; it’s a whole lot of writing. The purpose of an annotated bibliography is to save yourself time. Summarize the important points of each article or book you read, so that you don’t have to read it again later. Be sure to jot down anything that’s relevant to your research, along with page numbers. It’s also a good idea to write down quotations you’d like to use from each source (with page numbers!). Also see "Writing Terms You May Come Across" below.

Tip: As you keep your annotated bibliography, write down any additional thoughts that occur to you about your research question. Write them as soon as they come to you; don’t count on remembering them later. You just may wind up accidentally writing whole sections of your paper.

Create a thesis or hypothesis.
Aim to state your thesis or hypothesis in one sentence (not a question) that makes an arguable claim (a claim people might argue with). The rest of your paper will provide proofs or arguments to support this claim.

Tip: Be aware that, as you write your paper, you may want to argue something slightly different. This is all part of the normal writing process. Be prepared to rewrite your thesis, based on what your paper argues!

Plan your paper with an outline.
The outline is the skeleton of your paper; you’ll “flesh out” everything else later. For each paragraph, write one substantial sentence (not just a topic or idea) that sums up the main point of the paragraph. You can start each one out like this: “This paragraph is stating that&