School for New Learning > Student Resources > SNL Writing Guide > How to Write a Paper

How to Write a Paper


“Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time. . . . The wait is simply too long.” -- Leonard Bernstein


Most writing projects start with gathering information and ideas. Every writer develops his or her own process, and there is no single “correct” way to go about starting an assignment. If you get stuck, try something different. Here are some tips to  get started:
  • Study the assignment. Know exactly what your teacher is looking for so it informs your brainstorming. If unsure, ask.
  • Find something of interest within the constraints of the assignment. If writing about fiction, focus on a character or scene you like. When discussing a philosophy or theory, pick a statement or concept you find jarring or one that rings especially true and try to argue for or against it. If writing on a current event, pick something meaningful to you. Do not dismiss a topic of interest if it may not fit the assignment; present your idea to your teacher.
  • Do not pick a topic or a position just because your teacher supports it. If you are not invested in the topic, your paper will not be fun to write or to read.
  • Start with what you know. Before research, ask yourself what you know and what you think you need to know about your topic. Try a variety of brainstorming strategies from the Inventing Toolbox to gather the information and ideas already in your head.

Inventing Toolbox
​ ​ ​Questioning:  Interview yourself about your paper. Start with the basics: What is your assignment? Who is your audience? Why do they care about this topic? Why do you care about this topic? What is your purpose? What do you already know and think about the topic? What do you guess? What do you want to know? What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? Asking a reporter’s questions (who, what, when, where and especially why) can help develop your ideas. See "Prewriting (Invention) General Questions."
Listing: List every aspect of your topic that comes to mind.  Do not censor yourself -- keep your pen moving. Later, you can sort the useful ideas. Talking: Try discussing your assignment with others. Talk your ideas out and ask others to tell you what they think you said. It might be helpful to record your conversations. Interviewing: Find people who know about your topic and ask them about their experiences. If you use their information, cite them as a source.
​ ​ ​Freewriting: Set a timer for 10 minutes and just start writing everything that comes to mind about your topic.  Keep your pen, pencil or fingers moving, even if you have to write “I’m stuck” over and over again. When the timer goes off, look for patterns. This can help you realize how much you already know about a topic and what about the topic interests you most.  Try "Getting Started: Freewriting" or see Write or Die: Putting the Prod in Productivity for a great freewriting tool.
Heuristics: A heuristic tool helps you think about a topic and considerations like audience and purpose.  Try plugging your assignment into these pages to develop possible approaches to your material: "More Prewriting Questions." Mapping: Visual learners and relational thinkers may like mapping ideas through concept maps. There are a variety of ways to brainstorm using graphical techniques such as clustering, fishbone and Venn diagrams. The "Periodic Table of Visualization Methods" has examples of many different graphical organizers. Outlining: Logical thinkers may like outlining ideas. Similar to listing, outlining adds the step of organizing related and supporting ideas into categories. ​
​ ​ ​Researching: Sometimes seeing what has already been written about your topic can help you collect your thoughts. Be careful. Looking at what others have written before you have thought about your topic can lead to a boring, derivative paper and even to plagiarism. Identify what you know and do not know, and the sources of your information. As you research, keep reflecting upon your ideas and how they develop with new information. Research at this initial stage should focus on giving you an overview of the topic, including experts in the field and major issues. The DePaul Library can help you find whatever you need. See "Evaluating Resources" to help determine if a source is appropriate for your project. Remember outside information you use in your paper must be properly cited.


Once you have picked a topic, you need to figure out how to approach it. Often the assignment will give clues for how to organize your paper. For example, the assignment might ask for a comparison or a definition and application of a concept. When writing to address a competency statement, look at its criteria.

Organizing Toolbox
Draft your thesis statement, usually the last sentence of the opening paragraph. Your thesis should set readers' expectations for your paper. A good thesis should:
  • Take a clear, arguable position; do not argue for something already agreed to by most people.
  • Be focused and specific.
  • Indicate the overall structure of your paper. 
Start with the idea of what your thesis will be, but know it may need to change as you write and edit your paper. Let it develop during your thinking, researching, and writing. Keep trying out ways of stating your thesis to yourself, your friends, your peers and your teacher.
Get familiar with common argument strategies: cause and effect, comparison, problem solution, classification, and definition. Each suggests a specific organization for your writing. Learning effective argument strategies lets you clearly present a position. See suggestions for organizing papers based upon common argument structures from Colorado State.  Outlining is one methods of organizing your ideas before you write. Your outline should be specific but does not need to be formal or precise. It should give a picture of how your argument is developing. Most importantly, once done, you do not have to stick to it.  As you begin writing, your understanding of the topic will grow and change.  Allow your new realizations to inform your writing and do not cling rigidly to your outline.
Visualizing with flow charts and other graphic organizers can outline your ideas. See the "Periodic Table of Visualization Methods" for some ideas about how to do this. Mapping is a good way for relational thinkers to organize and brainstorm ideas. See Purdue OWL for an explanation of the Idea Map.
​​Note cards work well for an organized, logical thinker. Use a different card for each idea or quote from a source. Then, arrange them in a logical order for your paper.
Research at this stage should focus on finding support for your thesis and main points as well as counter arguments and objections you will need to address.
​Talking out your paper with others can discover organizational links within the material. Arrange your ideas in some order to present them. Try telling your story a few different ways. ​Listing is an informal way of outlining. Write down points to address and arrange them into order; remember to distinguish main ideas from supporting ones.
​ ​Just start writing if you are having a hard time getting started. This preliminary draft will help you collect and organize ideas. Do not worry about sentence structure and grammar. Your goal is to explore your ideas and work out their organization. Then make an outline to decide where you need to add, delete or rearrange your ideas.


You have a topic,  tentative thesis statement and working outline. Now it is time to start writing. When first drafting your paper, focus on getting your ideas in an order that makes sense to you.

 Drafting Toolbox

Write junk. You do not have to get it all right in your first draft. Do not worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation.

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Turn off spell and grammar checks to keep yourself from being distracted. (Remember to turn them back on when you are done with the first draft.)

Give yourself time. Do not wait until the last minute to start. Leave yourself plenty of time to revise. If possible, set aside a block of time in a quiet place. However, do not wait for the perfect moment to start writing; it rarely comes. Writing is an act of will.

Take breaks when you get tired. Put the paper aside for a while and do something else to clear your mind so that fresh ideas will pop into your head.

Try tried and true methods for developing your ideas.  Not every method is appropriate for every assignment, but perhaps one of them will give you some ideas for your paper. Check out Colorado State University’s "Types of Development" and "Strategies for Developing Your ideas."​

Use the talking cure. If you get stuck, talk to someone about it. Often, in the process of explaining the problem, you will figure out a solution.

When writer’s block is not an option, see the University of Illinois's "Strategies for Overcoming Writer's Block." ​​

Freewrite ​if the thought of starting makes you feel panicky or if you get stuck at any point in your draft

Researching.  Avoid the temptation to stop writing and go look up a fact or search for additional sources. This excellent way to procrastinate will make drafting less efficient. Make a note to do the research later and keep writing.

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“I love reworking, I love editing, love love love revision, revision, revision, revision.” (George Carlin's Last Interview)
Some writers skip revising in favor of editing.  Experienced writers, on the other hand, spend more time at this stage, revising multiple drafts to re-think their papers. 

Revising Toolkit

Move from global to local revisions. Revise first for organization and logic, then for clarity and effectiveness, finally for style and correctness. Once ready for fine-tuning, see “Writing Tips: Five Editing Principles” for practical tips.

Do a reverse outline to check your organization. See a good example from OWL Present it to someone to check your logic and persuasiveness.
Ask questions about what you have written.
  • If addressing a competence statement, have you done so fully? 
  • Do your main points connect logically to one another?
  • Are there smooth transitions between ideas that show how they are related? 
  • Did you answer the question your teacher posed? 
  • Is your thesis statement fully justified by your body paragraphs? 
  • Is there any information in your paper that is extraneous or unnecessary? 
  • Are there any points that lead nowhere or even contradict the main point you are trying to make? 
  • Is there enough background information present that a reasonably intelligent person could follow your paper even if he or she were unfamiliar with your topic? 
  • What information should be added? What terms need to be defined? 
  • What ideas, characters or figures need further explanation?
Research: You may need to do additional research which may lead you to revise some of your claims or even your thesis.
Remember your goals. Does what you have written accomplish your goals? How do you know?

Remember your audience. Imagine their response to what you have written.

  • What might they be confused about, disagree with, or want more detail?
  • What might you not need to tell them?

Take breaks between drafts so you can come back with a fresh perspective.

Ask a reader you trust to look over your paper. DePaul's Writing Center is the perfect place to find skilled readers.


The hardest part is done; you have a fully developed, well supported paper.  Now it is time to focus on mechanical issues: 
Editing Toolbox
Read backwards, sentence by sentence, to keep from getting caught up in the story. Look for your usual mistakes. For example, if you often confuse “from” and “form,” look for just those two words. Let the paper sit for a while, and then look over it again.
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Read your paper aloud, to someone else or into a recorder. Give them a copy of your paper to ensure the words read are the words on the page. Note where you trip over words can indicate awkward constructions.

Always proofread. Use technology like spell check and grammar check consistently and cautiously.
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Ask someone to look at your paper, a friend or family member, or send your paper to DePaul's Writing Center.