19 Tips for Conquering the Blank Page
Have you ever been faced with an assignment or test question you had absolutely no idea how to answer?
Did you ever receive a grade for a paper and feel that the professor was looking for something completely different from what you had written?
Does that 25 page term paper seem too intimidating even to begin?
These 19 tips will help you get organized, construct a plan of attack, draft your paper, polish your writing, and ultimately conquer that terrifying writing assignment.
Read and Respond
1. Take time to read the assignment guidelines carefully, and identify all of the different parts of the question. Instructors will want to see each aspect of the question addressed in your answer, and it is good, if not always necessary, if you do this in order.
2. Make an outline––even for a brief response paper, even for a timed exam––listing the points you will cover in your answer. In this way you will be working toward a complete, well-rounded response.
Develop a Thesis
3. Your answer should say something. Do not simply parrot what you have heard in class, or string together ideas culled from a book. Make an argument, or, in the case of an informal response paper, come up with an original question about the material you have been reading.
4. State your argument, called a thesis, and then prove it, using examples from primary and secondary sources, or from your own experience, if that is appropriate in the context of the class.
5. Try to anticipate holes in your argument, and plug them. Articulate possible problems and how you might counter them, or, if they are insoluble but for the grace of God, say so clearly. Avoid a defensive tone.
6. Summarize what you have tried to say, with a concluding sentence, paragraph, or section at the end of your work, no matter how short the paper.
7. In most academic writing, you are expected to incorporate primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are the things we are studying: historical texts, images, and objects, sociological data, interviews, experiences. Secondary sources are the work of those who study these things with us: books, articles, and online resources analyzing the same things we are.
8. Make sure your primary sources are in the right translation and edition. Using the King James Version of the Bible to debate fine shades of meaning in biblical manuscripts unknown to the seventeenth century will not prove helpful.
9. Select strong secondary sources, paying attention to the press (academic presses at reputable universities, journals in your field, websites citing authors and editors who are responsible for their content) and the author (read biographical information, or a review). If you are uncertain, ask a professor or TA to evaluate a source for you.
10. When summarizing material, cite the page(s) in a footnote. When directly using the words of another author, place all of the borrowed words in quotation marks and cite your source in a note. Do not be guilty of plagiarism through ignorance or laziness. Proper citation style can be found in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), available online through the BU Library.
11. Integrate material from other authors into your writing. Introduce an idea or quotation with a brief summary of its interest for your work, and then discuss its relevance or dismiss its flaws more fully after presenting it. Be critical, but not strident or glib.
12. Read over what you have written.
13. Correct grammatical errors; eliminate repetition of words, phrases, and ideas; sharpen the precision of your vocabulary.
14. Does your writing flow smoothly? Do you have logical transitions to guide the reader from one step in your argument to another? Do sentences and paragraphs represent single, coherent thoughts, without extraneous material?
15. Is there a beginning, in which you state your thesis, a middle, in which you list your proofs, questions, or musings, and an end, in which you offer your thesis again in slightly different words, reflecting a more conclusive position?
16. Have you been as clear and simple as you can, without sacrificing nuances of meaning?
Some Other Suggestions
17. Schedule your work on longer assignments. If a 25-page research paper seems daunting, do your initial research, make an outline, and then set yourself smaller tasks (a set number of words, pages, or paragraphs per day) until you have finished a draft.
18. Read with an eye to becoming an author. Other writers will be your best mentors and teachers. Does a certain book seem to engage you more than another, or impress you as especially well-argued? Most likely it is not only because you agree with its ideas, but because you are in sympathy with the way the author communicates. Discover the kind of writing you admire, and try to imitate it, whether it is warmly conversational chatter, or an imperious, acerbic diatribe. Do not copy the style of another slavishly, but experiment until you find a tone that feels authentically your own, while respecting the standards of your intended audience.
19. Read The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (also available online through BU, but there is a charming illustrated edition, Penguin, 2005). Depend upon it; follow its maxims and be humble about your ability to improve on its advice. Make every word tell.
Margaret Arnold is a doctoral candidate in the DRTS, working on her dissertation, “Mary Magdalene in the Era of Reformation,” with Prof. Barbara Diefendorf. Her editorial experience includes work on four volumes of the American Edition of Luther’s Works, and Steven Ozment’s The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation. Her article, “To Sweeten the Bitter Dance: The Virgin Martyrs and the Lutheran Reformation,” will be published in the next issue of the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. She is the co-author (with Christopher Boyd Brown) of a volume forthcoming from Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht on Art and the Artist in Early Lutheran Preaching: Inspiration, Vocation, and the Example of Albrecht Dürer. She is available for help with written assignments in the STH Writing Works Center.