Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on October 8, 2008


typewriter3          All right, here we go – it’s super-practical advice Wednesday!  Today’s lesson is…How to Write an ‘A’ Paper; and while this post is specifically geared for the typical eight-novel English course with a 10-15 page final paper, it’s more or less applicable, with a few minor tweaks, to any humanities-driven subject.  Now, a quick disclaimer – there are a few students, who, try as they may, might simply lack the writing talent to get the job done.  If the University-world was paralleled by The Office, these would be students with a Mose Schrute-level intellect, but…at least 80% of undergraduates can knock out an ‘A’ paper by following these ten steps. That is, to reuse The Office metaphor, anyone with Dwight Schrute-level talent (and one-tenth of his intensity) can manage – and I’m not talking about papers limited specifically to Lord of the Ringsand beet-farming.

          Step 1: Choose one of the first two novels in the course as your base text.  Here’s the rationale for choosing an early book: As a professor, I’m going to read 30 papers at the end of the semester, and 26 of them will be written on books that have been discussed after the mid-term.  Halfway through the stack, I’m so sick of these identical papers that I have to take a break every half hour to watch an episode of Entourage just to clear my head.  Papers on different books offer a refreshing change of pace from the monotony, and are looked upon favorably.

          Step 2: Pick a subject that interests you early in the book, and focus your reading.  You have to read the whole book for class anyway.  So, if in the first 50 pages, you can pick up on something that interests you, you’re in a way better position to not have to re-read the novel later in the semester looking for details to back up your point.  Stick with that first interest, and every time the author moves back to that subject matter, use a highlighter to mark the quotes.  BOOM – you’ve got the most important aspect of the paper already knocked out!  Why?  Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Deep in the heart of most professors there lies a lurking suspicion that their students aren’t actually reading the books they’ve been assigned.  We fear Cliff Notes, we fear Spark Notes, and we fear strange new web technologies that we’ve never heard of before.  Maybe Apple has created some sort of iSummarizer that magically reads all the books assigned every semester and then uploads a summary Matrix-style directly to our students’ brains.  We have no idea.  The best way to allay your professors’ fears is to choose smart quotes for your paper that prove you’ve read the work critically, then integrate those quotes into the flow of the sentences in your paper.  But I’m moving ahead of myself a bit.  At this point, your job is to highlight good quotes.

          Step 3: On a random Sunday early in the semester, scan J-Stor for 6-8 related articles.  As noted in Lesson #14, this is absolutely something that can be done while watching football or Sex in the City reruns.  The point on this Sunday afternoon isn’t to actually read the articles, but just to skim them to see if they are talking about the subject on which you’ve planned to write.  If you are, for instance, writing about the importance of automobiles in The Great Gatsby, just look for articles on “automobiles in 1920s culture,” “Gatsby and technology,” “driving and the leisure class,” etc.

          Step 4: Continue contributing to class discussion throughout the semester.  The importance of this for your paper grade can not be overstated.  Lesson #3 highlights the fact that professors give better grades to students they like, and this is most often reflected in our willingness to slightly adjust paper grades upward for students who have done a good job being a vital part of class discussion.  Just remember, though, to THINK BRONZE MEDAL.

          Step 5: Once a week, read and highlight an article.   All you need is a spare half hour once a week, and this can come from any number of places.  Here are a few examples of where you might find an extra 30 minutes: while you are waiting in the Student Union between classes, before you go to the pre-party for that inevitable college 80s-night, when you are sitting through a tedious 500-person physics lecture, or during that time slot on CBS on Monday when they are showing whatever shitty sitcom isn’t The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, or Two and a Half Men.  The point here is to follow the same logic you used when reading and highlighting your primary text.  Scan the article, paying attention to places where the author is explicitly dealing with subject matter that discusses the topic you have chosen.  Highlight that, and disregard everything else.  Then go enjoy Cindy Lauper and Rick Astley in your leg-warmers.

          Step 6: Type out your highlighted notes.  About three weeks prior to the paper’s due date, sit down in front of your favorite movie, or pop open a beer, and simply transcribe the highlighted notes from the printed pages of your book and articles to your computer – make sure to save to your flash drive.  This an important act in the paper-writing process that takes almost zero conscious thought, and you’ll be surprised how well it reinforces the quoted material on a subconscious level.  You are now completely armed to type your paper, and on the flash drive you’ve got all the details and evidence you need to prove your point.  If, when the time comes to write, you are somewhat lazy, you can even cut-and-paste the quotes into your argument rather than retyping them word for word.

          Step 7: Spend 15 minutes making a bare-bones logical outline before you begin typing.  This doesn’t have to be much.  In fact, it can be as little as an idea for an introduction, three or four Roman numeral big points that you want to make, and a conclusion.  It does, however, ensure that your paper has some sort of logical flow, which your professor will appreciate.

          Step 8: On any night when you’ve got four or five spare hours, type the paper.  You’ve now got a two-week window of opportunity to put your thoughts down on the computer screen, and because you’ve done such thorough preparation (all while spending almost zero extra time), the paper will basically write itself.  Make sure, however, that you find this random night to type the paper out with at least a week to go before the end-of-the-semester, so that you can…

          Step 9: Take twenty minutes the next night to read the paper out loud.  Reading your paper out loud will allow you to make sure that your writing is saying what you wanted it to say in the first place, will allow you to rework awkward passages, and will allow you to catch 95% of the paper’s typos.  Then, send an email that will…

          Step 10: Ask your professor to look at a draft.  Almost every professor in America is willing to help his or her students, and most will gladly read a draft of your paper, if you ask them no later than a few days before the deadline.  This is our job, and we’ll most likely hand the paper back to you with a couple of ideas to make it better.  Then, all you have to do is make the suggested changes, which will probably take about 30 minutes, and you’ve more or less guaranteed yourself an A.

          So that’s it in a nutshell – a pretty-much foolproof guide to writing an ‘A’ paper that involves 1) reading a book you have to read anyway, 2) watching television, 3) skimming articles once a week in between classes instead of skimming the student newspaper, 4) taking 15 minutes to jot down an outline, 5) taking 20 minutes to read your final draft out loud after it’s been written, and 6) sending an email to your professor.  They’ve done studies, you know – 60% of the time, it works every time.  Wizard.  Out.

20 Responses

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  1. MS said, on October 9, 2008 at 3:33 am

    In the immortal words of the Gin Blossoms: “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down” or, “How to Write an A(verage) Paper.” I begin with this mid-late 90s song lyric and my interpretation of that lyric in light of Dr. Wizard’s recent post, because that’s what I think Dr. Wizard has outlined above: how to write an average paper. Re-read it. It tells you how to do your job. Everyone follow this schematic and essentially write a pretty okay paper (in other words, an average paper). Unfortunately, Dr. Wizard is right, the average paper you produce by simply doing your job will get you an ‘A.’ You don’t even have to perform any rhetorical wizardry or aesthetic witchcraft to impress us anymore. And is it completely the students’ fault that we’ve been forced to inflate grades (despite our adamant claims to the contrary)? Perhaps not, but I’m assigning 60% of the blame to you anyhow.

    Here’s my problem with the college student today: everyone thinks they deserve an ‘A’ when the grim reality is that the majority of college students actually deserve a ‘C’ – they are average. It’s simple mathematics (or linguistics, depending how you want to look at it. I mean, I don’t want to get into a semantics argument here, but last time I checked, A was not the abbreviation for Average.

    What this means for me: I have to operate on a new grading scale of A (exceeds expectations), B (meets expectations), and C (fails to meet expectations, probably shouldn’t be taking this course and might want to reconsider academia let alone math and science). Unfortunately, this means that even those students who are complete failures still appear (on paper at least) to be average scholars. Academia isn’t for everyone, and as soon as that fact is realized, society will become much stronger. As my old man used to say, “the world needs ditch diggers” (and that coming from a ditch digger). But, as was often the case, he was right. In other words, I’ll continue to be murdered in tiny increments by the staggering stupidity of 60% of my students papers because we’re trying desperately to make accountants and investment bankers out of people who should be ditch diggers and the guy selling 2 for $35 sunglasses at the sunglass pagoda in the mall ; there’s nothing dishonorable in fixing carburetors for a living or slinging pizzas, or washing windows – in fact, I’m pretty impressed with my mechanic, I couldn’t do her job.

    What this means for you: Paying copious amounts of money for a piece of paper that signifies you actually learned something during the last four (let’s be honest, five and a half) years of undergraduate study. Since odds are good that you didn’t actually learn anything beyond what was necessary for job training in a specific field, probably business, that piece of paper hanging on the wall behind your desk is good for one thing, impressing impressionable young Republicans who also didn’t learn anything in college because they were too busy regurgitating other people’s ideas (probably their parents’, other business majors’, and Fox News pundits) as evidenced by their membership in the young Republicans organization. It also means bitching (via email, of course) about the fact that you got a B- on you 8 page paper that used one critical source and Wikipedia (recall the assignment called for a 10-15 page paper with 6-8 critical sources) because you tried really hard, and English isn’t your major, and your girlfriend is in the hospital, and you’re studying for your LSAT. (you didn’t try hard enough, thank God I will only encounter you once, maybe twice, so what? you weren’t in the hospital, Fuck you, assbag). And no, you can’t write an extra-credit essay because you fumbled the first one; I don’t want to read another shitty composition.

    What this means for the future of humanity: Go watch the last 30 seconds or so of Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. You’re that guy.

  2. J. Harris, Ph. D. said, on October 9, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Dr. Wizard,

    I’ve been reading for a few weeks now, but this is my first comment. First I want to say that I basically agree with MS, this is a post about how to write an “A” paper in a grade-inflated world. But it seems to me that there is very little hope for us in academia of escaping that grade-inflated reality. This post lays out the most practical advice for writing a term paper that I’ve yet seen, and I highly recommend that students follow the steps. Quite honestly, a student who writes a paper like this (with logical flow, well-selected quotes, and reliable secondary sources), and who can avoid butchering the English language, is going to earn an A at almost every university in America.

    J. Harris
    U of Montana

  3. Snoop-A-Loop said, on October 9, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    MS — Please tell me that your female mechanic’s name is “Gypsy”…that would be priceless!!!

  4. MS said, on October 9, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    J. Harris: Yes, I completely agree.
    Snoop-A-Loop: I’m pleased to know that someone out there knows that when I referenced my female mechanic I was indeed referring to Gypsy. I mean, if Star’s Hollow was a real place, I would absolutely go there to have my car fixed.

  5. Snoop-A-Loop said, on October 9, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    MS — Please tell me your female mechanic’s name is “Gypsy”…that would be priceless!!!

  6. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 9, 2008 at 7:13 pm


    Please make sure to move your newly repaired car before Human Kirk tows it.

    We have cyclists coming to town.

  7. drwizard said, on October 9, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    It’s very seldom that I have no idea what is going on in the comments section, but…would somebody please explain?

  8. UVA Mike said, on October 9, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    I think it has to do with the Gilmore Girls.

  9. drwizard said, on October 9, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Oh… -wait. What? And Snoop, are you just repeating yourself because the more times you say it, the less weird it will be that we’re having a conversation about the Gilmore Girls. BTW, who are they? How many of them are there? And what have they done that is noteworthy?

  10. MS said, on October 10, 2008 at 1:22 am

    I heard Kirk was still suspended above the town square in a David Blain rip off hunger-strike box…and what’s with the damn stop light in front of Luke’s?

  11. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 10, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Wiz PhD,

    My mother would be so disappointed.

  12. K. Fukudome said, on October 10, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    MS: “Fuck you, Assbag.” Why so angry? Because we lost in the playoffs again?

    J. Harris: I’ll give you some practical advice. Better become a White Sox fan, because we’re not winning a playoff series any time soon.

    Snoop-a-Loop: It would be “priceless” if you bring your green hat to next season’s playoff sweep of the Cubs.

    Dr. Wizards: The Gilmore Girls are huge in Japan – like Spinal Tap but bigger.

    UVA Mike: Next time say more than 6 words, although, technically, I only know about 6 English words myself, making this post impossible.

    Funky Acoustic: Why would your mother be disappointed? Because we lost in the playoffs again?

  13. Meghan Jansen said, on October 10, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Ummm…I love the gilmore girls. But mostly I just wanted to say was thanks Dr. Wizard for the good advice on how to write a paper. I know the semesters already started but i think I can still use the 10 steps for my work this fall.

    P.S. Everyone in the world should go out and buy the new album by Sugarland. its sooooo good!!!

  14. drwizard said, on October 10, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Well, I’ve been monitoring what has now become DWA’s most lengthy discussion chain with amusement and (I’ll be honest) some slight bewilderment. Not a plea to stop the Gilmore Girls line (in fact, please continue, by the end of the week I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that I’ll know who “Human Kirk” is. As opposed to “Robot Kirk”?), but I’ve got a question based on MS’s original response: Is anyone really completely fulfilling their human function if they are the guy selling 2 for $35 sunglasses at the sunglass pagoda in the mall? I won’t argue that everybody should be in college (there’s even a forthcoming post on being an electrician/plumber, etc.), but what the fuck does the sunglass guy have going for him? Can’t America find a better function for him, and let “Robot Kirk” be the sunglass distributor?

  15. seamstress for the band said, on October 13, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Dr Wizard: While “Robot Kirk” is a fantastic option, the correct answer is “Cat Kirk”. Human Kirk decides to name his friendly feline after himself, which creates the need for some creative distinction. If you have further questions about the best tv show of all times, it looks like funktifiedacoustic’s mother may be of some help….unless you would like to spend this Thanksgiving watching DVDs of another tv show……just a thought…

  16. Kate said, on October 14, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Dwight is the man. I just ordered a sweet Dwight Schrute for President shirt from They have tons of stuff from The Office. They said not to tell anyone, but here is a 10% discount code, pts10 (it is case sensitive, so copy and paste it). Enjoy!

  17. MS said, on October 15, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Whoa! I’m in the process of watching the series for the 4th time; remember the episode when Emily tours the Independence Inn and learns that Rory and Lorelei lived in the tool shed when Lorelei first moved out? She flips, and redecorates a room in her house with 98 degrees and N’Sync posters despite Rory would much rather a Tom Waits or Elvis Costello poster. Lane would be totally bummed. Hilarious.

    My mind is Emily Gilmore’s playground.


  18. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 16, 2008 at 12:41 am


    The next time I come to town, you and I should talk about starting a Hep Alien tribute band. Not only would we play our favorite songs from that band, but we could also cover music that Lane, Rory, and Lorelai would enjoy, like ‘Manic Monday’ or Billy Bragg, or Grant Lee Phillips.

    Perhaps it should be called “Wicked E.T.”?

  19. MS said, on October 17, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    As long as we don’t have to use the ‘britney spears microphone,’ I’m down. We’ll have to be sure to play a few of the town troubadore’s songs as well. I mean, he did get invited to open for Neil Young, so you know his stuff is pretty good.
    And does that mean we can branch off into Skid Row hits? Youth Gone Wild, anyone? Gil – what a great idea that was.
    I just realized that as the bass player I’m Brian…better get my inhailer refilled.

  20. funktifiedacoustic said, on October 17, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Sounds good. It also means that we get to cover Gwen Stefani (remember the post-breakup bar mitzvah band) and that my repressed desire to play bluegrass is not a bad thing.

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