Online Writing Center

Success in your college endeavors depends on a variety of skills, not least of which is the ability to write a solid academic paper. Mastering the art of writing a paper can arguably make your college experience a smoother one and result in a higher GPA. Most schools recognize this and provide resources like writing labs and personal assistance to students struggling with this task. Feedback from professors also helps writers improve.

Students who attend online classes, however, may not have access to these resources. Instructor feedback in an online environment may be limited by the medium and may not be as comprehensive as what students receive in a face-to-face classroom. For these students, learning to write well may be more challenging. Read on for tips, tricks and online resources that can provide an online student with the tools required to write expert academic papers.

Structure of an Academic Paper

With few exceptions, all academic papers are written in a similar format: an opening paragraph, followed by supporting information, and a clear conclusion in the final paragraph. While it is not always required, three supporting paragraphs are considered standard.

  • The introductory paragraph introduces both the topic and the thesis statement.
    • A well-written thesis statement clearly explains your goals to the reader, such as an assertion you intend to prove.
    • Subtopics that make up the body of the paper and serve to support the thesis are introduced as well.
    • The tone of the paper is also set by the language you use; The active voice is preferred, and first-person pronouns are generally avoided.
  • Supporting paragraphs begin with a transition sentence that introduces a subtopic.
    • Each subtopic must be fully explained, and supporting data or ideas are clearly detailed.
    • Begin subsequent supporting paragraphs with transition sentences, and structure each paragraph similarly.
    • Be aware of the tendency to construct sentences in patterns that closely mimic other sentences; vary your use of syntax and vocabulary.
  • The concluding paragraph restates your thesis and your primary supporting data in summary form.
    • This is the last opportunity you have to make your point, so powerful language may be appropriate. Leave your reader with a clear idea of your stance.

6 Typical Styles of Academic Papers

Most college essay requirements fall within six categories. The subject matter at hand and your instructor’s requirements will dictate which of these you are assigned. You may be required to produce these essays in a composition class that is purely about writing structure, or you may be asked to meet a very specific essay prompt given to you in a more advanced class. Here’s a breakdown of the six major essay types college students should familiarize themselves with. (You can find student essay samples that demonstrate the most important characteristics of each in the links below.)

Cause and Effect Essay

These essays explore a specific cause or specific effects of a given cause. It’s important to note that the bulk of these papers will ask you to focus on cause or effect, not both. You may choose to write about multiple causes or effects; in this case, organize them from least to most impactful and address them accordingly.

This essay should be well-organized, establishing your thesis statement in the first paragraph. The supporting information addressed in later paragraphs should contain factual data that clearly backs your thesis. The use of transitional words and phrases can be particularly helpful as you lead the reader through supplemental information.

Comparison and Contrast Essay

Two (or more) distinct subjects are explored in this essay, the purpose of which is to clarify their similarities and differences. Ultimately this paper serves to deliver a deeper understanding of how nuanced the discussion of a topic can and should be. Your conclusion should summarize the similarities or differences you find most important.

Organization of the material is extremely important in these essays. Many students find that creating a chart or Venn diagram is a useful way to identify key points. For example, draw two overlapping circles; in the space where the circles overlap, list similarities. In the spaces outside of the overlap, jot down the ways the subjects differ. Present these ideas clearly, keeping in mind that the reader should follow your thought process without confusion. Strong transitional phrases are especially useful here.

Definition Essay

A straightforward paper, the definition essay aims to clearly define an idea or process. A thorough understanding of your subject is essential, so research plays a big role. When you have a grasp of the topic, clearly explain it by function (how it works), structure (how it’s organized), analysis (how it compares to similar topics) or by explaining what it does not mean.

Your thesis statement should clearly and succinctly lay out your definition. In the following paragraphs, further clarify your thesis with data and textual research. If the topic is one you are required to choose, avoid abstract ideas in favor of more concrete explication.

Description Essay

A well-written description essay uses vivid, detail-oriented language to address a topic. Essay topics might be an experience, an emotion, an object or a person. This essay requires the writer to create a distinct impression with words; there is more creative freedom in this style than in most others.

Brainstorm before you begin to write; many students find that some free association about a topic can generate enough content for a paper. Select your vocabulary carefully, using words that clearly convey an impression. Consider all five senses and describe a topic’s visual detail, sound, smell, texture, taste. At your paper’s conclusion, the reader should feel as though you’ve made them experience the alongside you. Stay organized and resist semi-tangential rambling.

Persuasive Essay

This paper requires the writer to convince the reader to agree with a stated argument. Whether you are given a topic to defend or are asked to choose one, you must take a strong stance on an issue. Your goal is to logically present information in support of that stance.

Use factual data to bolster your claim, and establish the values that your facts support; consider the emotional reaction of your reader. Active language is helpful when persuading an audience. Do acknowledge an opposing argument, then refute it. Prioritize your supporting data and structure your essay accordingly. Your conclusion should strongly state your reasons for your chosen stance.

Process Analysis Essay

Somewhat like the description essay, this paper’s goal is to carefully explain a process from beginning to end. Your reader should conclude your paper with a better understanding of how something works. A thorough grasp of each step is necessary, so choose something you understand well or conduct appropriate research.

Language should help the reader visualize the process. Use transitional words to delineate steps, such as “next” or “then.” Your essay should flow logically from beginning to end, detailing each step along the way. Different processes have differing complexities, but you should explain three steps at a minimum. You may instruct the reader directly or illustrate a complete process.

Developing a Topic and Outline

In many cases your instructor provides explicit directions that explain the purpose of your paper. Other times, you may be required to choose your own specific topic and angle within a broader subject. This can be a daunting task, but careful examination of your knowledge and interests can help you arrive at a thesis you feel good about bringing to life. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Are there particular areas of the subject matter that interest you more than others?
  • Are there areas that have piqued your interest that you’d like to learn about in greater detail?
  • Compile a list of major keywords that relate to your subject matter. Do any jump out at you as possibilities or suggest further investigation?
  • Are there adequate resources available to research particular areas you’re interested in? This may include authoritative websites, reference materials or an individual you can interview.
  • Is a potential topic too broad to summarize adequately?
  • Is a topic too narrowly defined to expand into an entire paper?
  • How comfortable are you with developing a clear thesis statement based on what you know or are able to learn?

Once you’ve brainstormed ideas like this, some ideas should emerge as candidates for a good paper.

Whether you are assigned a topic or have arrived at one yourself, it is good practice to sketch out an outline. This piece of preparation can make things flow much more smoothly as you write; organizing your key ideas and supporting information before you begin wordsmithing can save you time spent on rewrites down the road.

Think of your outline as a framework on which you hang ideas. Identifying each subtopic and the supporting ideas or data you use to address it does more than organize your thoughts; it can also spotlight areas of your paper that need more work. A well-written academic paper is a balanced paper, and supporting data for each idea should be equally substantive.

If you’re somewhat unclear on your exact thesis, consider skipping that part of your outline and jumping into the body of the paper. As you identify subject areas you plan to highlight, your thesis statement may begin to take shape before your eyes. Many successful authors actually write papers out of order by creating the body of the paper first. After this, supporting information is inserted to fill out the body. Finally, the author creates the introduction, which allows them to more accurately detail the already finished contents of the paper.

Remember the advice given to speechwriters: tell your readers what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you told them. While the intro sets everything up and entices the reader, a solid conclusion restates the thesis and summarizes the supporting data you’ve gathered – it should serve as a reminder of how compelling your argument or approach to a topic has been.

Drafts and Revisions

Rarely does the first draft of a paper reflect your best work. A proper approach to revision and rewriting can help you clarify your thoughts, craft well-structured sentences and catch stray errors. Depending on the complexity of your paper, this process can also enable you to present your thoughts in clear, flowing prose that is easier for your reader to digest.

If time permits, it is always good practice to take a break after you’ve written a first draft. Work on some other homework, take a walk, or, if need be, just sleep on it. Approach your writing with fresh eyes and a brain that is not fatigued with the minutiae of your subject; this can lead you to some surprising and helpful realizations. For instance, something you may have thought to be entirely clear could be confusing on second glance.

As you begin to edit and revise, you may find it helpful to work in a certain order rather than attacking all aspects of the entire paper at once.

  1. Start with big ideas and resist the urge to tinker with vocabulary at first.
    1. Does your paper meet the requirements of the assignment?
    2. Is your paper consistently on track with those requirements?
  2. Examine your thesis statement again.
    1. Does it take a specific position? Do you still agree with it?
    2. Does it require some modification?
  3. Next, review your introduction.
    1. Does it do a good job of informing the reader of what’s to come next?
  4. Spend a major portion of your time reviewing your supporting paragraphs.
    1. Does the body of the paper contain information in equal proportions?
    2. Does it truly support the position you took in your thesis statement?
    3. Does information flow well between paragraphs?
    4. Is the paper as a whole well-organized, or should some information be shifted to a more effective place in the paper?
  5. Check all of the evidence and research you use to support your primary and secondary claims.
    1. Is your supporting data factual and well-supported?
    2. Have you cited all your sources? Are the citations in accordance with the expected style guide?
  6. Lastly, examine your conclusion.
    1. Does it restate the paper’s ideas in different, but compelling, language?
    2. Does it tie the paper together? Does it leave the reader clearly understanding your position?

After these big ideas are carefully thought through, the nitty-gritty editorial work follows:

  • Check your spelling, grammatical construction and punctuation
  • Ensure tense and subject/verb agreement, and rewrite passive verb construction
  • Check to see whether transitional phrasing is repeated too often, and eliminate redundant text

When you are confident you have improved your paper as much as possible, it’s not a bad idea to ask a peer to quickly review it before you turn it in. Fresh eyes can spot errors that the author immersed in the topic won’t see.

Common Grammatical and Punctuation Errors

Lists of typical writing errors abound, and it’s impossible to cover every potential mistake here. However, there are some errors instructors encounter more often than others:

  • Apostrophes: Apostrophes should never, ever be used to indicate a plural. Apostrophes indicate contractions or possession, as in:
    • Ex: That’s Ellie’s biology book.
  • Commas: Frequently overused, commas are used to separate items in a list, after an introductory phrase, or to separate distinct, yet related thoughts. The use of a conjunction is a good indicator of proper comma placement.
    • Ex: I’ll take the red, blue and yellow ones, but I don’t care for the green.
  • Semicolons: Often confused with commas, a semicolon is used to separate related thoughts that are each independent clauses in their own right. No conjunctions are used.
    • Ex: Abby sings beautifully; she has studied with a private voice coach for many years.
  • Comma splices: These happen when usage rules for semicolons and commas are confused. Related independent clauses with no conjunction result in a comma splice:
    • Ex: My daughters have lovely taste, they often exceed my budget.
    • Instead, separate each thought with either punctuation or a conjunction following the comma: My daughters have lovely taste, but they often exceed my budget.
  • Affect and Effect: Affect is usually a verb, and effect is a usually a noun. The exceptions are unusual.
    • Ex: Skimpy clothing on teenaged girls affects teenaged boys’ ability to concentrate. I don’t think girls are aware of this effect.
  • That and Which: That is a restrictive pronoun, meaning that it has no qualifiers and is tied to its noun: Ex: I don’t like clothes that itch. Which, on the other hand, introduces a relative clause that allows qualifiers. Ex: I don’t like cashmere sweaters, which are itchy.
    • A good rule of thumb: if a comma is required, which is probably your best choice.
  • That and Who: Who is used in reference to people. That is used in reference to inanimate objects, animals or entities.
    • Ex: He is a person who cares deeply, and Apple is a company that values innovation.
  • Quotation marks: Quotation marks indicate a quote. They do not indicate emphasis of any kind. They must also exist outside of any punctuation.
    • Ex: Catie answered, “I’d much rather write fiction.” (Not: Catie “disliked” algebra vehemently and said, “I’d much rather write fiction”.)
  • Then and Than: Then is used in reference to time. Than is used when making comparisons.
    • Ex: Then we left the conference, rather than attend the next seminar.
  • It’s and Its: It’s is a contraction of it is, which is the only time it’s necessary to use an apostrophe for this word. Its is a possessive pronoun.
    • Ex: This party is its own special hell. It’s time to leave.
  • Fewer and Less: Fewer refers to something that is tangible and can be counted. Less refers to intangible ideas.
    • Ex: I ate fewer carbs than yesterday, and I intend to weigh less by next month.


There are several accepted citation styles. For undergraduate papers, generally speaking, the Modern Language Association (MLA) style is expected. Among the many official rulings the MLA offers is a detailed breakdown of proper attribution, or citation, of sources referenced in a paper.

Citations should be used parenthetically in-text, and then specifically detailed on a Works Cited page added to the essay. You may signify a reference with a number or phrase, or perhaps both when you are drawing attention to a specific page in a work you’re citing. For example:

An unlucky and under-reported effect of Hurricane Katrina was the large number of pets that their owners were forced to abandon (Eggers, 93).

In this case, the Works Cited must contain a full reference to the text by Eggers. Following the MLA style to reference books, the reference on the Works Cited page should read exactly as follows:

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

MLA citation style is meticulous; every instance of required capitalization, punctuation and specific spacing matters. The MLA provides detailed citation requirements for books, periodicals, articles, websites, newspapers, artwork, interviews, speeches and more. If you are a college student and your school requires you to use MLA style, it may be prudent to purchase a copy of the style manual.

ESL Student Resources

Online students who experience English as a Second Language (ESL) may especially struggle with writing assignments. English is even difficult for native speakers to master, given all of its idioms and idiosyncrasies in syntax, grammar and pronunciation. Fortunately several resources exist to help such students.

  • Doyle Online Writing Lab: Many universities have online assistance for ESL students, such as Reed College’s writing lab. Tips on writing academic papers, explanations of grammar and idioms, and study guides are all available to any student for free.
  • Dave’s ESL Cafe: The student section of this popular website offers online Q&A forums, daily hints, tips on pronunciation and slang, and study guides and quizzes for ESL students.
  • OWL’s ESL for Instructors and Students: Purdue University’s renowned Online Writing Lab addresses concerns particular to ESL students. Adjectives, adverbs, irregular verbs and verb tenses are just some of the topics explained in great detail.

Useful Writing Resources for Any Student

  • Essay Info: This extremely detailed site focuses on every type of essay today’s student might encounter, with specific tips and tricks for each. Any student who wants to improve his or her writing skills can benefit from this useful resource.
  • OWL: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has long been considered a go-to resource for all things writing. Descriptions and tips on specific essay requirements, writing tips for general and academic audiences, and grammar and punctuation advice are only a few of OWL’s offerings.
  • Writer’s Workshop: The University of Illinois’ Writing Workshop can improve any student’s writing ability. Definitive explanations about grammar, usage, parts of speech and proper citation are included, as well as a tips and tricks page.
  • Quick and Dirty Tips: Maintained by a blogger styling herself as Grammar Girl, this entertaining website is chock full of short, informational descriptions of how to handle common grammar questions.
  • The Elements of Style: Known generally to writers as Strunk & White (referring to the author’s names), this definitive style guide has been made available online by Free advice on composition, usage and principles of grammar is easily obtained via a search menu.
  • Grammar Monster: This extremely in-depth resource offers up common grammatical mistakes and how to avoid them. An FAQ section and a lengthy searchable database provide information on any grammatical dilemma a student writer may face.