Category Archives: WriteHereWriteNowWriteOn

Making the most of your research resources

by Marie Sherman

Now that the semester is over halfway through —crazy how fast time flies—it’s getting to be that time where lots of research papers are being assigned. A big question that I often ask myself when I first see a new research paper assignment is, “How do I even start my research?”

At Principia, we have access to thousands of resources to use, both in print and online. Rather than facing the challenge of not having enough material to research, we often deal with the problem of having too many places to find information. It can certainly be easy to feel overwhelmed! There have been many times where I have found myself wondering how to know what resources to use, how to sort through all the potential sources, and how to find information within a source!

I’ve found that the answers to these questions can vary from paper to paper. But if you’ve ever wondered any of these questions as well, hopefully this post will give you some helpful strategies that you can apply to your own writing. That way you can lose the feeling of information-overload and rock that research paper! 

A great place to begin is by reading any information you’ve been given about your assignment. Check to see if your professor has given you any specific research materials to use or tips on where to find information. For many classes, the library sets up a “Course Guide,” which is a  web page  on the library website that provides links to possible sources you can use both throughout the semester and for your particular research project.

If you don’t have a “Course Guide,” or are still feeling stuck, take a look at the library website and decide whether it will be more helpful for you to find books, journal articles, news articles, or dictionary and encyclopedia entries connected to your topic. You can make this decision first based off of what materials your professor has required for the paper (sometimes they specify if they want a certain number of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, news sources, etc.). If you don’t have any specific requirements or suggestions, try to think about what type of sources you use in your class, or ones you’ve had the most success using before.

Once you know what type of source you want to use, the best way to find information is by typing in different keywords related to your topic to find the sources that connect the best! If you can’t find anything by doing specific searches, try using general keywords at first.

When you’ve found some general material, you can dive deeper and gather the specifics. If you’re using online sources, it can be very helpful to do searches for certain words within the source to find what you’re looking for. The more specific search terms you use, the less time you’ll have to spend sorting through thousands of useless articles just to get to the one helpful one. Set up an appointment with a research librarian or a writing tutor to get extra help with search terms!

Oftentimes, you just need a few good research sources to get you started and make sure you feel like you’re on the right track. The more experience you have with doing this, the easier it gets. And don’t forget, if you ever need help with research, your friendly neighbourhood writing tutors are always here to help!


Marie Sherman is a sophomore at Principia College studying education and global studies. When not writing, she is probably running around campus or dancing!

Get the ball rolling

by Bubba Sugarman

You’ve just received a new assignment from your favorite class. It’s a page of complex paragraphs filled with instructions followed by a grading rubric. I’ll be honest; when I receive a large assignment like this it can seem a little frightening. It might seem big and scary, but here are three simple strategies I use to make assignments more manageable and help get the ball rolling.

  1. The topic-tackling strategy

A roadblock to getting started can be choosing a topic to write about, especially when your assignment is largely open-ended. I find that choosing a topic is one of the hardest parts of the writing process, so I start by brainstorming. In my brainstorming session, I think of anything that could remotely answer the prompt, and I write it down. I don’t weed out ideas just yet; I only write them down. Once I’ve compiled a list of ideas I start to think them out by creating a set of criteria that my topic must meet. For example, for a science paper, I’ll look at how much research has been done on my proposed topic and check to see if it is still relevant to today’s academic discussion. Using my criteria, I then narrow my brainstorming list to a few choice topics. With a list of choice topics made, I begin my exploratory research to get to know them better.

  1. The research reviewing strategy

The library is my best friend when it comes to getting to know my topic. The more exploratory research I do, the more I tend to get a sense of the right topic to pursue. Once I’ve narrowed down my ideas to a topic that will meet my criteria and pertains to the assignment, I start my research. Research poses its own set of challenges, but don’t be alarmed—the writing tutors and librarians are all research wizzes. They are there to help you, and they have some pretty neat tricks to make your research process a little less painful!

  1. The checklist strategy

One strategy that I find incredibly helpful for lengthy prompts is the checklist approach. This strategy works best for assignments that have a lot of individual requirements within them. For example, your assignment might ask for the following: a double-spaced five-page paper in MLA format, with a title page, seven sources, one block quote, and a self-assessment. This long list of tasks is hiding in your page-long prompt. You can make more sense of it using the checklist approach. Highlight each task within the assignment and put a checkbox next to it. As you work through the assignment, you can reference your checklist and mark off the individual boxes. I like to add my own to-dos to my assignment, i.e. “read through it out loud” or “double check your boxes.” Once all your boxes have been checked, your assignment should be complete!

Don’t forget, if at any point you find yourself needing help, the librarians and writing tutors are here for you. Bring us your questions and papers; we love to help.

Bubba Sugarman is a sophomore business major who has trouble saying no to new things. He enjoys playing rugby, beekeeping, blacksmithing, bull riding, surfing, flying helicopters, playing cello, working as a writing tutor, woodworking, welding, flying planes, baking, shearing sheep, and procrastinating. As a tutor, Bubba wants to make the tutor café as inviting as possible for all students. Even if you don’t have questions, come hang out with us, we get lonely sometimes.

What do they mean? How to translate your professor

by Brooke Engel

              I’ve never been more frustrated than when I emailed my professor for the FOURTH time because I still didn’t understand what they were asking for. I had tried everything— and I knew that I understood the material. I just couldn’t figure out what question they wanted me to answer, and nothing I was doing seemed to help. I was at a loss, and I ended up falling short on the assignment.

We’ve all had teachers who use words that are highly academic and often a little too confusing to understand. Sometimes, it can feel like your professor is speaking in a foreign language (maybe they actually are!). So what do you do when you have no idea what their assignments are asking for?

              Whether it’s a quick reflection paragraph or an end-of-term paper, knowing how to dissect prompts can be helpful so that you can show what you’ve learned. Here are a couple tips that might help:

  1. Find someone who’s familiar with your professor. There’s bound to be a student in the major (maybe even in your class) who has taken multiple classes with your prof and has succeeded—reach out to them and ask if they have any ideas or understand what the prompt is asking. Sometimes it helps to find someone who has already done the translating.


  1. Email your professor, or drop by during their office hours for a meeting. Professors are often well aware that their prompts can be confusing and will be happy to re-word their assignments or give you some insight as to what they’re asking for. If you still don’t understand after just one conversation, DON’T GIVE UP! Keep asking questions. Professors want you to succeed in their courses, but they can’t help you if they don’t know you’re still struggling.


  1. Come see a writing tutor! We can help you read through the assignment and highlight key ideas and questions that your professor is asking. We’re students, too! So we’ve been there, and thankfully we’re trained to help bring a fresh set of ideas and eyes to help you work through the prompt (but you have to get to the tutor station first!). We can even read through your responses to the assignment specifically to look and see if you’ve met the prompt requirements. It’s super helpful to you, and we love to do it.

Don’t let a pesky prompt stop you from doing well on an assignment or in a class. There are plenty of resources to turn to, but it’s on YOU to ask for help. We’ll see you at the tutor station!


Brooke is a sophomore studio art major who was part of the Slovenia Abroad this past summer. She likes taking long walks on the beach and singing songs to dogs to make them smile.

Finding your way with words

by Bubba Sugarman

When you start writing a paper, you choose a subject, you do some research, you find some evidence, and develop an idea of what you are going to say. You get all your thoughts in order, and then you try to find the right words to express your thoughts. The ideas may be crystal clear in your mind, but finding the words is sometimes half the battle. As you read what you’ve written, you may ask yourself, “Is this really what I mean?” or “Does this sound right?” or even, “What am I trying to say?” If your final draft seems wordy, clumsy, or convoluted, don’t fret! It can all be fixed with some simple word choices.

When you write, consider your audience. Remember, because they haven’t done the research and might not be as familiar with the content, you will have to carefully help them understand your ideas. When choosing which words to use, don’t “try to sound smart” by using big confusing words. Rather, remember that your goal is to clearly communicate your ideas. As you continue to write and learn, your writing will become more complex while maintaining its clarity. Simple words are in no way limited to simple thoughts.

Another way to improve your word choice is to avoid clichés. They tend to make your writing sound informal and corny. If you find that you use clichés in your writing, don’t panic! Just replace the cliché with what you really mean. For example, instead of using the phrase, “dead as a doornail” just replace it with “dead.” Or, rather than saying the court verdict was “up in the air,” you could say the court verdict was “undecided.” By saying exactly what you mean, your writing becomes more clear and understandable.

Finally, if you find that that you’ve got the ideas in your head but can’t put them into words, here are some tricks I like to use:

  • Ask yourself, “What do I really mean?” and give the answer like you’re talking to a friend or classmate (I tell my roommate all about my papers). Just say, “What I really mean is…” and finish the thought.
  • You can call someone (I call my mom) and tell them about your paper. By walking someone you’re comfortable with through your evidence, ideas, and reasoning, you can build a more concrete understanding of what you are trying to say. Tell them what you are working on and ask them if your ideas make sense.

If your friend, classmate, roommate, or mom still seems confused you can try to clarify your ideas by using different words. Once you figure out a way to explain your ideas, write them down.

 One final note, keep in mind that writing a new sentence is often faster, and produces a better result, than trying to fix a sentence. Instead of trying to save a sentence by piecing it back together, delete it and write it again.  Your ideas will be more concrete and the words will come more easily.


Bubba Sugarman is a sophomore business major who has trouble saying no to new things. He enjoys playing rugby, beekeeping, blacksmithing, bull riding, surfing, flying helicopters, playing cello, working as a writing tutor, woodworking, welding, flying planes, baking, shearing sheep, and procrastinating. As a tutor, Bubba wants to make the tutor café as inviting as possible for all students. Even if you don’t have questions, come hang out with us, we get lonely sometimes.

The starting line

by Marie Sherman

Regardless of the page count, number of required reference resources, topic complexity, or prior writing experience, oftentimes I find that the hardest part of trying to work on a new writing assignment is figuring out where to begin! Well, since the semester has certainly begun rolling, and many of us are having to start big papers, here are some strategies to help get you writing.

Your first step should be to make sure you understand the assignment. Read through it and highlight the important aspects; the different requirements, due dates, formatting style and other helpful tips provided by your professor (take a look at this helpful blog post about using the Assignment sheet as a checklist!). Be sure you make note of any questions you have and find a helpful resource to talk to: your professor, a TA, or a writing tutor (we’re always happy to help)! Once you are confident that you have a clear sense of what you’re supposed to do, it’s time to embark on your writing journey.

There’s an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I don’t have a verifiable source on this, but an ancient writing tutor probably said, “An essay of a thousand pages begins with a single word.”

Hopefully you don’t have any thousand-page essays to write this semester, but in order to begin writing anything, you have to start somewhere. Something that can be very helpful is to begin by simply getting any ideas you have out on a page. This can take place in many ways: doing a free write, jotting down notes, creating a mind map (a diagram of your ideas combining the use of words, symbols, and arrows – see a previous Write On blog post about Getting your thoughts on paper )… whatever you can do to begin thinking about your topic and all the possible directions you could go. Take as much time as you need with this part of the process. Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times you may want to spend a few hours sorting through your thoughts. Keep in mind that depending on the type of paper you are writing, it can be helpful to do this step once you have already done some initial reading, or whilst you are doing your research.

After you have accumulated some starter ideas, you can begin to lay the foundation for your paper. Take a look at what you’ve written and find the big idea(s) that resonate most with you. You can also look for connections between your ideas and highlight them. Once you know what you want to focus on, then you can move forward with planning your paper and dive right into writing (check out tips on Making an outline). All the best with your journey!

Marie Sherman is a sophomore at Principia College studying education and global studies. When not writing, she is probably running around campus or dancing!

Making quotations work for you

by Samuel Sugarman

Quotation integration sounds wordy and abstract but, put simply, this procedure is how you make a quotation work for you. Quotations are fantastic literary tools that, when used correctly, can greatly improve the clarity and strength of your paper. I’m sure that you have run into a situation where you were writing a paper and found a great, supporting quotation, but didn’t know how to fit it in your paper. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, it happens to everyone. There are some great ways to make your quote fit into your paper seamlessly, and you have probably already used them without knowing it.

There are three main ways I like to integrate quotes:

  1. In the first style, introduce your quote with a complete sentence ending with a colon. Then boom, you insert your quote. I’m a visual guy, and I’m not good at picturing literary styles, so let’s try it with an example. Let’s say I’m quoting Chuck Norris when he says, “Violence is my last option.” If I use this first style, I will start with a sentence ending in a colon and then insert my quote. So here we go. When asked about his martial arts, Chuck Norris always said the same thing: “Violence is my last option.”


  1. But wait there’s more, and it’s an elegant trick. You can introduce your quote with an introductory phrase followed by a comma, and then your quote. It looks like this. The wise Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”


  1. Now check this out. I can use this same quote and integrate it into my sentence without using punctuation. All I must do is replace the comma with the word “that” and it works perfectly. The wise Benjamin Franklin once said that “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” No punctuation and it fits right in.

If you use these tricks, you can seamlessly place quotes into your paper to strengthen it.

Note: This does not include proper citation of quotations. Remember to check your citation style for how to properly attribute your quotation to its respective source!

Sugarman is a sophomore who has recently developed a love for writing. A business major, Sugarman hopes to make the writing center more welcoming to all students, no matter their field of study.

What can a tutor do for you?

Zoë Mahler

Welcome back! The spring semester is underway and if you’re anything like me, then you’ll have found that you already have more homework than you’d initially anticipated. I already have two paper assignments and it’s only Week 2. But, have no fear, because your tutors are prepped and ready to lend you a hand!

So, if you didn’t find yourself in the tutor café in the library last semester, then here’s a quick guide to let you know everything a tutor can provide for you, should you find yourself in need of assistance.

First off, tutors are here to help. We aren’t here to criticize; we’re here to use as a resource. Tutors often act as a bridge between the professor and student. If you are having any difficulty knowing whether or not you’ve checked all the boxes on a rubric, tutors can help you review your work through multiple methods until both you and the tutor are sure you’ve set a good base for your paper and then elaborated on it.

Tutors are also trained to help with the databases in the library. If you’re in need of more sources for a paper, then tutors can help you search for and find credible sources from the multiple databases the library provides. (Here are some helpful blogs specifically on research.)

If you are in need of any help with citations, (MLA, APA, Chicago, SBL, or CSE) tutors not only have handy-dandy citation guides you can take home with you, but also have been trained in how to best present an annotated bibliography, works cited page, and footnotes.

And though this all sounds very specific, you can also just come to a tutor if you’d just like someone to read over your paper and give you some feedback. Tutors aren’t going to take your paper and revise it for you, but the process in which both you and the tutor go through your paper will not only help you with the paper you’re working on, but can provide you with the resources and tools to do well on the rest of your following papers.

The tutor station is open from 8 to 11pm, Sunday through Thursday. You can sign up at the tutor station for a half-hour slot, or you can just show up! We are more than happy to help you and look forward to seeing your work!


Zoë Mahler is a senior from Minneapolis, Minnesota working toward a double major in art history and mass communications and a minor in religion. This summer she will be a part of the archaeological dig taking place in Malta. 

Reverse outlines to get you to the finish line

by Maddi Demaree

The final weeks of the semester are often very full with classes, wrap-up activities and performances, and, if you’re anything like me, a lot of late nights. This might make it hard to get in to see the writing tutors for help on the revising process of your paper. Just in case you find yourself revising at 2:00 a.m., here’s a strategy you can use without help: the reverse outline.

You are probably familiar with the process of creating an outline at the beginning of the writing process to map out the structure of your paper. This helps to ensure that the ideas in your paper flow in a logical way, with each paragraph tying back to the one before it. Unfortunately, sometimes your writing doesn’t quite go as planned, and when you reach the end of the paper you find that it isn’t as coherent as you’d like it to be. This is a perfect time to utilize the reverse outline.

Reverse outlines function in a similar way to a typical outline—they help you to check the logical unfoldment of ideas in your paper—and quickly reveal to you if something doesn’t make sense! They also help you check for paragraph unity.

The simplest way to create a reverse outline is to look at each paragraph of your paper, and decide on a word or phrase that describes the purpose of that paragraph in relation to the rest of your paper. If you are struggling to find one phrase to describe any given paragraph, it is possible that your paragraph is covering too many ideas at once. At that point, it might be wise to think about how you could restructure the paragraph to have a more singular purpose.

Once you’ve chosen a phrase that can adequately describe the purpose of the paragraph, write that phrase in the margin of your paper. For example, the phrase that might describe the first paragraph of my paper might be: “introduction—giving  context to the issues.”  Later on in the paper, I need to introduce different parties that are interested in the issue that my paper is about. I would describe the paragraph that introduces one of these parties using the phrase “stakeholders’ policy preferences.” These phrases help me know what function each paragraph serves in relation to the rest of the paper.

Go through each paragraph of the paper, writing the phrase you determine in the margin next to the appropriate paragraph. Once you have finished completing that process for each paragraph, write (or type) these phrases out in outline form.

Now, examine your outline. Ask yourself: Does each concept lead to the next one? Does each paragraph accomplish the purpose you hoped that it would accomplish? Should any of your paragraphs be re-ordered to make more sense?

I just used this process with a capstone writer I was working with, and we found that one section of this student’s paper was missing the appropriate introductory context. We were so glad to find that content was something that was already in the paper, but the writer had placed in an earlier section. By creating a reverse outline, we saw how we could reorder content that was already in the paper to best support the flow of ideas.

Maddi Demaree is a senior who will be traveling abroad to New Zealand in the spring.

Revision: Run the whole race

by Anna-Zoë Herr

At this point in the semester, you might feel overloaded with the amount papers you have to write and hand-in on time. If this is the case, you might feel tempted to turn in a paper without any revising or editing (as I have done a few times, but have learned to never do again). It has been proven, though, that revised papers receive higher grades and better feedback from professors. 

I like to think of each paper as a thought marathon, and in order to finish strong and improve our performance, we need to run the whole race and not drop out 50 feet before the finish line. To overcome the last 50 feet, you have to go through one of the most underestimated but powerful parts of writing a paper: the revising and editing process.

Let’s differentiate these two processes: Revising relates to the inner structure of your paper. It is looking at how the ideas flow, how paragraphs are structured, and how the paper sounds from beginning to end. This process requires time and attention. Editing is the mechanical process of finding punctuation errors, spelling mistakes, and sentence fragments. This can typically be a quick process.

Here are three tips on how to make these processes a little bit easier:

1) Value your writing

I realized that sometimes I have turned in unrevised writings because I didn’t value what I had written enough to give it a little bit more time and love. At first, it really didn’t seem to matter to me. But the truth is that it does matter to me, and I feel much better when I hand in something that is coherent, revised and strong. Valuing yourself and your writing shows that you respect yourself and the amount of time you have invested in a paper. Giving your all to these last feet in the “race” is absolutely worth it.

2) Eat one piece of the pie at a time

It is a crazy undertaking to want to revise a whole paper in one pass. To make sure that you really do every part of your revision, create a strategy that is broken up into chunks. Your strategy could look something like this:

  • Check the flow of writing, especially how one paragraph flows into the next. Don’t be afraid to move paragraphs and sentences, add new material, or delete material that doesn’t quite fit.
  • Read the introduction and conclusion and make sure that the ideas relate to each other and connect to the rest of the paper.
  • Go over the paper to correct grammar, spelling, and sentence structure errors.

3) Give yourself time

This is a crucial part, because writing a good paper requires time. Ideally, you have a week to revise, in which you can commit to one part of the strategy a day. That way, you spend very little time on it each day and avoid getting overwhelmed with stress or boredom with your paper.


Anna-Zoë is in her last semester and the final week of her capstone, which she will present during the last week of classes. Afterwards, she will stay on as a PGTI for the sustainability center for one semester and then hopefully go to grad school in Copenhagen, Denmark.