By Greg Markley

In a college American History class, two students wrote papers on Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father. They noted he was born at 17 Milk St. in Boston, Massachusetts. I asked why they used the Milk Street reference—was Franklin lactose intolerant? Introducing elements like the full address where a man was born 300-plus years ago adds unneeded details. Inserting trivia without saying why leaves readers waiting for a second shoe to drop. (No points were deducted, though.)
Many students, including those at Auburn University and Southern Union, find writing papers daunting and so they procrastinate. This makes it unsettling when they finally start typing “the Monster” (as some call it). I present approaches you can take to make academic writing more pleasurable than torturous. Just forget the cynical quote from Ernest Hemingway, the novelist: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Writing a paper is like everything else we do in that cutting the work down into bite sizes gains us confidence. It saves us from running around in circles. Making an outline with dates for finishing specific actions, such as when research begins and ends, works wonders. A 5-10 bullet outline is fine for a paper of fewer than 10 pages. List topics chronologically but go with the flow and cut or reorder the outline based on what direction evolves organically as you write.
I never issued minimum and maximum word counts; no one should. Why? Because students tend to look at word counts on their computer screens and quit abruptly when they reach the minimum. For example, they may stop when they reach the 500-word target writing about Harry S Truman. They left Truman’s presidency before events like the Marshall Plan and Korean War occurred.
The reverse: when a student gets near the minimum and is short on research. What does he or she do? –“padding.” For instance, he needs 50 words, or two paragraphs more. On Page 1, he wrote “Dr. Martin Luther King was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, at age 35.”
Merely to fill space, he repeats the same fact, later, figuring the teacher will not notice. But, we most certainly do.
In selecting a topic, students may choose one that is too short a canvass in history classes.
For a five page paper, “Opelika, Alabama in August 1930” might be better if you focus on a three-month period—July to September 1930. You can explore in a modest way the months prior to August 1930 and after that. Adding short insights of two more months into the mix means perhaps 40 to 50% more work. But your chances of getting an “A” will increase a lot.
As Arthur C. Nielsen, the U.S.-born market research analyst, said: “Employ every economy consistent with thoroughness, accuracy and reliability.” In political science, a good topic is “Election flaws in Palm Beach County, Florida in the 2000 general election.” That’s better than the serpentine “Mistakes Florida-wide in the 2000 general election.” Why drag the entire Sunshine State into your short essay when one county alone will suffice? Why burden yourself?
I recall more than one student who thought “The U.S. since 1865” would be a good topic, in just five pages. I then point out that there was a whole course in the next room—dedicating 16 weeks to that very topic! A less wieldy topic would be “The natural environment in Auburn since 1970—after Earth Day.” In most 40 or 50 year periods, enough happens to provide material for both shorter (play-by play) papers and analytical (longitudinal) essays.
A title that is too long for a typical undergraduate three to five page paper is “Rural areas of Alabama—their status in 2019.” Better and less time-consuming is “The two Bs: How are Beauregard and Beulah doing now.” That makes for a short but informative essay in political science. As students advance into juniors and seniors, they will get to another level or writing—perhaps longer papers requiring more secondary research and original writing.
In the comedy, Back to School (1986), Rodney Dangerfield plays a wealthy businessman who joins his son in pursuit of a college degree. The son says: “You have a major paper coming up on Kurt Vonnegut and you have not read any of his books.” A knock on the door; in comes Vonnegut himself, ready to help with the father’s paper. Ah, even in movies the rich are not like us. Yes, but by using these tips, writing your next paper should be pleasanter than expected.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.