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Writing Essays and Reports (Papers)

Aside from exams, papers are probably the most popular means at the university for evaluating students' abilities and skills. Papers are difficult for a number of reasons:

  • The paper is the standard means by which critical thinking is evaluated -- and critical thinking is, by its nature, difficult.
  • Since the paper is the standard means of communication in the university environment, you will be marked not only on content, but also on your adherence to the standards of presentation that have been established for the discipline.
  • Often, little useful guidance or constructive feedback is provided to help you learn strategies that will lead to successful essay writing.
  • The "one chance" paper is not optimal for mastery, since there is no opportunity to learn from your mistakes.
  • The low frequency of writing assignments does not provide sufficient opportunities for practice.


  1. Analyze the question meticulously. Your professor probably put a lot of work into composing the assignment, so you should put a lot of work into reading it. Look up every important word in the dictionary, even if you are sure of its meaning (some words have multiple meanings, or technical meanings that might not be familiar to you). Pay particular attention to technical terms. Make use of specialized dictionaries and glossaries available in the Reference section of the Library. Find out what criteria will be used in marking you paper. These may or may not be stated explicitly. Make up a checklist.
  2. Find a model to work from, if possible; a marked essay that has met the criteria effectively (i.e., received a good mark and positive comments) and analyze it to see how it succeeded. Be sure to analyze your own marked essays in this way. It is much easier to work from a model than to try to meet abstract criteria or guidelines, without knowing what the result is supposed to "look like."
  3. Apply critical thinking strategies. Remember that the process of writing does not look at all like the finished product. The process, which involves critical thinking, is not often neat, tidy, orderly, or linear. It is actually often confused and without a clear direction. These are characteristics of the critical thinking process, but are not apparent in the finished essay.
  4. Make sure that the finished essay meets all criteria, and looks good. Leave enough time to edit carefully for grammar, spelling, and format (eg. APA, MLA, etc.).

Individual Help

If you get stuck while you are working on an essay, or if you have had trouble in this area before, be sure to make an appointment with David Palmer-Stone . We can help you work through your difficulty, then discuss the strategies we have used, with specific reference to your own concerns, so that you can apply the appropriate strategies on your own in the future.


Periodically, we offer a free Essay Writing workshop. The purpose of the workshop is to address participants' concerns, suggest resources, and offer some strategies that may be useful for dealing with the problems that occur at the various stages of the writing process. Check our schedule of events.


The Modular Learning Skills Course includes four modules that cover the stages in the essay writing process.


The following handouts on writing papers are available at Counselling Services.


Additional References

The English Department has a The Hypertext Writer's Guide (on-line) that you can browse.

The Learning & Teaching Centre also has The Writing Centre. Check it out too!

Duke University guide to citation styles (APA, Chicago, MLA, Turabian)

Links to information on references and citations.

For information on Common English Errors, check out Dr. Paul Brians' (Washington State University) website.

Some links to information on plagiarism.


Updated: May 2012

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