• A Comprehensive Guide for Writing Research Papers: Humanities Edition
Welcome to college! 

Congrats on making it this far! You’ve spent the last year and a half or so of your life doing tedious research, going on campus tours, hunting down people who like you enough to write recommendation letters, filling out applications, having mental breakdowns and—most importantly—writing a college essay. Now, you’re probably thinking if that essay was good enough to get you into college, you must be pretty good at writing essays, right?

Fast forward a little bit. You’ve registered for a humanities class or two, and boom: you have a research paper due in two weeks. But you’re not worried because you had this on lock in high school: A three-part thesis, five paragraphs, add a little garlic for extra fragrance, sauté, and voilà! You have an A+! Or so you think, until you get maybe a B–, and in your unadulterated terror and confusion, you burst into your professor’s office and ask why your perfectly formulated essay garnered you anything less than an A

And that’s where they drop the bomb on you: your essay was too formulaic. Too mechanical. It looked *stock horror violins* like a high-school essay! 

You’re devastated. Your world has been shattered. Your academic career during K–12 has been a sham. You don’t even know who you are anymore. You mournfully tell them that your high-school education has stunted your essay-writing abilities and inflated your ego, and, in yet another moment of hubris, you ask if there’s anything you can do to change your grade. 

But there isn’t. There never is. 

Your professor patiently tries to explain to you exactly what went wrong, but you’re too panicked to take away anything from the conversation besides “don’t write like this.”  But you don’t know how else to write academic essays. You leave their office absolutely distraught and are frantically wondering, “How else am I supposed to write?” 

Since this exact scenario may or may not be coming from personal experience, I’m willing to bet that’s how you ended up at this nifty little article here. Well, maybe not that exact scenario (for your dignity and sanity’s sake, I hope not) but you are at least sitting with the question, “How do I write a college essay that doesn’t follow the three-part thesis, five-paragraph format?” As someone with several years of experience writing college essays who also had to throw out everything I thought I knew, I’d like to share with you some high-quality, gamer-approved, pro tips on the entire essay writing process. And when I say the entire process, I mean it. 

Time-management tips to help you the whole way

This probably goes without saying, but do try and keep deadlines in mind. Put them on your calendar; set a reminder—you know the drill. 

But turning something in by the deadline that you did during one all-nighter isn’t what I mean. That’s the complete opposite of time management. Instead, try to develop a sense of how long it takes you to get things done. Do you just galaxy brain the moment you open up Microsoft Word and crank out five pages in an hour and a half? Great!se the extra time to edit. Does your brain turn to TV static the moment you finish your MLA heading? That’s OK. Just make sure you get an early start and plan breaks so you don’t frustrate yourself. Again, timely does not mean all at once. If you know how long it takes you to accomplish certain tasks, you can fit working on your essay into your schedule better and won’t have to cram everything in at the last minute. It’ll feel like less of a gargantuan task if you spread the work out into smaller chunks over a longer period of time. 

Pick a topic

Although some professors may tell you exactly what they want you to write about, it’s more likely that you’ll be given a list of open-ended topics to choose from or you’ll be able to come up with your own topic as long as they approve it. This can be great for some people who are really enthusiastic about the class and have a lot of ideas already swimming around. For others, you can practically hear the crickets chirping while you stare blankly at your essay guidelines. Here are some ways you can strike a good balance between a fun and a practical paper:

  • Again, make sure your topic is something you’re at least mildly interested in. It’ll make the writing process more enjoyable and make for a more compelling read. Readers, including your professor, can usually tell how much care went into a piece of writing, and that will go a long way regarding the reception of it.
  • The types of sources your topic will need are usually pretty intuitive. For example, if you’re writing a critical response to a text, you’ll probably need to cite existing critical responses to back you up. Or if you’re writing about what it was like to live in a certain place at a certain time, some primary sources might be in order.
  • Keep in mind the plausibility of there being available sources. Something super contemporary might not have a lot of existing research surrounding it, and what does exist might not be peer reviewed. 
  • Keeping your question specific will help whittle down how much research you will need to do, but there is such a thing as too niche a topic (see above).
  • Try to have a backup. Your topic might not be super researchable once you get to looking or might not be as interesting as you thought it would be.
  • Run everything by your professor. They can provide good insight regarding the intrigue and researchability of your topic so you know whether you’re heading in the right direction before you invest too much time and effort.
The research

You’ve used the above information to help you formulate a professor-approved topic as well as a plan B. Now it’s time for you to hit Google and start gathering research. And while the old trick of using literally anything other than Wikipedia was enough in high school, you will likely encounter the phrase “peer reviewed” when looking at the source requirements for your paper. This means that you need to be looking for scholarly sources by experts that have been reviewed by other experts in that field. But how could you possibly know that?

The good news is that there are these incredible things known as academic databases that contain literally nothing but scholarly resources. You might actually be somewhat familiar with these if you ever used Google Scholar and found what you thought was the perfect source, only to click on the link and have the website tell you that you need to pay money if you want to read anything besides the abstract. Thankfully, full access to academic databases will usually be provided by your college. So now that you know where to look, here’s how to go about your research: 

  • Make a list of keywords and keyphrases relating to your topic. This will come in handy because you usually won’t turn up many results if you type your question word for word into a database’s search bar. 
  • JSTOR is your best friend. Just type in your keywords or keyphrase into the search bar, and you’ll be greeted with an almost overwhelming amount of results. You can narrow things down based on different types of sources: academic journal articles (usually the most abundant and most helpful), book chapters, research reports, and pamphlets. You can also search for content tagged by subject. Each search result will also have a list of topics, which is an additional set of keywords you can use for your research. You can also narrow it down to a range of publication years. Beyond being well organized, all sources on there are peer-reviewed, scholarly sources.
  • Related to JSTOR, there is also a database called ARTSTOR that contains an immense library of visual media, from museum pieces to illustrations. Images are sources, too, and if you’re required to cite one, this is a great place to look.

Although databases like JSTOR are immensely helpful, there will inevitably come a moment when you need to find something that just isn’t there. The rest of the Internet obviously isn’t devoid of useful sources, but you will need to use a more discerning eye. 

  • You’ve heard it from your teachers for years, and you’re going to hear it again from me: don’t use Wikipedia. However, it is not totally useless. Check the sources at the bottom of the article; there’s usually a hidden gem or two every now and again.
  • Google Scholar isn’t just good for psyching you out by showing you sources that are behind a paywall. You can actually find a lot of book sources on there via Google Books. You may have to have books be a part of your citations, and if you can’t find a helpful one on JSTOR, you may just find it through Google Scholar.
  • Websites ending in .gov or .edu will usually be more reliable because, as the extensions imply, they are run by government agencies or educational institutions. But, as with most things, caution and common sense must be exercised. 
  • Lastly are things I like to call “metasources.” As with Wikipedia, this is where you look at the citations of another source. If you’ve found a source that’s already helpful, there’s a good chance it’ll send you in the direction of other good sources, which can be a great timesaver! 
Planning and outlining your paper (I’m begging you not to skip this step; please just hear me out)

I’m a big fan of outlining. I know some of you reading this have gotten into the habit of just opening up a Word document and just trucking along with your paper, and while I won’t stop you (although I absolutely cannot relate), I do want to champion the benefits that come with outlining. First and foremost, it’ll improve how your essay is organized. Your thoughts will already be in a logical order, and it’s easier to move paragraphs and ideas around before you end up writing a really good sentence you get attached to but just doesn’t fit anymore. Outlining also prevents or at least minimizes writer’s block. If you have an outline, you’ll always have at least somewhat of an idea about what’s coming next, and if you lose your train of thought while you’re writing, that’s OK—you’ll have the outline to reference! 

Now that you’re sold on the idea of outlining because why wouldn’t you be, how can you go about it?

  • Often, a simple bulleted list will suffice. Just putting your ideas in the order you want to talk about them will strengthen the logical flow of your paper before you even begin drafting it. But if you’re a more visual person, put all of your ideas onto sticky notes and put them up on a board or wall. It’s extra easy to reorder things that way.
  • Come up with your thesis. This is going to be the backbone of your paper, and everything you discuss needs to relate to it somehow. If your thesis is strong, it will usually be fairly easy to generate the rest of the paper. Decide on the kind of evidence you are going to provide to building on your thesis. This can be done by either referencing what kind of sources you’ll be citing or summarizing them. Briefly trace the steps you’ve taken to reach your claim. The body paragraphs will expand upon those steps.
  • Run everything by your professor, especially your thesis statement. Just letting them know what you’re thinking of doing will go a long way in helping you plan a stronger paper before you start writing. After all, it’d be a real bummer if you came up with a thesis, wrote your whole essay around it, and asked your professor to look at your draft only for them to say it doesn’t work.
Actually writing

Now it’s time to write. But before you do, I’m going to let you in on what is probably the most important tip I can give you, especially in regards to combating the five-paragraph essay: Write organically! If you write in the way that comes most naturally to you, your authorial voice will be more present. There will be more of you in the paper, and it will make for a more interesting read and compelling argument. Give yourself room for creative freedom. 

Honestly, if that was your only takeaway from this guide, I’d be more than happy. I wish I had known that I was able to do this in the beginning, but sometimes we feel like we need permission to change the way we do things, especially when it comes to school. So for those of you who need it, I am not only giving you permission but even encouraging you to write how you want to write. 

Of course, writing a college essay isn’t just about putting heart into it;there’s some technique involved as well. The following advice, however, pertains mostly to my own preferred style. If you like, you can always try them on for size and see :

  • Spice up your punctuation. Diversifying how you split up and deliver sentences will give you stronger control over the pacing of your essay. For example, if you want to deliver a particularly hard-hitting line, use an em dash (—). It’s sort of the written equivalent of a dramatic pause and can let your reader know you’re about to deliver some hot takes.
  • Weave (properly cited) quotes into your own prose. You’ll know you’ve done it correctly when you read the paper aloud and it’s nearly impossible to distinguish quotations from your own writing. So rather than saying something like “according to ____” or “as stated by ____,” you write around the quoted material. This will improve the flow of your paper.  
  • Put down the thesaurus! Purple prose will just distract from your ideas and come off as inauthentic. I know we all want to make Oscar Wilde proud, but your college essays aren’t the place to do it. 
You’re done! Except you’re not.

Now it’s time for my favorite part: proofreading. And, just like outlining, do not skip this step. I don’t care how good you think your paper is; I know you missed something: a skipped word, a misplaced apostrophe, a sentence that needs omitting. Even if you get to do an official rough draft and then a final draft, it’s better to take the sand-blaster to the rough draft and the glass file to the final draft than the other way around. It’ll save you a lot of time and frustration because I know it can be a little disheartening to get back a draft covered in red ink. 

  • Put some distance between yourself and your work. You’re gonna get so used to reading the same thing over and over that you’ll start to miss stuff. Do whatever you need to to make it feel new again, whether that’s giving yourself a day away from it or playing around with the margins or font (let me tell you, reading something in Comic Sans is a whole different experience than Times New Roman; just remember to change fonts again before you turn it in).
  • Not sure if that comma is in the right place? How do you use a semicolon? If you aren’t sure, look it up. Plenty of universities have online writing center resources with answers to these exact questions. 
  • Read it aloud. Note any mistakes. Fix them. Read it aloud again. Repeat. Got a roommate or friend who will be a mildly tolerant audience? Even better. And yes, I know you’re going to feel weird doing it, but it is an absolute lifesaver and one of the best things you can do in the editing phase, and I will die standing on this hill. Read. It. Aloud. 
Bold of you to assume I was finished

The essay odyssey doesn’t end when you turn it in, and neither will I! So you’ve done all of the above, you got that paper written (congratulations!), and you finally, finally got it back from your professor, annnnnnd … it wasn’t the grade you were hoping for. Before I get into my spiel about coping with these kinds of things, here’s some quick advice on doing something productive with a less-than-ideal grade: 

  • If you want to better understand why you got the grade you did, again, go to your professor’s office hours and talk to them about it. You’ll get a better understanding of what you can improve on. The rubric (if you get one) isn’t going to cover every little nuance of how they grade, so if you don’t know, ask.Save all of your work, regardless of the grade! Your professor’s constructive criticism and praise will be invaluable resources in improving all subsequent work and providing a little reassurance along the way. 

Granted, if you followed at least most of the suggestions here, your grade is probably going to be more than fine, but hey, these things happen, right? Maybe you misunderstood the prompt or couldn’t make time to go over it with other people. Maybe life got in the way, or it just didn’t quite come together. We can follow all the practical advice in the world but still just not be in the right headspace to write, and that’s OK. Your “best” isn’t a fixed measure of performanceL your “best” for one week may not be as good as your “best” the week before. Don’t stress over a B or a C–, especially if it’s the first paper you’ve written for that class. It took me a long time to figure that out. This isn’t just about breaking bad writing habits; it’s about breaking unhealthy habits about how we view our own productivity and success. So here are my final suggestions:

  • Don’t be so hard on yourself.
  • And remember: you’re always going to be a better writer by the last sentence than you were when you wrote the first. Develop good habits and practice, and there’s nothing you can do except improve.

Good luck, guys, and happy writing!