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My First College Paper (MLA) - South Bend-Elkhart: Getting Started

This guide is for anyone, whether this is your first college paper or you just need a refresher course!

What Kind of Paper?

 One of the first things to do when planning or writing a paper is to figure out what kind of paper you are writing.  The more common paper types are listed and explained below.

  • Compare and Contrast
  • Research Paper
  • Reaction Essay
  • Persuasive Essay

   Compare and Contrast papers often take two subjects, such as literature pieces, schools of thought, or events and discusses the similarities and differences between the two.  For example, a professor may ask you to write a paper comparing the folk tales of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  While the differences may be obvious (Snow White is aided by seven dwarves while escaping her step mother whereas Sleeping Beauty receives help from three fairies escaping an evil witch), try focusing more on the similarities between the two stories (both are put under sleeping spells by evil women, both are awakened by kissing a handsome prince). 

   Research papers require students to pick a particular topic, research it, and then write about what they found.  For instance, you need to write a research paper on folk tales.  Start by researching the origin of folk tales, why they were created, and then you could expand on that and research common folk tales in other countries. 

   Reaction essays are very different sort of paper. A professor may have you read a classic piece of literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and ask you to write an essay on your reactions and opinions about the book.  A very common mistake students make is to write half of their papers dexcribing the book and then writing about their opinions.  If your professor asks you to write the paper as if the person reading it has never read To Kill a Mockingbird, make sure to keep your summary of the book short and concise.  Focus on your reactions to certain events in the book, what do you think the author was trying to convey through his/her work?  The bulk of your paper should be about your opinions.

   Persuasive essays are papers that are trying to persuade someone to a certain way of thinking.  For example, you decide to write a paper on why abortion should be legal.  In order to write a strong paper, you will need to make an effective argument and have the research to back up your theory. 


The Thesis

The thesis is one of the most important parts of your paper.  It is a way of telling the reader what exactly your paper is about and why they should read it. Here are some guidelines for creating a thesis.

1. Start out with a temporary thesis.  What do you want your paper to say?  Remember, a thesis is not concrete, you can always change it!

2. Keep your thesis specific.  If you are given a big topic such as women's rights, try to narrow it down to something specific.  Some examples would be writing about women's suffrage during the early 1900's, feminism in the 1960's, the glass ceiling, and so on.  Once you pick a specific topic, make sure you stick with it throughout your paper.

3. Make sure your thesis is something you can support. While your opinions do matter, make sure you write about the research back to back up your thesis.

Keep in mind that your thesis statement is basically condenscing your paper down to one or two sentences.  Keep it simple, specific, and supportable!


Taken from The Writing Process: A Concise Rhetoric, Reader, and Handbook by John M. Landon

The 5 W's and How

Who, what, where, when, why, how?  One of the best ways to start planning for your paper is to answer these questions about your topic.  For example, you are writing on the rising percentage of marriages ending in divorce.  Some of the questions might be:

  • Who else is affected by a couple's divorce?
  • How are children of divorce affected?
  • What are some of the good things about divorce?
  • What are some of the bad things about divorce?
  • Why are couples resorting to divorce instead of working things out?
  • Why is the divorce percentage higher than, say, in the 1950's or 1960's?
  • Where will divorce percentages be in 5 years? 20 years?


Taken from The Prentice Hall Reference Guide (8th ed.) by Muriel Harris & Jennifer L. Kunka