Starting a Paper

Five sticky notes on a billboard. Each contains a letter to spell out "START"

Fortunately, most writing assignments include some directions and parameters, and these constraints can help you feel less daunted when you set out to find a topic or begin writing. Understanding what your instructor expects in the final paper is often the best place to start.

1. Read the assignment carefully.

2. What question(s) are being asked? Do you understand them?

If you encounter unfamiliar terms or concepts in the assignment, review your assigned readings and class notes. For example, if you’re taking a class on eighteenth-century British history, and the assignment asks you to provide evidence of “Enlightenment thinking” in a certain author’s work—and you’re not sure Enlightenment thinking means—you’ll probably want to go back to your readings and check your notes. A dictionary won’t be much help. If you’re still unsure, ask your instructor for clarification.

3. What kind of paper are you being asked to write?

Knowing what kind of writing you’ll be doing can help you narrow your focus and organize your approach. Clues can be found in the verbs used in the assignment: Are you being asked to analyze a historical event, compare and contrast two films, discuss works by different authors?

4. Who is the audience for this paper?

Knowing your audience can help you decide whether you’ll be writing for someone who is familiar with your topic (e.g., your instructor) or not (e.g., your classmates or family). That, in turn, may influence your thoughts about the main points you are trying to get across and what is most important for you to cover.

5. What sources will you need in order to fulfill the assignment? Are your own opinions permissible, or are you expected to support your claims with evidence from other sources?

Even if you are required to consult or cite a certain number of academic sources, you may be able to start thinking about a topic or do some initial brainstorming before you head to the library. For example, if your assignment asks you to “explore the reasons for the growing opioid epidemic in America today,” and you’ve been discussing this issue in class all term, you may have enough ideas to do some brainstorming and get started—even if you will need to do additional research.