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Experts Share Tips for Writing School Papers

In this Friday Aug. 8, 2014 photo, a student writes notes inside a classroom at a Sainik School in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

In this Friday Aug. 8, 2014 photo, a student writes notes inside a classroom at a Sainik School in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

Many secondary and university students have returned to classes, or soon will. And some of you have told us that you worry about academic writing – writing for school. We know that writing papers can be hard – even a little frightening. This is especially true if you are not writing in your first language.

So we have asked some writing experts in the United States for advice. From time to time as part of the Education Report, we will share some of their suggestions with you in their own words.

Today we hear from Mary Ann Allison, a professor in the journalism, media studies and public relations department at Hofstra University in New York. She is also a poet and a writer. She says starting a paper is often the most difficult part of writing for school.

“Mary Ann Allison, suppose the teacher or professor gives you a choice of a topic, a subject, within a given field.”

“Well, I have a couple of thoughts. The first, if you have any choice at all of a topic, is to do something that you’re really interested in, because the more you’re interested in it naturally, the better you’ll write and the easier it’ll be.”

“After you have found a subject you think you would like to write about, what comes next?

Once you’ve decided on something, another consideration would be how much information you can find. So, often if I’m starting something, I’m considering a topic, I do, oh, 10, 15 minutes’ worth of looking at information to see if there’s enough for me to be able to easily research and write what I want to write. And if there’s not, then I might choose something else to write on. So those two things, I would say, sort of balance your interest and information availability. And then the next thing that I would do is what I call a back-of-the-envelope outline.”

“Back of the envelope, and what is that?”

“So that’s when I sit down, maybe not at my desk, not at my computer, maybe even at a café, or with a cup of coffee, but where I sit. And I just kind of think about it, and I think about the topic like, what would I say to a friend? And I just write down short notes about whatever – whatever comes to mind. What would I say to a friend about this? Or, what do I want to know about this? And when I have - oh, I don’t know - anywhere between five and 10 points, I stop.”

“Then, do you start to write?”

“And then I wait a whole day, so I sleep on it, because your brain will work on it while you’re sleeping. And then I take those notes and I make an outline. And then I take the outline and again check how much information is there. Is there easy information on all these points? And if the signals are all ‘yes’, then I might start writing.”

“So a lot of your preparation is preparation?”

“It’s preparation, and it’s doing preparation, but it’s also letting your unconscious do a lot of work for you. Because if you sit down and try to write it right now, you don’t give your unconscious any time to organize things (or to) bring together other ideas."

“Is it time to write yet?”

“So do some research, which gives your subconscious something to think about. Right? Then let it rest for a night. You’ll often find that it’s much easier (to start writing) the next day. Also, the more rested you are, the better it will be.”

And that’s the VOA Learning English Education Report. I’m Jeri Watson.

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