Category Archives: Getting Started

The power of freewriting

By Jessica Barker

Have you ever sat down to write a paper and found that you don’t know how to begin? I have found myself in this situation many times. In fact, there have been times when I have felt so stuck that I have spent hours typing, deleting, and retyping a single section of my writing. Luckily, over the course of the past few years, I have discovered a way to prevent this cycle of second guessing and writer’s block, and that is through freewriting!

Here are four reasons why I love freewriting and you should too!

  1. Ignore your audience

When freewriting, you do not have to think about your audience (the person or group of people that you are writing for). You can just write for yourself, which means that you do not have to worry about grammar or the style of your writing. This can help you develop your own authentic style of writing  because it allows you to write in your own voice, not the voice that you think your professor wants to hear.  

  1. Focus later

Since freewriting is “free,” you can write about anything that you want to. This is great if you are just starting research or beginning to write a paper because you can explore a wide range of ideas and then use it to help you decide what to focus in on for your actual paper.

  1. Reflect and connect

Another wonderful thing about freewriting is that it allows you to reflect and go deeper with your ideas. It can add value and purpose to your writing, by helping you realize how your research connects to the bigger picture.

  1. Learn something

Since freewriting allows you to explore your ideas and go deeper, it can help you grow in your understanding of whatever you are writing about. At first you may feel like you only have a basic understanding of a topic, but after freewriting, you might find that you understand much more than you originally thought you did.

Next time you are feeling stuck or do not know where to begin, consider freewriting, even for just five minutes!

Jessica Barker is a sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in sociology and anthropology. After college she hopes to use theater to create social change and empower others.



Make this database search your best yet!

by Maddi Demaree

Has anyone else had that sinking feeling when you type your search term into a database and there are thousands of results? Or the fear that strikes through your heart when only a couple resources about your topic pop up? While we have a wealth of scholarly information at our fingertips thanks to the Principia College library online database system, sometimes it can feel like too much!

I’m sure none of you have the time or the desire to sift through thousands of articles and books on your topic—so why not let the computer do your work for you?

There are three special words (AND, OR, and NOT) called “Boolean Operators” that will help you narrow or broaden your search quickly and easily. Utilizing these words as part of your search terms will inform database more specifically about what you’re looking for.

I’ll give you a few examples of how to use each word.

AND – narrows your search

You use “AND” to specify two terms that you want to appear in the same article. For example, if I am writing a research paper about domesticated cats, I might make this my search term:

cats AND domestic

               OR—broadens your search

You use “OR” if your initial search did not produce enough results. Using “OR” will bring up all the resources for both of your search terms. For example, if I am writing a research paper about the realist theory in political science as applied to the Gulf War, I might search with

“realist theory” OR “gulf war”

so that I can find all the resources on realist theory and on the Gulf War.

NOT—narrows your search

You use “NOT” to specify a term that you do not want to appear with the rest of the results. This is probably a pesky term that is not actually related to the topic you want to research. For example, if I am writing the same paper about domestic cats, but resources about jungle cats keep appearing, I might search:

cats NOT jungle

This search would keep resources about jungle cats from appearing, because it is telling the database to look for all the resources about cats, but to exclude any resource that mentions “jungle” cats.

Using these three terms will help you refine your searches to make them efficient, effective, and, your best one yet!

Maddi Demaree is a junior majoring in education. Last spring she traveled on the Finland Abroad.

Write the introduction last

by Samantha Bronkar

Writing an introductory paragraph can be daunting, especially if you try to write it first. Introductions are the first part of the paper, but they do not have to be the first part you write!

You could start by writing your introduction, but you may run into some obstacles, such as:

– not knowing how to introduce a paper you haven’t written yet
– not knowing how to handle a blank document
– not knowing which points you should include in the introduction, and which ones you should leave out

Before you begin to write, choose a working thesis or, in other words, a thesis that certainly may change. As you learn more about your topic, your thesis may become more complex, or you may decide to change your thesis entirely.

Because your initial thesis may change throughout the writing process, writing the introduction first may not be the best approach. If your thesis changes, you may have to rewrite your entire introduction.

Instead, write the body paragraphs—or the detailed argument—first. This process will take more time than writing your introduction, but it will allow you to build your argument fully and freely, without being limited by what you stated in your introduction. And it will save you time on your introduction when it’s time to write it!

Once you finish writing your body paragraphs, you are ready to write your introduction!  By the time you finish writing the body of your paper, you can decide what you feel are the most important points of your argument.

You can think of your introduction as a guide for the reader to understand the main points of your argument before moving into the body of your paper. Make sure to include essential background information and key points you will discuss in your argument, now that you know what they are.

Saving the introduction for last can also ensure that your conclusion matches your introduction. While they are not the same exact paragraph, they should identify the same main points. Once you’ve finished up your introduction, you’ve got a complete, unified draft!

Samantha Bronkar is a junior and will be in Prague next fall studying creative writing and visual art.

From apathy to discovery: Research tips

by Sydni Hammar

Like most students, I have found myself faced with a writing assignment that I simply didn’t feel interested in doing. Oftentimes, this apathy stems from the fact that I don’t feel inspired to write because I’m not excited about the possibilities of my topic. However, I have discovered that I am inspired to dig into a topic when

  1. my research is guided by my own questions, and
  2. I feel that there is a real possibility that all of this questioning might lead to a new discovery or understanding.

Digging into new material or questions is inherently satisfying because I get to have fun in the process of uncovering a mystery. Annie Proulx shares this delight in the essay “Inspiration? Head Down the back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales.”* Proulx explains how she sees the potential for discovery in virtually everything she encounters in life. She discusses a “need to know” which enables her to conduct research driven by curiosity. Simply put, she is in touch with her curious nature, and she has made a habit of indulging it. This “need to know” attitude exists because she asks questions, and she has to find answers.

As writers, we must approach our research with the same authentic curiosity and openness to discovery. One of my English professors once told me that the biggest mistake students make in research is to go into it already knowing what they are looking for. I have found this to be very true, since for me, this approach limits my research, and it’s boring! There is no room for discovery (which is what makes an exciting paper) if you already know what you are looking for.

Therefore, you can’t make a discovery without the desire to know or question. Below are a few strategies for developing a curiosity for your research.

  • Ask yourself (and your resources) questions!
  • If you find an article you like, see if other scholars have cited it. It can be very helpful to see what other scholars are saying about your topic! This strategy is called bibliography mining, and Google Scholar is a great tool for this.
  • Look for buzzwords or patterns. Scholarly articles often have subject terms listed above or near the abstract, and you can use these to see connections between different ideas in various articles, which can create a roadmap of discovery.

With these tools, you are equipped to dive into meaningful and exciting research!

Sydni Hammar is a junior majoring in English, and works as an editor for Mistake House, a student-run literary magazine at Principia College.

*Proulx’s essay appeared in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times (2002).

Staying ahead of the curve

by Anna Tarnow

Bad news: getting better at writing is a lot of work. Good news: anyone can do it!

Being good (or even excellent) at writing is not some magical skill that some people have and others don’t. Good writing is the product of dedication and energy, just like pretty much every other skill. Some people may seem astronomically better at things, but they just have a lot of cumulative practice, which is something that anyone can have given time. And to me, at least, that’s encouraging! You can make serious progress just by working a little each day.

Here are some of my top strategies for long term improvement:

  1. Give your written work some percolation time (usually around a week, maybe two or three), and then come back to it. Notice odd quirks or repeated mistakes in your writing, make a list of them, and start checking for them every time you write.
  2. Use ctrl+f or cmd+f to search for words that you overuse. I used to write “really” in every other sentence, but I’ve learned to suppress that urge.
  3. Focus on structure, especially if you’re fresh out of high school, where structure is usually skimmed over. Each point should lead logically to the next, like a chain of stepping stones.
  4. Make sure you’re using the right word! People, myself included, will often throw in words that they don’t actually know to make themselves sound smarter. This is a trap because using the wrong word looks worse than using smaller words correctly.
  5. But do work to expand your vocabulary! There are plenty of apps that can help you do this. I like Magoosh’s products.
  6. And finally, find something you like to write about. Whether it’s complaining about politics, predicting the outcome of sports, or talking about MAC products, something in this world probably gets your gears spinning. So use that, and have fun!

Anna Tarnow is a senior majoring in English and enjoys working on the Pilot newspaper, where she is editor-in-chief.

Creating and controlling

by Anna-Zoë Herr

“Writing calls on the ability to create words and ideas out of yourself, but it also calls on the ability to criticize them in order to decide which ones to use.” (Peter Elbow, p. 7)

There is no doubt: the quality of the papers and essays we write depends on the depth of thought that lies behind them.

Have you ever had a moment where you confidently bashed out a large paper the night before it was due because you had a sudden flash of insight? Those moments are great when they happen, but you can’t rely on a sudden flash of insight to produce high-quality writing.

Nobody is born being a perfect writer; rather, everyone learns how to write with time and practice. That’s actually the fascinating thing about writing, you aren’t a writer simply because you are talented. Everyone has to practice to become a good writer.

You are secretly a writing machine, but you may not realize that yet. Peter Elbow has discovered that at least two distinct stages are necessary for a written piece to be excellent: creating and controlling.

He noticed that we often neglect our creating process because we are already self-censoring, which in return curbs our creativity.

While the process of controlling our ideas in order to shape them into a coherent paper needs the critical eye of the detached artist, the process of generating ideas needs a faithful listener.

If you are sitting in front of your computer, staring at an empty word document, start like this:

1) Create, create, create. That means brainstorm, entertain impossible ideas, believe in your text and yourself as never before, make notes, write drafts, make mistakes, and even jot down ideas that don’t make any sense. Don’t judge yourself. Believe in your ideas.

2) Control. Now sort through what you have. Be critical with the ideas you find. If you find an idea that’s interesting, think through it and enlarge it. Look at your ideas through the lens of your end-goal. In this stage, you also do the editing and proofreading. You are your own critic.

These stages can be mixed and mingled while you write your paper—and they should. The important thing is that they represent different states of mind when it comes to writing. We need to give time to each.

We spend time as the biggest fan of our ideas in order to develop them fearlessly, then switch to being a critic to identify the best ideas and look for ways to improve them. By separating these two mental processes we save ourselves from disappointment with our own writing and also avoid writer’s block.

 Anna-Zoë is a double major in global perspectives and studio art. She has studied in a university in Germany prior to coming to Principia, where she also studied to be a writing tutor.


Elbow, Peter. An Approach to Writing in “Writing with Power”. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.


Beating writer’s block

by Sydni Hammar

We’ve all had it happen: we receive some daunting writing assignment and we resist the work like a little kid refusing to eat green beans at dinner. Of course, we can only avoid an assignment for so long. Eventually, we sit down to write…and stare at the blank screen for what feels like an eternity.

In these horrifying moments, we feel paralyzed. This writer’s block can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • We simply don’t want to put in the time
  • We don’t know where to start
  • We’re not interested in the topic
  • We’re so passionate about our topic that we’re afraid we can’t do it justice

Oftentimes, the longer we wait to begin, the more daunting the work becomes. But in remaining passive by making excuses to procrastinate, we allow our writer’s block the space to intensify.


In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield discusses the idea of resistance, explaining that it functions as a paralyzing roadblock between a writer and his work. He asks: “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign…like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it” (57).

Pressfield shows us that if a writing assignment feels daunting—paralyzing, even— then it must be very important. This also tells me that accomplishing the assignment will be all the more satisfying. As Pressfield puts it, “the most important thing…is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying” (121).

With that in mind, here are three rules that I swear by when it comes to a daunting paper assignment:

  • Don’t like your topic? Change it! Developing a genuine curiosity as we explore an assignment is half the battle. Once we recognize how important and rewarding our assignment is, it is easier to be disciplined in our engagement with it.
  • Block off some time to work on the paper every day leading up to the due date. This amount of time could be 10 minutes or several hours. Be reasonable with yourself and your time, but be disciplined, too.
  • After you spend time working on the assignment, allow yourself to step away from the work. If you practice this, then you can truly look at your writing and ideas with fresh eyes when you come back to it. This space is important as your paper and ideas develop.

Remember that writing is very process-oriented. Any amount of time you spend wrestling with ideas is progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Fighting writer’s block with small, practical steps is a surefire way to get your paper to where it needs to be.

Sydni Hammar is a junior and an English major on the Creative Writing track.

Four paper-planning hacks

by Meredith Hamilton

It’s Friday. Perhaps you’re sitting at your desk feeling completely overwhelmed by all the work you have to do. Maybe you feel lost or disoriented. We’ve all been there, but you don’t have to stay there. Here are four paper-planning tricks that will make writing your papers a smooth, organized, and stress-free process:

  1. Schedule a “thinking period.” Designate a time to think about your paper. Ideally, this will happen soon after you receive your paper assignment. Try going for a walk or taking a bike ride while you think. Movement can be a great way to stimulate ideas and get your creative juices flowing. This will ultimately leave you more prepared to begin the planning process.
  1. Create a calendar in Excel. Fill in your class times and extracurricular activities. (This includes sports, student government obligations, etc.) Once you’ve done this, fill in your work hours. Now, you’re going to plan when to work on your paper. Let’s pretend that your paper is due week 5, and you’ve decided to dedicate six hours to it each week. Block off this time on your schedule. Use bold print or colored print—something that will grab your attention. I like this strategy because then I can’t claim that I don’t have time to work on my papers.

Your calendar might look something like this:

paper calendar

  1. Create (effective) notifications on your phone or laptop. Use your phone or laptop’s calendar function. This is your friend. Once you’ve put your designated “paper-writing time” into your Excel calendar, create notifications that you’ll actually pay attention to. This means you should turn off the snooze setting and set multiple alarms. The notifications will remind you of the commitment you made to work on your paper.
  1. Set a word-count goal. Now that you’ve gotten to the actual paper-writing session, set a word-count goal for yourself. The goal shouldn’t be so high that it takes away from the quality of your work, but it should be high enough to encourage you to make good headway on your paper—try 500 words per session. If you use your designated time effectively, you’ll find that you’ll finish well before the due date.

Planning out your papers encourages you to fully commit to your work, and this ultimately makes writing a lot more enjoyable. Happy planning!


Meredith Hamilton is a junior political science and English double major.


Claims + evidence = persuasion

by Shannon Naylor

Claims and evidence make sense in a courtroom: the prosecutor claims that the defendant did the crime and provides evidence to build her case. If there is not enough evidence, or it takes the wrong form, the jury doesn’t accept the claim of guilt. The same system applies in persuasive writing, although with lower stakes. As the writer of a persuasive paper, you must make a claim or series of claims that must then be supported by evidence.

Let’s clarify what we mean with some definitions. In our example of a court case, the claim is the accusation of guilt. In a paper, the claim is the thesis and every other statement that is something that can be argued. Courtroom evidence might include video surveillance footage or fingerprints left behind at the scene of the crime. In a paper, evidence is comprised of facts, examples, and data.

We have claims and evidence, but how do we use them? The first step is to remember that any paper that is all evidence (that means only evidence) is a report, not a persuasive essay; likewise, a paper that is made of only claims cannot be persuasive because the claims are unfounded (without evidence). To illustrate: if I were to lecture on the theme that cats make the best pets, I would never persuade you of my position if I didn’t list reasons why. Similarly, if I rattled off cat facts, you would probably be confused (and then frustrated) at my lack of explanation. A balance must be struck between the two so that you have something to be persuasive about (claims) and something to be persuasive with (evidence).

In practice, this is easily seen in the structure of a typical paragraph, which opens with a topic sentence, or claim. This is followed by the body of the paragraph, which is a mixture of facts (evidence) and commentary (claims tying facts together). To see the balance of claims and evidence in your writing, try going through your papers with two highlighters. Use one color to highlight each claim, and the other color to highlight each piece of evidence. Now that they are visible, you can check to make sure that your claims and evidence are working together harmoniously.

Shannon Naylor is a senior studying theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. Currently, she is working on capstones for her majors and has just finished the spring production of Our Country’s Good.

Five foolproof thesis tips

by Meredith Hamilton

When trying to formulate a thesis statement it is easy to feel overwhelmed. If you have spent an extensive amount of time researching your paper topic, you might not know how to focus your information. If you don’t know the point you’re trying to argue, then you might be struggling with turning a general statement into a claim. No fear! Here are five tips for better thesis statements:

  1. WRITE OUT ALL IDEAS. Write down all of the ideas that interest you on a piece of paper. Decide which ideas are most relevant and narrow your list down to one or two ideas. If you have more than one idea, think of how they relate to each other. These connections will make your thesis statement cohesive. If you only have one idea, you’re already on your way!
  1. CREATE A QUESTION. Formulate a question that you want your paper to answer. Your answer is your thesis statement. The more specific the question, the more focused the answer. For example if I were to write a paper about Jane Austen, I might ask: How do Jane Austen’s novels promote or detract from feminism? Don’t be afraid to write the first answer that comes into your head. You can revise and refine your thesis statement as many times as you need to!
  1. ELIMINATE UNNECESSARY INFO. Cut out the parts of your thesis statement that you can explain in your introduction paragraph. You can’t explain all of your ideas in one sentence! Let the supporting information precede your thesis. This info will lead your reader to your claim and ultimately make for a stronger, more organized, paper.
  1. SWITCH SENTENCE COMPONENTS. If your thesis statement isn’t sounding right, try switching the end of your sentence with the beginning. This is especially helpful when dealing with compound sentences. Allow yourself to see your thesis with fresh eyes and consider how the new sentence construction affects it. It might not work, but don’t be afraid to try it out!
  1. EMPHASIZE DIFFERENT WORDS. Read your thesis out loud several times, emphasizing different words each time. This can reveal nuances you hadn’t noticed before. By emphasizing different sections of your thesis you sometimes realize you’re focusing on the wrong ideas. This will also give you a new look at your statement.

A well-constructed thesis statement sets your paper up for success. Always remember to ask yourself these questions: Is it debatable? Am I making a claim? Does it make sense? If your answer is yes, you’re on your way! If you’re not sure, use these tips to reevaluate. Happy thesis crafting!

Meredith Hamilton is a sophomore majoring in political science and English. Two of her favorite college experiences thus far have been studying abroad in England and Spain.