Along the way I picked up a few things about writing and finishing a paper for school successfully which I like to share with you today. Of course there are differences in the process of writing a paper depending on your major and also every one has to find what works best for them in the end, but I hope this will inspire and motivate you nevertheless.
1. Research, research, research
The first thing to do is to read a massive amount of primary and secondary literature. For a literature student like me this includes fiction but most of it is theoretical non-fiction. The best to do is to decide about what you want to write about as early as possible in the semester. Ideal is when you start reading during the semester, so that you have more time during the break.
The important thing here is this: Don't just read. Underline and comment what you read. You will read hundreds of pages and if you don't add markings, your work will be worth nothing because you will basically have to re-read the whole thing once you start writing in order to plan and pick out the important points. So underline everything which seems important to you and put comments next to the texts with your thoughts, ideas and two word summaries of the line you just underlined. Believe me this will make it so much easier for you! I do this all throughout the semester with everything I read. It might take me a bit longer to read like this but it enables me to find important passages and lines so much quicker.
2. Find your question/thesis
Before starting to write you have to know what you are trying to say in the end. Know where you want to land before starting your journey. I usually have a question about my topic which is also the title of my paper. The question combines theory and method with the thing you are analysing. So it could be something like: How can I apply this theory and this method to this thing? Or: Does this thing proove or disprove the theory and the effectiveness of this method?
Also for me it's important to already know the answer to the question. Usually while you read you already get a strong idea of your opinion of this topic. So please, have an opinion. Know what you are trying to say. Know if the theory and method works for this thing or not. Once you know where you want to go, you can figure out how to get there.
3. Create an outline
How you will get there, is exactly what you will put to paper while making an outline. Plan your chapters from the introcution to the conclusion. Use as many sub-chapters as you like, you can always delete some later. Here's how an outline might look:
Introduction: what are you analysing and what are you trying to find out
Theory: summarize important theoretical concepts and explain notions you are going to use
Method: explain what method you are going to use and why
Analysis: this should be the biggest part of your paper, here are all your arguments, all your quotes and all your main points. it should have several sub-points.
Conclusion: what do you conlude from your analysis?
Bibliography: list all the texts you are referring to and quoting
4. Use symbols and abbrevations to sort your material
Once you have an outline, the most difficult part is over. Now all you have to do is follow this outline and turn it into a paper. I use abbrevations to mark all the important points in the literature I read, symbols might work as well. Here's how I do it: I assign one letter to each point of my outline. (Make sure to not assign the same letter to several points. I have done this repeatedly and it's confusing as hell!) Then I go though every single page I've read again and mark everything I underlined and commented with the correct letter according to the chapter this fits in the best.
5. Start writing
5.1. Put post-its on the pages with the letter of the chapter you are currently working on
By doing this, you will only have to go through all your literature once and then you can just skip to the post-it. Use actual sticky post-its. I tried to do this with non sticky bookmarks and they kept falling out which doubled and tripled my work. While putting in the post-its, read the lines you underlined and the comments you inserted again to see which info you have to work with in this chapter.
5.2. Make a plan for this chapter
Yes, I love plans and I would never ever start writing anything without a plan first. So while I put in the post-its I already got an overview of the content I am trying to include into this chapter. Now I write a little note for every argument and info I am including on a blank piece of paper. Then I am giving the notes numbers according to the order in which I will mention them.
5.3. Finally actually start writing
Now lay out your plan for your chapter as well as your literature next to you and start writing. Just start with the first note from your plan, open the pages with the post-its which fit to this point, put in the quote or reference, then continue with the next note. And so one. Do this until you have finished the chapter. It's all already there in your plan. All you have to do is to connect the points with some "furthermore"s and "in consequences"s. Make sure to cross out the letter/abbrevation/symbol of a line/info you have already used and to check the notes on your plan you have written about.
5.4. Read through what you have just written
When you've finished writing this chapter, read through it again. Correct all grammatical and spelling errors you notice. Make sure that what you have written is comprehensive and makes sense. Look up all words, dates, facts, etc. you are not absolutely sure about. I also highlight the citations which belong to the quotes and references I used, so that it's easier to spot them later, when I turn them into footnotes.
5.5. Repeat this process with every chapter of your paper
6. Write the introduction
I always write the introduction after I have written the actual paper, just to make sure that I don't announce something in the introduction which I don't follow through later.
7. Read through the whole thing, take notes and write the conclusion
Now read everything you have written so far and write down notes of everything which is important to mention in the conclusion. Connect the notes in a way which enables you to come to the conclusion you had in mind all the time right from the beginning. Put the notes in order and you have your plan for the conlusion. Now write the conclusion and read through it afterwards.
8. Insert the title page, the index and the bibliography
9. Insert the footnotes
So this is the most annoying and time consuming step. For every single reference and qupte you used, and you should have used a ton of them!, you have to insert a footnote. Which quoting system you use, depends on the country you live in, the standards of your university and the preferences of your teacher. But make sure to follow this system exactly - I mean down to every point and comma. Grind your teeth, insert your hundreds of footnotes, read through them again to make sure you really got every comma right and then pour yourself a glass of wine because this step is really exhausting.
10. Proofread the entire thing once more
Pay attention one last time while you proofread your paper once more, preferably after having let it sit for a day or two. Correct all grammar and spelling mistakes and look everything up you're not sure about. Also double-check all technical terms and names. There's nothing more embarrasing than writing the name of someone you refer to wrong.