HOW TO WRITE A PAPER AT THE LAST MINUTE
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Many students put a lot of effort into not doing their work. As the end of the year approaches and final assignments mount, they'll find they have to try a lot harder to not get the work done.
A week ago, tomorrow seemed a long way off, but the deadline looms: The four- or six- or eight-page paper must be turned in. But what if you've skipped a lot of classes or haven't read your textbook? What if you don't even own it yet?!
Then you're in trouble, but of course, it's not your fault. Life is hard and complicated.
At least that's what your professor will say when you get your paper back marked with a letter from the nether regions of the alphabet.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Writing final papers in a hurry is a skill just like, say, painting a fence. In fact, the two jobs have one common technique: use a lot of whitewash.
Here are five easy ways to write a good paper, at the last minute, with limited knowledge of the subject matter. You canUt be completely ignorant about your topic, but these methods may help conceal the flaws.
1.) Your point
This sounds easy, but it's actually the hardest part of the process. The teacher wants you to answer a question or defend a viewpoint in your paper.
Sometimes teachers give you a specific question, while other times you are given a general topic. Either way, the first thing you must do is think about what the teacher is asking for. Once you know that, you have a point to argue.
For example: What caused the fall of the Roman Empire? or Discuss how the fall of the Roman Empire might have occurred.
Think back on anything you might have read or heard in class on the topic, and try to plug in the missing factor that will turn that question into an answer. That's your thesis statement.
One thing to remember is that it doesn't have to be spectacular, or specific. Write about what you know. Don't try to guess "what the teacher wants," and don't be afraid to take a chance.
Keep in mind that a paper is written to defend a viewpoint. If there weren't multiple viewpoints, there would be no need for argument.
A thesis statement: The invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Just make sure that you can support whatever it is you're arguing. Don't start something you can't finish, and make sure you have in your first paragraph that one simple sentence explaining the point of your paper. With that, you have created a direction for your argument. Now, all you have to do is follow the path.
2.) For why or wherefore?
Don't try to sound smart. Keep your paper simple. A straightforward, easy-to-follow argument will get you an "A" every time.
Sometimes, when we're not sure what we're talking about, we try to use big words. For one, they fill up space and can inflate a three-page paper by almost half a page. But don't do it.
If length is your worry, then manipulate the type font and margins when you're finished.
When using big words to sound intelligent, the opposite often occurs. Last-minute papers turn into jumbled messes of multiple instances of "Therefore, as to whether..." and "Indeed, it is clear the fact that...." We try to mimic the rhythms of scholarly rhetoric, and end up sounding moronic.
For example: Therefore, the aqueducts of the Romans having been made of lead, the water supply for the city may well have been contaminated and caused many to go mad from lead poisoning.
That sentence fluffs up the paper, but is dull and boring. Too many words. Basic bad writing.
A better example would be: Many Romans suffered from madness brought on by lead poisoning because the city's water supply was contaminated by lead-lined aqueducts.
The latter sentence is precise. Remember, good writing is clear writing. Clear writing should include active verbs and simple subjects. Don't think your argument has to be complicated to be good.
A teacher will read a straightforward sentence as an indication that you know what youUre talking about, and, indeed, you will. The trick is pulling the right information from your mind, and stating it precisely.
Take whatever kernel of information you got from the class and narrow it down into simple statements. By doing that, you've taken the reins of your paper, and the rest is easy.
3.) Last-minute research
After scraping together an argument and writing down everything that you know can support it, you may find you've only got half a page of material.
Don't panic. Take your information and quickly look it up in the index of your textbook. Turn to those pages, and see if there is anything you missed (or never bothered to read) that might support your argument.
If there's any chance that your thesis will work, you should find something. When you do, quote it. That's the best way to stay close to what you know, fill up the pages, and still write a legitimately good paper.
Never plagiarize, but don't be afraid to use other people's arguments to support your own. Just make sure you credit them.
Remember, you have your point. Just pour through the book, finding anything that remotely relates to it. Make things work.
Again, take chances. Even if a particular passage only dimly supports your argument, use it. Just make sure that you explain how the quote relates to your point. That's called "putting it in context.". You have to set the quote up before slamming it down into your paper.
Simply explain why you think it supports your thesis, explain in simple terms what the quote says, and then quote away!
An example of a quote: According to the medical dictionary, "small doses of lead over a long period of time can cause increasing fits of psychosis."
(Then take a chance and make a connection.)
Water rushing over the lead-lined aqueducts carried just enough of the harmful element to slowly drive the entire population of Rome insane. The textbook states that the downfall of the empire began long before the aqueduct came into wide use. But the wealthy began using aqueducts long before they snaked through the city.
(Then, perhaps, another chance and another quote.)
The wealthy held all the political power in Rome, and made almost all decisions affecting the city. As the textbook states, "The ruling class of the Roman Empire was designated by their wealth."
There, you've just made a pretty good argument. Keep digging through the book, and don't be afraid to cheat a little. Remember, the bigger the quote, the longer the setup. You'll fill those pages in no time.
4.) 1-2-3 structure
Now that you've got your thesis, the rest is easy. The next thing to do is plan to write your paper in three parts.
The first is your opening paragraph. That's where you place your thesis statement (either as the first or last sentence.) The rest of the paragraph should be setup; explain your thesis. As a high-school English teacher once told me, "Say what you are going to say." That's step one.
Step two is the long part: "say it." You've got to support the claims you've made in the opening paragraph. Start each paragraph in this section with a straightforward "minithesis," and explain it (see Part 3.)
Here's a good example of a string of minithesis topics:
- The rulers of Rome were wealthy.
- The wealthy had aqueducts before the rest of the city.
- The empire began its decline before aqueducts were widespread.
- [D The fall of Rome is often attributed to poor leadership.
- The leadership was poor because the rulers were crazy with lead poisoning.
There, you've said it. Now comes the third step. "Say that you've said it." A final, wrap-up paragraph should summarize what you said in the second step. End with your thesis statement, but start it with a "therefore."
Therefore, the invention of the aqueduct caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
5.) Don't screw up
Now that you've gone through all four steps of writing a good last-minute paper, don't let stupid mistakes drop your grade.
Proofread. Make sure you cite sources. Manipulate the font and margins a little to meet the page-length requirement, but make sure you don't go too far. If you followed all these steps, you wonUt need to overdo it.
A solid argument is still a solid argument whether it's two pages or 10 pages long. The professor wants to know that you know what you're talking about.
Creating four-inch margins and overlooking obvious spelling mistakes will indicate the paper was a rush job, and may arouse suspicion. Even if there are only the tiniest holes in your argument, the teacher may go back and try to find them.
If you give yourself about five hours to go through these steps, you should come away with a pretty decent paper. Keep in mind that if you had slaved over it for weeks, you probably would get a better grade.
However, the grade you do receive may be worth the time you blew off enjoying the first warm weeks of spring, or the late nights you spent in the bar instead of in the library. Obviously, the more time you have, the better your grade.
Even if you awake and find you have only one-half hour to start and finish a paper or miss the deadline, there is still something you can do.
Go back to sleep.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but it takes a few hours to explain why it fell.
Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as collegeinstructorshategradingpapers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utterwasteof their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellowhumanistsinsist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic),and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Students hate writing papers, and professors hate grading them. Should we stop assigning them? Listen to the debate on Slate Plus.
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.