Meet the Challenge of Writing an American Academic Paper

International students should edit and rewrite – especially if their first language isn’t English.

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Research formatting styles and prepare an outline before you begin writing a U.S. academic essay.

Assignments to write academic papers are not uncommon in U.S. colleges. Writing a paper not only shows professors what you have learned in class, but also helps you develop critical thinking and research skills.

For international students, writing an academic paper for the first time can be a real headache. Students may struggle with writer's block, be unfamiliar with how to format the paper, encounter unclear English expressions and run into difficulty structuring the paper, to name a few common problems.

A well-written academic paper comes from a great deal of preparation and effort, including researching, writing drafts, rewriting and editing. I spent two months on my first academic paper, a 10-page research paper on the association between media violence and aggressive behavior.

[Get to know the American academic system.]

Even though the processes of gathering information and rewriting can be tedious, you will eventually reap the rewards of a good score.

First, find an intriguing topic. A good topic is half the battle. Make sure the topic is interesting and worthwhile for you to spend several months studying.

You can get ideas from the subjects your professor has discussed in class or from conversations with your classmates. I picked up my idea from our textbook, which briefly talked about the effects of violence in the media.

Next, write an outline. An outline to a paper is like bones are to a body: It helps structure your paper and makes it logical.

A standard research paper typically has an introduction section where you illustrate your thesis statement; a body section where you list your supporting sub-statements and evidence to back up your thesis statement; and a conclusion section where you summarize your arguments and reiterate your thesis statement.

[Learn what challenges many international students face.]

Then, gather information. After developing the topic and setting the structure, you may want to take the next step and start actually writing the paper – but you'd soon find that you had nothing to offer from an academic point of view.

This is because you haven't done your research yet. I made flash cards to gather information when writing my first paper. For example, I put information like the name of the author, the name of the book, journal or article and key phrases on the top of the cards.

I then added some specific information from the source that I may have wanted to cite later in my paper. Making flash cards this way helped me organize the information and locate it easily.

You also need to find out the right style before writing your paper. Will it be MLA style? APA style? Or Chicago style? Different styles have different formatting requirements. Your professor will probably tell you which to use.

[Find out how international students can participate in class.]

Now, you can finally start writing your paper – and edit and re-rewrite. But don't expect writing to be a one-time deal. You have to write and edit to make it logical, clear and easy to understand.

International students should pay close attention to how they write. Try to avoid flowery phrases and words. Instead, use plain language and specific details or examples to state your point.

Don't rely heavily on a translation dictionary. If you don't know how to express what you want to say in English, check with Google or an American dictionary. Translation dictionaries are not 100 percent accurate, because they usually translate a sentence word-for-word without considering the meaning of the whole sentence.

Try reading your paper out loud to yourself or to your American peers. If there is a writing center in your university, don't waste that resource. Get feedback there.

Writing academic papers well in a foreign language is not an easy task. You have to do extra research, spend more time on writing and edit each paper multiple times. Little by little, you will be amazed at how much progress you have made.

Jia Guo, from China, graduated from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism after transferring from Shandong University of Political Science and Law in Jinan, China, where she studied law. Guo is currently a graduate journalism student at New York University.