What is the best process for writing a scholarly research paper for a college class? In this episode, Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth talks with Susan Hoffman, the University’s Quality Assurance Editor, about how to write research papers. Learn some useful tips about how to write a research paper and the resources available to University students.
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Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Welcome to the podcast. I am your host, Oliver Hedgepeth. And today, we’re going to be chatting about how to write a college paper.
My guest is Susan Hoffman, who is the University’s Quality Assurance Editor. She edits blog articles and other written materials created by faculty members, current students, staff, and alumni at American Public University.
In addition, Susan’s recently completed the university’s undergraduate certificate in e-commerce. Congratulations. So, she is an alumni of our school as well.
Susan, how many years of experience writing about or lecturing and talking about improvements in education and writing have you done? But first of all, just welcome to our discussion and thank you for joining. So welcome, Susan.
Susan Hoffman: Thank you, Oliver. I’m happy to be here.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Susan, you’ve been helping various people with their blog articles, editing them and making the final product fun and useful to read. Now, we would like you to discuss some of the key factors to help our college students in writing their college papers. Yeah. Often, they do it weekly in some of our courses.
Susan Hoffman: For me, coming back to the academic world after a gap of several years was a little intimidating. I was in the same position as many of our other students who had gotten a degree somewhere else, and had come back and entered the online world.
Because I had been an English major at James Madison University, that was helpful. But at the same time, I was approaching the online classroom as a new student. I was used to a brick-and-mortar environment.
So the first thing I did when I got into the class was to look at the syllabus, look at the rubric, and understand exactly what my instructor would be grading me on. And then when I was writing papers, I’d be careful to follow that instructor’s rubric very, very closely.
And also when I was writing, I would use a different perspective. I would use an analytical approach. So I would never use the words “I”, “we,” “my,” or “you” in my papers.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: It’s kind of like what I do when I write my papers, but wow, you’re an English major. Oh, my goodness. My wife’s an English major. Every time she reads my writing, I’m missing a comma or something.
And I think you’re probably one of those people, too. But in writing a paper, what do you do first? When you just sit down, like, “Okay, I got this paper to write. Whoa.”
What do you go through right in your mind? Because that’s probably what the students are going through. What do you go through? You’re sitting down and whoa, what do you do?
Susan Hoffman: The first thing I do is I look at the rubric and I look at the assignment, whatever the instructor wants me to write about. And one thing I did was I used what I call the “Mr. Hill” formula. Back in high school, one of my English instructors taught me this formula, and I have used it for my academic writing and my professional writing ever since.
The first part of this formula is that you do all the research, you gather all the materials you’re going to need to write the paper. And then you start writing a first draft, and it doesn’t have to be a perfect first draft. You just need to have something to work with.
And then after that, I would take a quick break. It could be 15 minutes, it could be 30 minutes, it could be an entire day.
Taking that mental break away from my paper was very important because it gave me time to think over the paper, to think about what I was saying. And other ideas would come to me and I’d think, “Okay, I really need to make this point in my paper. I need to be sure to include that.” Or I would think, “Okay, there’s a section of this paper that really needs to be explained in greater detail.”
So then I’d do that research. I’d create the outline, work on it. Afterward I would go back, and I’d polish it up. I would check my citations; I would check my grammar, my spelling.
And then finally I’d work on the citation list – put it all together, read it over a couple more times, and turn it in.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. We’re teaching at our university, and a lot of my students have never written a college paper and they’re 30, 40 years old. They’ve been in the military. They’ve been doing a good job, a logistics major or something.
And they come in, it’s like, they’ve got to write a paper and they’d rather quit the course. “I’d rather quit than have to write a paper.”
What advice would you say? “Okay, John or Mary, don’t quit. Let me tell you a little secret about writing the paper.” They don’t know the Mr. Hill formula and you just described it, which is nice, but they’re afraid right now.
He’s like, “I don’t know what to do. What would you advise?” Say, “Hey, I really don’t know what to do. Starting to write a paper. Haven’t written one since high school.” What would you advise them?
Susan Hoffman: So, first of all, I would advise looking at the grading rubric, so you know what your instructor’s going to be grading you on. Second thing to do is to look at the writing style you need to use. And in my case, I used APA style writing, and I had to learn the rules for that from the ground up.
And there are resources in the library – in the university library – that tell you about that. One thing I also did was I made a guide for myself, and I printed that out so that I would have that handy.
And this is the rules of APA writing. I’d have that guide next to me. Sometimes I’d have a question about how to cite [a] source properly.
And if I couldn’t find the answer somewhere online, I would reach out to the university’s librarians and they would point me towards sources I could use. Within the university library itself, there’s also more resources to use as you’re writing a paper.
Another piece of advice I would give is back up what you say. For example, a typical scholarly paper, it starts out with that introduction section. And in that introduction, I’d give an overview of the topic and the very last sentence of that introduction, I’d have a brief mention of what I plan to discuss later in the paper.
So then I’d go and talk about those other individual sections, making sure to make statements but also to immediately back them up with cited sources and [I] made sure that I got my inline citations right. In the conclusion, I would wrap that all up and I would try to come up with something that was fresh, something that was unique, something that wouldn’t be necessarily general knowledge, so that the reader of that paper would go away with some fresh insight about that particular topic.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: A lot of these papers, that’s a really good academic paper style. I like that a great deal.
How much time do you devote to initially starting? I mean, you’re in a class. You’re working 40, 50 hours a week. You got three kids. Your mom is sick and I get this all the time: “I don’t have time to write a paper, sir. Can I do it late?” “Okay. You give me the extra day late.”
How much time would you advise them to say, okay, get it started, to get all these things started? Because they’re not going to have more than 15 minutes or 30 minutes to work on a paper that first week probably getting ready.
What would you advise them in time? What would you focus on first, given that kind of personality? Because that’s who’s going to be listening to us.
Susan Hoffman: Right. I would advise them to break it down into manageable sections. What I did when I was taking a class, the first couple of days of the week, I’d do the required reading. I’d take my notes on that.
And then around Wednesday or so or Thursday, depending on when the forum post was due, I’d get that done that night. And then by Thursday night, I’d start putting down some ideas. By Friday, I would start working on the outline and Saturday morning when my brain was at its freshest, that’s when I’d actually do that first draft.
And then later I’d take that break that I was talking about earlier. Sunday, I’d do the final polishing up and turn the paper in.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: How much time are you talking about here? I mean like Wednesday, I mean you’re talking an hour, 15 minutes, two hours?
Susan Hoffman: It depended upon the amount of reading that week, but I would try and devote at least a couple of hours every night, whenever it was possible. Or if I didn’t, sometimes I’d find some time before work or even during my lunch hour.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: As a student, what do you think the most fear – the most common fear – might be of writing a paper for a student who’s never done it? He’s 35, 40 years old and is like, “Oh God, I’m going to do it. Okay, Professor, I’m going to do it.” What do you think the most common fear might be?
Susan Hoffman: I think just getting over that feeling of intimidation. It is possible, and the University has all these great resources. For example, if you’re feeling discouraged or you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can talk to your instructor, you can talk to your academic advisors. There’s also university chaplains you could talk to.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, in terms of talking to professors, did you talk to your professor a lot about writing?
Susan Hoffman: Oh, absolutely. If I had something that needed clarification, I would definitely reach out to my professor. And one of the things I really loved about the online classroom was that I could email that professor very easily. At a brick-and-mortar university, it’s a little trickier because you have to get them during their office hours.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. And we’re an online university. We do live by email and text messages. We might say something like, “You come up with a topic to write.” Talk about fear. Oh, my goodness. You tell a student, “You figure out a topic and write a nice 1,000-word paper next week.” How would you advise them to come up with a topic?
Susan Hoffman: Well, first of all, go back to the original assignment and see what the instructor wants you to cover. But also, I tried to write about topics that I was passionate about. Something that would be fun to write about because when you’re in that situation, the paper almost seems to write itself.
One of the most fun times I ever had writing a paper was for my web analytics class. The assignment was to go to our freezer, pick a product and then do a web analytics paper based on that. We had to look at their existing web analytics and talk about what we would do.
And the idea behind the paper was to show everything that we had learned during the previous eight weeks. In my case, I picked Yasso frozen yogurt bars.
And I had the best time looking at the history of that company, analyzing all of their social media. I had a great time writing that paper, and it was [a] very easy final project to do. So it definitely helps to pick a topic that you want to explore in greater detail or that you just enjoy talking about.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Oh, that’s pretty good. I like that. You find something you like to eat and say, “Oh, I’ll write about that.” That’s pretty cool to do.
What about items that are going on in today’s newspaper? There might be a few topics in the newspaper, wouldn’t you think?
Susan Hoffman: Yes, I would agree. There would be. It depends on what your particular interests are; it depends on what the class is. But if it’s something that you can really get into writing about, that definitely helps with coming up with ideas as for things to talk about during the paper.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: In terms of writing these college papers and you go from one paper to another paper, do you find that it gets easier as you write the paper or as you write one paper or two papers? Or it’s still just as hard writing that fifth paper?
Susan Hoffman: I would say it depends upon the topic. As I said, it definitely helps to choose the subject that you’re passionate about. I mean, for me, it was easier because writing is my profession, but I can see how that would be more to challenging for someone else who’s not used to that constant writing every week.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. I can see that. And that would be really understandable. And the topics do change. I mean, in today’s newspaper, we’ve got supply chain problems; we’ve got COVID-19 problems; we’ve got people going to work and not working; and things like that. So there are different topics in how to write it.
Let’s go back to this Mr. Hill formula. As we’re winding up our little discussion here, would you go over that Mr. Hill formula one more time? Because that’s so exciting. And I really like the people to take a note on that formula and what steps they should take.
Because I really think it’s going to help them because by the way, I never heard of Mr. Hill. Okay. So I’m going to take notes, too. So would you please go over that Mr. Hill [formula]? I think it’s very important.
Susan Hoffman: Yes. The Mr. Hill formula, it’s broken down into several parts. So the first part of it is to do all your research and then gather all your notes around you. One other additional piece of advice that I have is to write your proper citation at the top of those notes, so that when you go to create your citation list later, it’s all there for you.
So you do research, you create an outline, and then you start writing the first draft. And as I said, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just have to have something to work with.
Then you take that mental break. You go back and you look at your work dispassionately, and you analyze it after that break. And you look at, “Are there sections here that are unclear? Are there sections that need more explanation?”
Then after that, you go back and you start creating the final draft. You polish it up; you add your citation list. You read it over a couple more times, and then you submit it to your instructor.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Okay. All right. You mentioned the proper citation, but you start with that first thing. A lot of our students who are listening haven’t done a citation. They’re not even sure what that strange word means; they’re looking it up.
What do you mean by a proper citation at the beginning? What do you mean by that?
Susan Hoffman: Well, there are two types of citations. There’s your inline citations, where within your paper, you make a statement and then you back it up with proof from some sort of reputable source. And you quote that source. Sometimes it might be a word-for-word quote, but that’s one type of citation.
And then at the very end of your paper, you have a whole list of all the references that you quoted, and you have to do those in a certain style. Fortunately, the university’s library has all the rules that you’ll need. You just have to go in and track it down.
The citation style varies by major. That was a lesson that I learned. Most of the majors use APA style, but not all of them do.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: The classes I teach now, I teach logistics and supply chain stuff, and I tell them it’s APA style. And they’ve never heard of that. In fact, they never heard of a style, most of them.
Are there other styles like APA that they may run into? You said, there are other styles. What would they be? Talk about that. Are they different styles out there?
And a lot of companies, they’ll have their own style, what I have nicknamed the “house style.” And a lot of times, they have their own branding guide in regard to the way they like things to be said in their written materials.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: APA style seems to be what we are following – at least within the courses I’m teaching – and it’s difficult enough. Well, Susan, this has really been exciting. I mean, really, you hit on the key points.
I’d like to thank you very much for joining me today in this really exciting topic of writing. And do you have any last words you’d like to say to our listeners?
Susan Hoffman: Yeah. One thing I’d like to remind listeners of is that there’s plenty of resources here for you.
There’s resources within the university library. You can talk to the librarians.
And also if you’re struggling, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can talk to academic advisors. You can talk to the university chaplains.
I mean, I understand just from talking to our students and emailing them that they’re dealing with a lot. They’re balancing full-time careers, caring for their families and taking classes on top of that. And then as well, COVID-19 has added a whole other layer of stress to that.
But there are resources here that you can use. They can’t write the paper for you, but they can help you manage your time. They can come up with great advice to help you as you work your way from one course to another.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Susan, I’d like to thank you very much for joining us today for this really exciting topic. And listeners, you’ve been listening to Susan Hoffman, who again is our Quality Assurance Editor here at the University. Susan, thank you very much for joining us today.
Susan Hoffman: You’re welcome, Oliver. It was my pleasure.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Looking forward to talking to you again on similar subjects.