5 Steps to Writing the Perfect Paper

A great essay doesn't always come naturally, but you can make the process a little easier with these five steps to perfect paper writing.

Whether it’s your first or 50th college essay, it's important to learn how to write a paper the right way. While you may have learned a lot about essay writing in high school, expectations in college are different, and it's easy to feel a bit lost. But the purpose of higher education is to improve your knowledge and skills, and effective written communication is one of the best skills you can develop. These tips will help you wow your professor—and yourself—with your abilities on your next essay.

1. Break down the topic

Most essays provide a prompt. However, as courses become more advanced, it's not uncommon for students to choose their own topics. Either way, it's necessary to make sure you realize the intentions of your essay. Before you dive in, set aside time to thoroughly review the assignment and consider your goal. And don’t be afraid to contact your professor if you need guidance with the direction of the paper.

The type of paper you’re writing is equally important. Typically, a student can expect write a research, narrative, expository, informative, or persuasive essay. Each of these needs a different approach. For instance, a research paper requires the writer to analyze or assess a subject and provide evidence-based arguments. Before you start writing, make sure you’re completely clear on the goal and angle of your essay—this will provide a smoother writing process.

2. Construct an outline

Don't jump directly into your final product. Instead, start with an outline—it's crucial to stay organized so you don’t wander off topic.

First, identify your thesis and write your thesis statement. This should be a sentence or two summarizing your overall argument for the paper within your introductory paragraph. Your thesis should always be two basic parts: the argument and the “why” behind it. Once the basic thesis is clear, identify supporting points to back up the “why” of your argument. After you write down a brief summary of your thesis and its supporting points, use bullet points or Roman numerals to create a structure of the paper’s subsections. Feel free to consult the guidelines of the assignment as you complete this part of the process. Don't hesitate to make use of your school's resources if you need help.

Using your newly structured outline, go through what you intend to write throughout the piece. What will the introduction, body, and conclusion paragraphs say? How do you want to convey your overall thesis? Think about these questions to flesh out the outline in more detail. If you’re using your laptop to outline, remember to insert links to online resources so you can access them later.

Related: A Step-by-Step Guide for an Effective Research Paper

3. Start with the body

Every writer takes a different approach to a new project, but many students like to start in the middle and expand outward. This way, it can be easier to write the introduction and conclusion when the time's right. Here are some key paper writing tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep your thesis in mind as you write. Everything you write should tie back to your thesis, so make sure you’re presenting information to support that thesis. Otherwise, you’ll have to go back and adjust it later.
  • Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence. And end each with a connecting sentence to the next paragraph.
  • Stick to third person. Unless it's a narrative essay, terms like "I am" or "I think" may discredit your points, as they're overly casual.
  • Format quotes correctly and provide enough evidence for your points. As you write, make notes of what sources you used after quotes and information—this is important for when you go back to add proper in-text citations.
  • Consult your style guide and follow guidelines for the assignment. In MLA style, for example, you should never use contractions, and all your in-text citations should follow a specific structure.
  • Write clearly and concisely, aka without fluff. Learning to communicate effectively in writing is a skill that will help you achieve success both in college and later in your professional career.

Remember to continuously consult your outline for guidance and structure as you write.

Related: 5 Helpful Ways to Improve Your Writing in College

4. Add a few final touches

After you've completed the body paragraphs, it's time to circle back. Construct the introduction in a way that establishes the topic clearly. Don't forget to incorporate your thesis statement at the end. Then head to the bottom and conclude your piece. Reference the points you’ve presented and reiterate your thesis statement in different words. The conclusion paragraph shouldn't add any new information.

Now it's time to edit your essay. Think about what synonyms you can use to eliminate repetition and make the piece stronger—and of course, look for spelling and grammatical errors as well. Even more importantly, make sure the paper flows and that the points you’ve presented are relevant and supportive of your thesis. Ask a friend to review it as well; a fresh set of eyes can do wonders. 

5. Cite all sources

Once you're satisfied with the final product, create your works cited page. You've likely completed a similar task in high school, but college bibliographies can be tricky. Depending on which format you used to write your paper—likely MLA or APA—research how to compile your references accordingly. Make sure your in-text citations are correct and formatted according to the right style as well.

Related: How to “Show, Don’t Tell” to Boost Your Writing

Take note of these steps to perfect paper writing. Before you know it, you'll be an expert at putting together polished and professional essays that’ll get you a good grade every time.

For more writing and assignment advice, check out our Majors and Academics section.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now


About Alyssa Abel

Alyssa Abel

Alyssa Abel is an education writer who helps students and teachers pursue their passions. Read more of her work on Syllabusy


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress


High School Class of 2023

CollegeXpress helped open me up to many colleges that fit my interests. I’m only a sophomore in high school, so I like having a lot to look at, and CX does a great job of picking colleges that meet my wants. It's a great website that I'll continue to use until it comes time for me to apply for colleges. I also like that it notifies me through email with options to look at. Thanks CX!

Rayan Hamdan

Rayan Hamdan

High School Student

I joined CollegeXpress just a few months ago. I had been struggling with severe anxiety, causing me to not be able to tour schools and make sure a college would be perfect for me. I came across CollegeXpress one day when I was searching for colleges online, and it completely changed the game. I was easily able to choose colleges that would suit me, and I also entered a few giveaways! Thank you so much!

Cameron Lee

Cameron Lee

High School Class of 2022

I used CollegeXpress to search for colleges. It helped me narrow down the schools on the West Coast and which schools had Construction Engineering programs. I made my decision to go to OSU and I am so excited about it.

Courtney Smith

Courtney Smith

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has been a huge help! The website is very organized with finding the right scholarship for anyone and anything. With CollegeXpress, I've been able to find many scholarship opportunities to apply for. Not only that, I'm also able to search for the colleges I have interest in and see what’s required and what scholarships they offer. I've learned a lot from CollegeXpress. They've helped me in many ways to achieve my goals!

Jeff Parsons

Jeff Parsons


Thank you so much for this valuable information about these opportunities. I truly appreciate the CollegeXpress communications and use them to keep my high school seniors informed about their opportunities!

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, PA

Iona University

New Rochelle, NY

Saint Joseph's University

Philadelphia, PA

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara, CA