This blog post, originally for my history students, first appeared on other sites that I have since discontinued.1
Most people will tell you to build a paper around a thesis statement and an outline. This is good advice, but many of us have to go through a less straightforward process to get to that point. What if you do not know what your thesis is? What if you do not know what your main ideas are? Writing can be an act of thinking and discovery. Instead of starting out with ideas and putting them on paper, you can use the act of writing to identify and develop your ideas. This process tends to be messy, frustrating, and difficult, but it is worthwhile. Of course, nothing will work if you have not done the reading or attended class. The following advice presupposes that you have taken both of these prerequisite steps.
The following tips also assume that you know how to type quickly. If you do not know how to touch-type, get your hands on a typing tutorial for your computer and learn this valuable skill right away. It will pay for itself countless times over in just one or two semesters. Not only will you be able to type your papers efficiently, but you will be able to get ideas out of your head more quickly. (I have to slow my thinking down when I write with pen and paper. Sometimes I do so deliberately, but most of the time I prefer to type and let the ideas pour out.)
- If you have no idea where to begin, sit down at your computer and start writing freely for as many minutes as the ideas come to you. Write without criticizing or organizing your ideas. Write simply to see what ideas you have.
- Now print out what you have written with generous spacing and margins. Read your printout with pen in hand and start looking for ideas and connections in the text that are worth pursuing.
- Decide whether to return to step  or to move on to .
- You can either begin to outline your ideas or you might want to start with a mind map. In either case, do not feel obligated to begin at the beginning. Start anywhere that your mind happens to be, and then see where your other ideas fit.
- After you have your ideas outlined or mapped out, look for useful examples in the primary sources you have read for class. Put these examples in the appropriate part of your outline or mind map. Do not be surprised, however, if this process forces you to rework your outline or mind map. The sources might lead you down a different path, which is fine, because you are writing a history paper based on historical evidence, and you have to go where the evidence leads you.
- Now write your first draft. Do not worry too much about your introduction, however. Get the rest of the paper sketched out first, and then you will be in a position to introduce your topic and argument in an effective, meaningful way. When you are finished with your draft, put it away and do not look at it again until you have cleared your mind. Ideally, you will leave it alone until the next day.
- Print out your draft with generous spacing and margins and begin the process of revision. Here you will not simply be making things neater. You might find yourself noticing connections that you had missed before. You might want to add some sentences to make a point clearer. Or you might notice that you need more evidence for a given point. Whatever you discover, do not be afraid to reorganize, delete, write new material, and so on. You might even have to delete a phrase that you think is fantastically interesting, but out of place. When you return to the computer, though, enter these revisions in a new file, just in case you want to use something you had previously cut.
- When you are finished with your revisions, put away the paper and do not look at it again until you have cleared your mind, ideally with a night’s sleep.
- Repeat steps  and . After three drafts, your paper should be ready for submission, unless you still need to have someone else proofread it for grammar and readability.
Finally, please remember to back up your files regularly. As an extra precaution, you might also save old printouts until you have turned in the paper.
- I wrote the above piece for my students in a required history survey and posted it on a course blog called History Survey. After I discontinued that, I moved the piece to Language for You, keeping the same date. Now that I am further consolidating my blogging efforts, I have moved it here. (November 24, 2014) ↩