Writing a Paper | Ashford Writing Center

1. Understand the Assignment’s Purpose

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The ultimate waste of time when writing a paper is to write something that doesn’t even answer the question the professor is asking. Don’t be afraid to ask the professor to explain any part of the assignment that’s unclear.

If the assignment seems vague, it’s not because the professor is trying to trip you up. Often, it’s that they know their field so well that it’s easy for them to think some things are “obvious”…even when they aren’t to us non-experts.

Remember: asking for clarification because you don’t understand the assignment doesn’t make you stupid; what’s stupid is to complete the assignment without understanding it.

Yet, when I was an English TA in college, I saw this problem all the time. Students would spend hours researching and writing a paper on a completely different topic than what the professor assigned. It doesn’t matter how good a paper is–if it doesn’t answer the question, it’s going to receive a bad grade.

Best case scenario, the professor is nice and lets you rewrite it, but why do all that extra work? Furthermore, asking the professor for clarification shows initiative–that you care about the assignment. Demonstrating this level of engagement with your assignments can only boost your grade.

Every assignment has a purpose—a reason why you are doing this assignment. Look at your assignment instructions, and ask yourself: What is the point of this assignment?

For this assignment, are you trying to…

  • Persuade? Make a point? Convince someone of something?
  • Explain an idea or concept?
  • Present research, facts, or findings?
  • Analyze a story, article, case study, or business practice?
  • Apply theories to an idea?
  • Reflect on what you have learned?
  • Tell a personal story?

Once you have figured out your purpose, use it to guide your writing. For example, after writing each paragraph, ask yourself: Does this paragraph support my assignment’s purpose?

Provide Instructions and Get an “A”

An outline is a tool used to organize your written ideas about a topic into a logical order. It is meant to help you establish a structure for a paper you are going to write.

It is a way for you to demonstrate the main argument (thesis), main points (topic sentences), and main pieces of evidence you are going to present in a paper before actually writing the paper.

Additionally, one of the essential purposes of an outline is to clearly convey the connection between the thesis and each of the topic sentences.

There are no APA or MLA rules about how to structure and format the outline itself. Outlines can be structured in different ways—very detailed or less detailed; Roman numerals or Arabic numerals; bullet points or numbers and letters.

If you are asked to use APA or MLA formatting for an outline assignment, this refers to:

  • Including appropriate title page or first-page header
  • Using correctly styled in-text citations
  • Using correctly styled reference or works cited citations

For help formatting the title page, in-text citations, or reference citations for your outline, see our APA/MLA/Chicago page.

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