Writing without a Net: Ways to Start a Paper without an Assignment Sheet

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

When gearing up to write a paper, your greatest tool is likely to be an assignment sheet. These treasures, handed out in stacks by our benevolent professors and T.A.s, include valuable information regarding assignment details. These handouts offer our teachers an efficient way to answer perianal questions about the work such as content, length, scope, focus, and format. As demonstrated by a previous post, the ability to read an assignment sheet can unlock many of the mysteries students encounter during the writing process.

Unfortunately, a time will come when your dutiful professor has elected to let you fly solo. Without the aid of an assignment sheet, you will be expected to yield a work equally as impressive as previous, more structured work. Without the assignment sheet, the boundaries of a paper seem unidentifiable. What should I write about? What course should my argument take? What sort of sources should I use? The questions, all equally as gravitous and pressing, begin to mount, and suddenly the guidelines lain out on assignment sheets, which had previously seemed arbitrary and restricting seem much more comforting. Students without assignment sheets often seem to be floating around aimlessly in the space of the assignment. Luckily for students specific to the Humanities, there are strategies, questions ask in order to help anchor one’s self, even in the absence of the tethers of our assignment sheets.

How did this text affect me?

Close reading also provides great jumping-off points for developing a conversation. Was there a moment in the text which seemed especially potent, or had a certain rhetorical or emotional effect on you? Did this text remind you of anything you have read or seen in another context? Teachers develop courses with specific objectives and place texts together to stimulate certain conversations. If you see something interesting, run with it!

What is the history behind this text?

Time period is a great way to position a text. Authors, the socially aware people they often are, know a lot about art, culture, politics, religion, and so on. It is likely that they have been influenced, or at the very least, in conversation with significant events and conversations going on during their writing process. What were the big social questions when this text was written? What sort of society was the author living in?

What is the author doing here?

The relationship between the author, narrator, and the reader is always an important one. Is our author different than our narrator, or are they the same person? How does the relationship between the author and narrator affect the way we understand the story? Are the people telling the story reliable? What is their tone? How are they using language? Are they being manipulative, or do they have the reader’s best interest in mind? The way the author positions himself, his narrator, and his reader all play key roles in the delivery of a story, which in turn changes the way we read into events and characters. Discussing the ways this influences our reading is often a fruitful endeavor.

Which “Big Questions” are here?

Things like Truth, Ethics, Gender, Reality, Freedom, God, Power, Capitalism, War, and Consciousness are inarguably tough nuts to crack. The commonality between these topics is how difficult it is to come to a resting answer on anything. These questions are all intensely difficult to write on in any definitive way, which is precisely why so many authors write on them extensively! Your paper might not have the scope (or likely a distant enough due date) to answer any of these questions within, but it certainly can contain a discussion of the way the text in question addresses these huge, looming questions. Look at how the author encounters these questions for an interesting reading of a text, but be careful to avoid the temptation to try to solve the puzzles. Most of these questions have outlasted thousands of years of rigorous philosophical and humanistic debate. It is unlikely an answer will be found in a five page paper.

The number of possible entrances to a paper is astronomically high. Papers can take on any number of potential courses, as demonstrated by the unfathomable number of books, papers, lectures, and modes of discourse which populate the Academy. There is no shortage of ways to approach writing a paper — that is certain. Still, for those of us who prefer a bit more guidance – a target to aim at – these strategies offer a way into a text when the safety net of an assignment sheet isn’t available.

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