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Paper Writing Basics

©02 The Media Desk

[Presented as a Public Service by The Media Desk. Permission to re-use or re-publish with credit to the Desk is hereby given. Direct all comments, suggestions, and hate mail to Dr. Leftover, owner/author/webmaster of The Media Desk.  Dr_Leftover[-at-]themediadesk(-dot-)com Thank you]

      There are some things common to writing anything beyond a shopping list or a bookie slip. And if there is one thing the Desk is an expert at, it would be common things.
      You see, the Media Desk, one Dr. Leftover, is very common.
      His credentials have been issued solely due to years of Doing It. He is, after all, A Professional.

"Professional What?" Somebody just asked.

      ... Nevermind.
      So, starting there the Desk will run down some basics needed for writing an article, a paper, an essay, even a paragraph about... whatever. Fiction or Non-Fiction. Journalism or Editorializing. There are simply certain things you need to tell us, the readers.
      After all, if you are writing about nothing, there is nothing to write about.

      Journalists everywhere, even Gonzo Journalists stomping around some sort of special event looking for a fresh angle to cover, obey the Rule of the Five W's. Of which there are now six, but the name has stuck nonetheless.


      If you can answer those, you have told us everything we need to know about whatever it is you are writing about.

      Now, instead of waxing poetic about its adoration of the W's, the Desk is going to use an example. Others can pass judgement about whether it is a good or bad example.

SEE ATTACHMENT: Desk article on the 2002 America's Cup Challenger Series

      OK. This one is sports. Yes, even sailboat racing is a sport.
      Most people are not all that familiar with yacht racing, so the Desk knew going in it had to make it interesting and informative without burying the reader in jargon and the intricacies in transporting the boats halfway around the world. The article had to be informative, yet quick moving and with a little humor inserted just in keeping with the overall flavor of other stuff done by the Desk.

THE W's and the CUP Article

END of W's

      But the Curse of the W's is dry writing and something that sounds like a Corporate Office Copier Usage Report. How many toner cartridges, service calls, heaviest three day period of usage, breakdown of paper sizes used (legal, letterhead, pre-hole-punched), work stations with lightest use by hour.
      You want to get your information across. If the reader falls asleep by the third paragraph they are not going to even see your information. Even worse. If you wrote it for a grade and it is that bleary-eyed dull, and it is fifteenth paper your teacher or professor reads tonight, what kind of grade do you think it is going to pull even if all the facts and figures are there?
      So you have to find something to keep their interest. Something to make them WANT to read it even if they HAVE to read it.


      It's like Tech Manuals and things translated from German, the 1929 Nobel Prize winning BUDDENBROOKS by Thomas Mann comes to mind, and some Textbooks.
      Yeah, they may be interesting to those that are in that field, or a real page turner in the original language, and they may convey everything you need to get a PhD in Molecular Engineering. But for Reading for Pleasure, no thank you.
      Nobody reads stuff on the Desk because they HAVE to.
      The Desk doesn't write stuff to convey precise technical information. No, you could not build and sail an America's Cup Boat from the information presented in that article, and you would be foolish to try.
      The Desk is not going to win the Nobel, Pulitzer, Butkus, Academy, or Golden Fleece Award anytime soon.
      Yet some of the stuff the Desk has written has been around the Net several times and has even been emailed back to the Desk as SPAM [this sounds like something you write]. And it was, 'What Men Want to Tell Women' has become something of a Web Classic. I promise not to laugh the next time you tell me the cat got ran over by a street sweeper.
      So the Desk actually TRIES to make its stuff, fiction and non-fiction, interesting, somewhat informative, and most of all READABLE.


      Note on term: Garbola: Institutional Foodservice Term for Mystery Meat served with either Red Sauce or Gravy while being presented on the menu with a meaningless name like Veal de la Rosa.
      Begin with an outline that covers the Five W's. It doesn't have to be a Formal Outline with those underlying points and sub-points (unless that has been assigned for the paper as well). Just list the Who What etc, and write in behind them in a few words the information you have to make sure is in the paper. If it is a paper about Freud you want to include his nationality, dates of birth and death, something about his theories on the human mind, and maybe a bit about counter theories from say, Karl Jung.
      This outline can also be a checklist for research. Use the W's while you are doing the legwork in the library or on the Net.
      For Freud...
          Who/ When: Sigmund Freud, 1856 - 1939, born in Frieberg, Moravia (now Czech Republic). Died in London.
          What: Established practice of psychoanalysis as separate branch of psychology.
          Where: Vienna Austria where he earned his medical degree and practiced through the start of WW2.
          Why/How: Clinical practice encouraged Freud to study and model what he saw as the working of his patient's minds beginning with the famous 'Anna' who was a patient of Freud's mentor for several years.
      Of course, this is only scratching the surface of the Life and Work of Freud. But it is a start. From this point you can flesh out the points into as much detail as needed for the paper, be it a two page brief on him or a several thousand word graduate level thesis.


      Now you need to focus the paper. Decide on the angle, if you will.
      Is it going to walk through Freud's life chronologically, or concentrate on the development of his Theory of Personality. Perhaps you might look at his personal life and speculate on how his being his own mother's first and favorite child where she had several stepchildren already in the family affected his theories within the confines of the data available on the man.
      Which raises the next point. Is this an Objective paper or a Subjective paper. "Just the facts ma'am" or open to the insertion of your own opinions and ideas. If it is just a rundown of hard dates and places and actual quotes: "Life is not easy" -Freud. Then it is an Objective paper. Opinions are not welcome without a preponderance of evidence to support them. If it is a Subjective paper, your thoughts on the matter may be presented as your own conclusions and opinions as long as they are so labeled.

      What you leave out is just as important as what you keep in, and sometimes, more so. If you know your professor has a shrine to Freud in their office, mentioning the good doctor's use of cocaine may not be a real good idea.
      Now don't misunderstand what the Desk is saying here. Do not Deny something known to be true simply to make points with the Grading Authority. But also, there is no need to wave a red flag in front of the bull just because you can. This is where Thinking about your Audience comes in.
      Who are you writing this for and Why. Yes they are part of the W's but now they are being turned around. We are examining the PURPOSE for the exercise. What it is supposed to accomplish.
      The Desk writes for a General Audience. It Assumes an Educational Level of High School or Above. Most of its Fiction and Photo Essay readers are Women. And it keeps that in mind when working on those. But there is a different focus on things like the Urban Legend Page and in the Political Coverage. For a piece on Big Ten Football, it writes knowing most people will recognize terms like 'end around fake', 'deep zone coverage' and 'four man pro set line'.
      If you are writing a paper for a High School Teacher. Write it for a High School Teacher. Do not use the same language you use when at the Pizza Palace with your friends. Avoid slang and curse words. One sentence about how Freud really 'f--ked up' on his Oedipus Complex Theory is liable to blow your entire paper out of the water. If you are writing a Master's Thesis on him, you may wish to turn the use of the language up one more notch. Use more technical words and phrases including some of the Latin names for the various aspects of his theory.

      Next. The LIMITS of the paper. Most Likely you are not going to cover everything Freud said and did in his life and career in the context of your paper. And Yes we are back to talking about what to leave out. Is his personal life important to your paper? It might be. His thoughts as a Jew on the rise of the Nazi's in Austria in the thirties? And so on. If you are only looking at his professional life, maybe, maybe not.
      These decisions should be made before you begin the paper, not when you're in the middle of Page Seven of your Three Page Paper with no end in sight.


      Starting it is the hardest of the entire project.
      The opening. Do you begin with 'Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in Frieberg...' Or do you go with 'Credited with being the father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund...'. Perhaps you go for a quote from him or about him. Maybe mention the 'Dear Sigmund' episode of M*A*S*H.
      Whatever it is it MUST get the reader's attention even if they HAVE to read it. The idea is to make them WANT to read it. Within the Freud example: Maybe your paper will be one of an entire class assigned to write about him. How can you state the same information everybody else has about Freud so the teacher (or teaching assistant) will want to read your paper? Humor may not be appropriate, perhaps there is no new angle to the subject, maybe everything has been said that can be said about him. Oh, well, try anyway. Maybe apply some Freudian analysis to a dream you had. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." -Freud.

      The Body. Here comes the weight of your paper. If the entire assignment is five paragraphs, the opening might be one, then the body three or four, and the closing another short paragraph drawing a quick conclusion. If you're writing a novel, the body may be a dozen rather lengthy chapters. In either case, here is where you bring up information to support whatever you are saying. Citing quotes. Presenting arguments and counter-arguments. This where you will go into whatever detail about Freud's theories and ideas you have decided you need to to get your point across. -and of course, as you write it remember, somebody will have to read it!
      Now about the FORMATTING, the physical layout of the sentences and paragraphs in your paper- as you write it. Break It Up! It's a very simple thing that so often gets forgotten. Except in very unusual circumstances no sentence should be longer than about three lines or about twenty five words and paragraphs shouldn't go on for more than maybe five sentences. Use double single spacing between related paragraphs and double between the various sections of text. For example, in the America's Cup article there is a discussion of the sixteen-person crew of the twelve meter racing yachts then the next section is a description of the boat itself, between those two otherwise unrelated sections there is a double space break to give the reader the idea that we've changed topic and so they can catch their breath. Now, do you see how a very long sentence (that last one was 61 words) can be tedious to read? Also, this paragraph is getting to the upper end of the scale for length with about two hundred words scattered through nine sentences. Just remember, break it up with logical breaks, the occasional pause, it's just easier to read.
      Then you have to get out of the Body and into the conclusion in some sort transition. A cold transition may work in some cases, but usually a few sentences wrapping up the presentation of ideas and new material and leading to the conclusion is a good way to do it.

Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces. -Freud
      The Conclusion. Wrap it up. Without bringing up anything new if possible. State your conclusion directly- "Sigmund Freud was truly the first to practice psychoanalysis as a distinct discipline of therapeutic psychology." Or all but state it and allow the reader to conclude it for themselves.

      References. Attribute EVERYTHING. Give complete biographical information even to things in the public domain.
      There have been reams written about how to attribute stuff from books. The best way to do it is to simply follow whatever style sheet your school uses. This usually includes the title of the work, its author, date, publisher, and page numbers cited.
      As for the Attribution of stuff from the Web... Give what you can, including the URL for stuff used, and the author if known. This may take some legwork in and of itself.
      Do Not Use Material You Cannot Attribute because if the professor recognizes it or finds out where it came from you can be charged with plagiarism. And that is NOT a good thing unless you are a US Senator or going to school in Kansas City.

  1.   Freud Biographical Data from Shippensburg University Psychology Department website, Dr. C. George Boeree chair.  
  2.   All Freud quotes in this article from the Brainy Quote Website. (c) 2002  
  3.   America's Cup article. (c)02 The Media Desk, Dr. Leftover, Author and Webmaster. Page address-


      The Presentation:
      In short. The Physical Appearance of your work on either screen or page. On a computer, you can change all of these attributes after you've written it until it looks like something somebody would want to read.
      DON'T: Do not be overly clever or cute. OK cool, you found a font face that inserts random marks into your words, or converts some letter into Russian characters. That's nice. Save it for your email to your friends. You have a really great background for your emails and notes. Swell. It's OK for one page, maybe a short note inviting us out to pizza, but by the fifth page- it's old and tiresome and hard on the eyes. And one more, make sure the Look of your paper doesn't detract or distract from your message. If we spend more time looking at the special effects than reading, we may get the impression that your content may be somewhat lacking or you are hiding something.
      DO: Sit back and look at it. Can you easily read the type face on screen and in print- sometimes fonts look different on the screen than on the page? (The Desk uses Times New Roman and Courier almost exclusively for exactly that reason, they print out fairly true.) How's the size, too big or too small? Use BOLD and CAPS sparingly. They can be used to make a point, but too much of it tends to dilute their effectiveness. For the best presentation of your Ideas, which is what the paper is supposed to be about, use simple easy to read characters, a straightforward style, plain background, and minimal special effects.
      Of course if you really don't have anything to say, reverse those suggestions. Maybe hiding your rather lame essay behind flashy animated pictures, a pretty background, and fancy type that we really can't read will work and nobody will notice that you killed a lot of perfectly good electrons to say absolutely nothing.
      One more thing, you have the latest and greatest PDF distiller, that's nice, MUST you use it? Saving a WORD document as an RTF (rich text formatting) saves the formatting and will allow it to be opened by almost anything in the world without requiring your reader to go out and download anything.

      On a computer. USE THE SPELLCHECKER. Look stuff up in dictionaries or other resources that the Spellchecker does not recognize. Like the name of Freud's birthplace- Frieberg. No Spellchecker the Desk could find knew what that one was.
      Most of all- PROOFREAD. Let it set for an hour or so after you finish it and have crossed all the 'I's and dotted all the 'T's then Print It Out and Read it as if you have never seen it before in your life. The reason to print it is that things always look different on the page than they do on the screen.
      Then PROOF IT AGAIN! Or get a parent or friend to read it. And tell them to honestly tell you where it hits and misses. To circle the mistakes and misspellings, and where something just doesn't make sense. Better for them to see it than the professor eh?

      OK, for a short paper done in class this may not all be possible.
      And in fact, the Desk still finds itself staring at deadline and having to post something on the Website that hasn't been edited. But later, once the heat is off, it prints it out, goes through it with a red pen, and as likely as not, makes things worse.
      But the only ones grading the Desk now are 50,000 readers a month.


      Oh by the way. You may want to explain obscure usage and references with footnotes.

      Footnote: Selah- Hebrew word of uncertain meaning. Used in Old Testement esp. Psalms as either a term for Peace or a Musical Rest. The Desk uses it as Both.

[NOTE: This article is NOT presented to take the place of any formal style books or instructions given by any teaching authority. It is given as an informal guide for those in school and beyond who have never written anything serious for a grade or a job assignment before in their lives. Which fairly describes the Desk even today.]

[NOTE: The Desk is NOT affiliated with Anything to do with the Cup, Freud, Shippensburg University, or pretty much anything else besides the Desk. Thank you.]

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