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June 8, 2023

Writing an Academic Paper: A Beginner’s Guide

Writing an Academic Paper: A Beginner’s Guide

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An academic paper might be quite different from other writing you’ve done before. But never fear — with my experience of writing as an undergraduate, Master’s student, and teacher, I’m here to help you understand the ins and outs of writing an academic paper so you’ll ace your next assignment. 

Academic writing is done by scholars for an audience of other scholars. This means your audience is likely to be quite informed about your field of study, so you won’t need to start from the absolute basics. But, it also means your piece needs to be well-researched, with a clearly thought-out argument or informative literature review supported by academic sources. 

In this article, I’ll give you a step-by-step guide to putting together an academic paper that will get you a top grade. 

Topic Selection

If you need to write an academic paper as part of your class assignment, you might have clear instructions on what the topic needs to be. This could be a question to answer, an argument statement to support or refute, or a general topic area to research which you can then develop your own specific paper title for. Make sure you double check the grading requirements and any other guidelines provided by your teacher or institution.

If you’ve got some freedom to come up with your own ideas, spending some time reading around your subject and brainstorming potential topics could be a good place to start.

Brainstorming Ideas

It’s wise to start by reading the recommended course material, especially the key texts. If you’re not sure what the best books and articles for additional reading might be, ask your professor for some recommendations. 

As you read, keep an eye out for ideas that might be ripe for exploration. If your paper is supposed to be an argument, look out for areas of the topic that seem to generate debate. 

It’s a good idea to make notes as you go, keeping track of potential citations and the information you’ll need to include in your bibliography. Organized notes can make all the difference when it comes to putting your finished paper together! You could do this using software like Notion, Evernote, or Google Keep, a spreadsheet, or even good old pen and paper.

Selecting a Focused Topic

Most academic papers will require you to come up with an argument, and a good place to start is narrowing down your thesis statement, i.e. the main point of your paper. This needs to be a defendable statement, so picking something for the sake of being controversial might leave you in a tricky position if there aren’t enough sources to back it up. Additionally, it needs to be something focused enough to explore in a few pages, rather than needing a whole book to explain. 

For example ‘The economic situation of 1930s Germany was the key reason for Hitler’s rise to power.’ The thesis statement takes a clear position, can be defended, and isn’t too wide-ranging. 

Your own opinion on what you’ve read will be important, but you should also engage with the existing scholarship in the field. Whether you decide to stick with the consensus, or go against the grain, you will need to have a good understanding of what others have said.

Exploring the Background Information

Once you’ve reviewed any provided course materials and recommended reading, it’s important to recognize and address any glaring gaps in your knowledge. Are there any terms you don’t understand? Do you need to build an understanding of any particular events, people, or themes? Check the citations and bibliography of your readings to find and jump off to other works to build an understanding of how scholarship on the topic has progressed. 

Finding Scholarly Sources for Research

Depending on your subject area, you may need to find and use both primary and secondary sources for your research. Primary sources may include:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Historical documents
  • Maps
  • Eyewitness accounts or interviews
  • Documentary materials
  • Photographs
  • Novels, plays, and/or poems 
  • Pieces of art
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Government reports
  • Lab data/reports
  • Artifacts

Secondary sources are usually other academic papers, critical works, or books that review a range of evidence and comment upon primary sources. These can include textbooks, biographies, literary criticism, etc., depending on your field of study. 

Your college library is a great place to start your research, especially if you need to use works that are not yet available digitally. However, many academic journals are now online, meaning you can find a wealth of other papers to read and reference within a few clicks. You should check which journals your college subscribes to, and you can search sites like JSTOR and Google Scholar.

Read the full article - Best Research Tools of 2023

Outline Creation

Before you start writing, it’s a good idea to create a paper outline. This will help you fix your structure, clarify your points, and can ultimately make it quicker to write up the final piece.

Read the full article - Creating an Outline with AI.

Creating an Overall Structure

The structure of an academic paper is likely to be more complex and developed than essays you may have written for school. You will need to make your thesis statement clear and support this with both evidence and analysis, as well as refuting other, competing ideas. Your work should reach a clear conclusion that leaves your reader in no doubt of your main argument. Nailing down your thesis statement, the key supporting points, and the main points you want to refute, should provide you with an overall structure for your academic paper.

Identifying and Summarizing Key Points

As you read around the topic, you should start to find repeated ideas that will become the main themes of your work. For example, if you are exploring how a theme is presented by a particular poet, you might find five or six ways the writer handles this idea. You will need to decide which one you find most persuasive by deciding which one has the most compelling evidence. This will become your thesis statement. The other ideas can be refuted as you develop your argument.

It’s a good idea to create a summary of each main idea you want to include by boiling it down into a few sentences at most. You can use software like Wordtune Read to help you. This AI (artificial intelligence) reader automatically summarizes longer documents to make it easier for you to condense the main ideas you will later re-expand. 

As you write out your plan, these summaries will form kernels of your developed paragraphs, saving you lots of time in writing the final piece.

Wordtune Read

Essential Steps of the Writing Process

Writing up your academic paper might feel intimidating, but once you’ve got your structure plotted out, fleshing out the bones of the argument is the fun part. Make sure you leave enough time to write the paper and review it in plenty of time before the deadline, ideally taking some time away from the paper so you can come back to it with fresh ideas (which makes it easier to see any mistakes!).

Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement should come towards the start of your academic paper. This sets up the purpose of your paper, and establishes a trail of thought that your reader should be able to follow throughout the piece. It’s good practice to return to the thesis statement regularly throughout your work, and make sure you restate it in the conclusion (paraphrased if necessary to avoid robotic repetition). 

Before you begin writing the whole paper, work on your thesis statement by condensing the main argument of your paper into just one sentence. If you’re not sure if you have enough evidence for the argument you want to make by the time you finish your plan, you might need to revise your thesis statement before you write the whole paper. Trust me: it’s easier to change the thesis before you write all the paragraphs.

Read the full article - How to Write a Thesis Statement with AI

Writing an Introduction

The introduction of an academic paper must make your argument clear, and should be concise and free of any fluff. You need to clearly lay out your argument, but should also set the scene for your work by summarizing the major scholarship, or history of the field, which most writers do first. You should also consider if the information you include in the introduction is definitely relevant to or necessary for the rest of the piece. For example, throwing in dates or definitions at this point may well be a distraction. Someone should be able to read just your introduction and already have a clear idea of your argument.

Additionally, your introduction needs to engage the audience by giving them a hint of the argument to come and suggesting why this topic is important. From a pile of 200+ papers, will your professor enjoy reading yours? A good introduction can help you to make a great first impression.

Body Paragraphs

Each paragraph of your paper should clearly support your thesis statement, or refute an alternative idea. Topic sentences (sentences that lay out the main point of each paragraph, before you go on to flesh out the detail) can be a good way to establish a clear thrust for each paragraph. However, it’s better to avoid formulaic or repetitive paragraph structures where you can. 

The key idea of each paragraph should be supported by evidence, which you will want to comment on, either to establish how you agree with it or to argue against it. Drawing connections between different pieces of evidence, or synthesizing and/or comparing ideas, can make your use of evidence more complex and nuanced, and therefore more effective.

Consider how the paragraphs flow into one another. Referencing the previous paragraph and setting up the purpose of the next can create a more coherent structure for your paper and therefore make it easier to follow. 

Drafting a Conclusion

The conclusion should bring the reader back to your thesis statement, and leave them in no doubt as to the strength of your argument. This is not a place to introduce new information or ideas at any length, although you may want to suggest further areas of study or research. 

Keep your conclusion concise, too. If possible, finishing with a memorable closing sentence can round off your paper with a flourish and leave a lasting impression on your audience. 


Don’t forget that revising your work is a crucial step! You should re-read your work a number of times to check if the structure and argument work well. You could try re-summarizing each paragraph, too, to make sure your points are clear. 

Once you are confident that the content of the paper is solid, it’s time to look at the technical construction of your phrases and sentences, which is where editing and proofreading come in. 

Editing and proofreading

Editing and proofreading are very important. The last thing you want to do is hand in a paper that’s difficult to read and follow because of technical errors. However, for many people, this is also an intimidating step.

One technique to try with your paper is to read it aloud. This can often highlight phrases or sentences that don’t work well or that don’t feel natural. You could also try reading your paper backwards, sentence by sentence. This forces your eye to stop skimming the page, which can lead to you missing mistakes. 

It’s not just technical features that may need editing. As you re-read, you might notice words and phrases that can be upgraded to make your ideas stronger, or to help you communicate in a more engaging way. Luckily, you don’t need to do this all yourself; a digital tool like Wordtune can help you improve your work by suggesting alternative ways to express your ideas. You can even direct it to make suggestions in a particular tone (for example, more or less formal). Wordtune will also check your work for spelling and grammar mistakes, which can also save you time and stress. 


Including Citations

The evidence you use in your academic paper needs to be cited correctly. Check the guidelines your institution follows for citation, as there are a few different models out there. However, most models will share the following in common:

  • For each quotation from a source, provide the author’s name, date of publication, and page number (this can be in-text or as a footnote, depending on style guidelines). Some models also like you to provide the title of the text and the location of production.
  • Use quotation marks to indicate where you have taken text from another source (to avoid plagiarism) 
  • To include a bibliography at the end of your paper (a full list of works cited). This should only include the texts you have cited, and usually references the title of the academic journal or book, date of publication, volume number (if it’s a journal), page numbers (if referencing a chapter or article), publishing company and location of production.

Citing correctly is a crucial part of how to write an academic paper, but it can also be fiddly and time consuming. Keeping accurate and organized notes while you research can make this bit easier. 

Practice makes perfect

Learning how to write an academic paper is a process, so give yourself plenty of time to write your first one. As you progress in your studies, you will become more efficient and quicker at writing papers. And, don’t forget, you’re not alone! There are loads of resources out there to help you write an academic paper, including digital tools like Wordtune, online help guides, and support from your professor and institution, too. Before you know it, you’ll be turning in high quality, engaging academic papers that will help you ace your courses.

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