College instructors, what makes a good paper?

Let’s include essays and presentations.

I have had instructors over the years complain that my papers/essays/presentations lack depth. I’m not really sure what they mean about that.

Ok-- Regarding papers, and this probably goes for presentations and such as well. Do you have a thesis statement that argues something specifically? Bad thesis, and merely there to have one at all: “Beavers are our friend.” Better: tells the reader what’s about to happen in the next 10 pages. “By investigating the various manners in which the beavers’ activities affect their own ecosystem while simultaneously affecting our own, namely blah and blah, this paper demonstrates THAT beavers and humans live in a symbiotic blah blah. The evidence I consider includes blah blah, and I will discuss these things in blah blah order because it makes sense that way.”
What are you using for sources? Is your research sophisticated at all or are you sticking to textbooks and Time-Life publishing level material? Did you phone it in at the last minute, or does it look like there’s been a real investment? Do you appear to know what you are talking about-- you’ve read the various evidence and have synthesized it-- or are you parroting and paraphrasing material with no real purpose or understanding in order to just get the damn 10 pages in on time and get that 35 percent of the grade for this stupid core distribution requirement that you think is idiotic that you have to take at all since you’re in an engineering program and art history’s for hippies and burnouts (ahem. Just for example)? At some point you’re expected to go past ‘proficiently written’-- demonstrating that you can make complete sentences and run a spell-checking program-- into a different realm where you demonstrate a grasp of the methods and evidence within a particular field.
Does that help at all?

What subject(s) were you taking when you received this particular comment? Writing conventions and standards of evidence and proof vary hugely from one discipline to another, so people will be able to answer your question more effectively if they know this.

I’m an English instructor, and when I say I’m looking for more depth, I generally mean that the student needs to take a closer look at the text. Rather than summarizing general plot points, they should quote specific passages, explain how particular words, images, and literary devices work within the passage, and then show the reader how these elements reinforce their argument as a whole.

And ditto to what capybara said about the importance of a strong thesis. I’m usually looking for a main argument that is specific, and has a certain amount of subtlety and complexity – not, say “Gender is very important in this text” but rather “Although some readers interpret this as a feminist work, a closer look at the tone of the text and the culture in which it was written suggests that the author is mocking the idea that women can effectively fill traditionally masculine roles.” (“Some readers may believe … but I disagree, because…” is a VERY effective formula for structuring your main argument. You don’t have to have that exact phrase in there, but if it’s implicit in the structure of the paper, it will both sharpen your argument and make it easier for readers to see why you’re writing the essay in the first place.)

What I (unfortunately) didn’t figure out until my last year in high school is that teachers don’t want you to just look up something and summarize it. Writing an essay is like doing a science project. No one is going to say you did good for going out and copying down the periodic table of elements and reposting it.

Before you can write a paper or even research what you want to write about, you actually have to do some pre-research (assuming you’re coming to the topic cold.) The goal is to go through everything you know about the topic and find something that sounds “wrong” or unclear. So that’s your thesis. You say, “Okay, I thought about it, and I just don’t buy this whole idea that Harvey Lee Oswald shot JFK. I think that X, Y, and Z aren’t clearly explained and could potentially change what people think on this subject.”

This is the essentially exactly the same as a hypothesis in science. You figure out something you think is unclear or unanswered, and then set about determining an actual answer. The only difference being that in science you do this through figuring out some test to run, while as in History, Literature, or whatever, you do this by doing more research and using better/closer sources (History) or reading the text more closely, studying the life of the author, and reading other people’s writings on the topic (Literature), and so on.

So pretty much, if you don’t have something you’re trying to prove then it is going to be a pointless essay.

Of course, if you are doing that, and yet are still getting told it’s shallow, then my best guess would be that your teacher simply means that you aren’t using very good sources or analyzing your sources very much.

Well, I don’t do that bad on research papers, it’s the opinion papers that I need some improvment on.

Opinion papers in “soft science” courses like philosophy, literature, or gender studies.

I think this is the mistake that I make in my papers! :smack:

How can text have tone? How can I detect it? Is tone the same thing as subtext?

I am not a writing teacher, so this may not be much more than a WAG, but:

It wouldn’t hurt to mentally put yourself in the place of your instructor who has to read and grade your paper. If the instructor actually enjoys reading it—if they don’t have to struggle to understand it; and if you have something interesting to say, that they haven’t read a hundred times before, and that is relevant to the topic at hand and well backed up—I would imagine they’d be more inclined to grade it favorably.

And to learn how to do this, it wouldn’t hurt to read more writing similar to the sort you’re being asked to write: professionally written opinion pieces, critical essays, reviews, etc.

A tone wouldn’t be subtext so much as say, things more like sarcasm and wit.

The author may write, “Black people are stupid idiots!” But given the tone of the book you might decide he means litterally that, he’s just writing it to be funny, or that he’s simply putting it out as a conversation point. Deciding what the author means will depend on what you think his intention was, and part of that is trying to put back in the tone of his voice to determine whether he meant something seriously, if he was being sarcastic, or the text really doesn’t mean anything at all and was simply flowery prose.

One person might take a certain quote from a book and work it up into a big argument, saying, “The author meant this when he wrote the book.” While as another person might look at the same quote and go, “You know, going from the tone of the book, I think he meant that sarcastically. I think he meant the exact opposite of what you are saying.”

A good way to get this would be to read other people’s essays on the same work and see which ones you think are just plain stupid. Usually that will be because you think that that person entirely was missing the author’s point and focussing only on the literal meaning of the words as written.

You might find these handouts about writing papers in literature and philosophy helpful. By the way, I don’t mean to nitpick about your terminology, but these fields are humanities rather than soft sciences, and I have a feeling your professors are actually looking for interpretative papers rather than “opinion papers” as such. In other words, you’ll need to focus very closely on the text you’re writing about and demonstrate how specific evidence from that text supports your argument.

How about you post one of your prompts and papers and we’ll read it?

**note I am NOT a college prof.

You should ask your professor if it’s ok to post his/her prompt first.

I know this is going to sound stupid, but having read eleventy million papers; if given an assignment of an opinion paper, have an opinion.

I had only one paper a year, which I would call “opinion”. Mostly it was ethics, but an opinion/position paper nonetheless. Despite the explicit instruction of “take a stand”, you’d be surprised how many papers simply didn’t.

Now I don’t know if this is a curse of asking for an opinion from science students (try getting an opinion from a scientist- it’s like pulling teeth), or that my students just didn’t fell strongly enough to have an opinion, but it was always surprised how many students couldn’t or wouldn’t take a stand.

I suspect that students wouldn’t declare a stance, because they didn’t want to take one contrary to the “right” one, despite my multiple protestations that there really was no such thing. If a student takes a stand, and then fully backs that stance, regardless of my personal feelings, I had to give them high marks.

Anyway, that is my opinion.


My husband teaches sociology and criminology. His biggest beef is that when he asks for a paper examining a social issue using one of the theories presented in the class, he instead gets an “opinion paper.”

The problem is that the students genuinely seem to have no idea how to present their side of an issue without resorting to saying how they* feel* about it. As an example if he asks for a paper examining abortion through the major sociological perspectives*, at least one student invariably turns in a paper which reads: “Abortion is bad and I think people who get abortions are wrong.”

He’s tried to explain it multiple times-- that you write a paper using facts and statistics which support your position, not just talking about your personal feelings on the matter. If a paper is well-written, you don’t need to state your opinion because the facts speak for themselves. He even once jokingly threatened to deduct ten points for every time he found the words “I think”.

I blame the media (because it’s easy.) News standards have slipped to the point where pure opinion is sometimes stated as fact and I don’t think kids are taught the definite difference between the two.

  • Functionalism, conflict theory, etc.