Staring at a blank page? Don't worry, writing a paper is not as scary as it seems. As with any project, the best way to start is to break the assignment down into small sections and then tackle each section one at a time. First, think about what you want to say, and then list reasons or examples to support your point of view. After that, focus on organizing your information because the more organized you are, the better your reader will understand you. Since clarity is the key to a great essay, consider using the standard five paragraph format. Designed for college students by a weary professor, it's easy to write, read, and grade.

Follow these instructions and you're on your way to an A!

1. First, review your assignment. If possible, rephrase the question or prompt in a way that answers it in one sentence. This will become the controlling idea of your paper. Include keywords that clearly address your topic; then support your statement with three points listed in parallel form. After you list your topic and three points, assemble them into one clear, concise sentence. Now you have a thesis statement.

2. Next, create a topic sentence for each body paragraph. To do this, take the first point from the thesis statement you just wrote and turn it into a sentence. Avoid starting each topic sentence with "My first point is . . ." Have something to actually say about your point. Why is it important? How does it support your view on the topic?   

3. Once you have developed your thesis statement and three topic sentences, you have successfully built the skeletal framework of your paper. Now, it's time to add some muscle. For each topic sentence, answer the question, "Why is this true?" Provide reasons or examples that prove your point. If you use researched information here, make sure to document your sources. For a direct quote, use quotation marks and include a reference to the author. If you paraphrase the material, you still need to give credit. This is very important. Cite your source in the text and then give the full reference on a Works Cited page. Overall, your essay should not contain more than 10% material from other sources. Read and reread what you have written. What questions do you still have? How can you answer them? Can you make any further comments to explain and develop your ideas? As you address each paragraph, remember to limit each one to a single idea. If you notice that you have shifted to a new idea, then determine whether the new idea should be deleted or developed in a new paragraph. When you finish this step, you should have three completed body paragraphs.

4. We'll think about the introduction and the conclusion together in this step. The introduction should grab your reader's attention as well as provide a smooth presentation of your thesis statement, and the conclusion should leave your reader with a memorable idea as well as answer the question "What have we learned?" Think about the introduction as a picturesque mountain and the conclusion as that same mountain reflected in the lake at its base. The introduction, like the mountain, is breathtaking; and the conclusion, like the lake, leaves the reader reflecting. Another way to think about the introduction and the conclusion is as a chiastic structure: ABCCBA. The A's are the first and last sentences of your paper - the attention-getter and the memorable ending. They are related to one another, not random. The B's introduce and then reflect upon your main statement. The C's represent the presentation and then fulfillment of your thesis statement. In the introduction, the pattern is ABC. In the conclusion, the pattern is CBA.

5. Put it all together. Open with your introduction, insert your three body paragraphs, and end with your conclusion. If you cited any sources, add a Works Cited page, and you are finished!

Since this is a formulaic approach to writing a paper, this method works well for students who are not sure where to start. It is also effective for essay tests and timed writing, but as you become more practiced and adept at writing, feel free to step outside the formula and experiment with other ways to organize your ideas.