Brian Kiteley

Writing Papers for College and Beyond (Plus: How to Take Notes)

Papers are not difficult tasks if you read with pen in hand (or close by your computer).  Remember to illustrate your points with effective and interesting evidence, but don’t quote too extensively.  It is best to start by working out a number of definitions of key terms you’ll be using in your paper.  Paraphrase and summarize the stories carefully, but don’t let your papers become one big plot summary.  When describing action in a story or novel or book of nonfiction, use the present tense (“In The Yacoubian Building Taha is seduced into joining the cell of angry young men, and he only slowly realizes what these men are planning,” for instance).  Novels like The Yacoubian Building are italicized.  Avoid using block quotations unless absolutely necessary.  Make the paper bend around an idea or ideas.  Be adventurous.  I will reward papers for ambitiousness.  What do you know well?  What do you love?  What haunts you?  Write your papers in this course about what you already have some interest in or affection for.  Find things in these books that coincide with your own interests—or come close to those interests.  Or imagine yourself into places in Cairo and in history with which you have some possible connection.  You will write better prose about a subject you already have some knowledge or love of.  Writing is confidence.

Another method of writing papers is to take six or eight favorite quotations from the books you’ve read.  They can be fairly long or quite short.  Choosing them is the hard part, but it may not be as difficult as it seems at first—choose thematically, if you can, sticking to one problem.  Study them over a few days—cutting out parts of the quotation that don’t seem useful to the argument or problem that may be forming as you look at the group.  Write a bit about each quote—paraphrasing, reacting, noting other areas in the books that these bits of writing resonate against.  Eventually, in this manner, you may have the rough draft of a paper—literally built around the ideas of these other writers.  The final product might have very little of the original quotations, or they might remain solid and substantial.

You might also write a sort of self-interview.  Choose two books as your subject.  Write down carefully, over a few days or even weeks, ten or twelve questions about both or either of these books.  Revise the questions until you’re happy with them and you see links between the questions—a progression of some sort.  You may find yourself changing the order of the questions and deleting a few of them as you go along.  Once you’re satisfied with the integrity and toughness of the questions, answer them, briefly, at length.  Coming up with the answers should not be nearly as difficult as coming up with the questions.

This is from a paper a student of mine wrote about three Leo Tolstoy stories:

       The wealthy people in Tolstoy’s stories make a big deal about death and can’t face it.  The invalid in “Three Deaths,” Vasily Andreevich, and especially Ivan Ilych can’t deal with it; they all just want to live.  All three of these characters regret their lives in some way, saying if only they had done this, or hadn’t done that, they might not be dying.  The wealthy characters feel they have so much to live for that it is impossible for them to be dying now.  If they die, they won’t be able to do so many things, such as see their children get married in a lavish wedding, or travel to faraway places; things that the poor characters can never achieve.  The poor characters have lived their lives, and they have no regrets, and they accept death.  The wealthy characters feel they have so much more to live for and therefore fear the ending of their sweet lives.

This is good prose, and it’s a good description of characters’ lives across three very different stories.  But is it analysis?  Does it get beneath the surface of this common problem in Tolstoy’s stories?  Why do the well-to-do in his stories have such similar attitudes toward death?  It is difficult—and perhaps even frightening—to imagine a great writer’s motivations.  But I think you can guess what is going on here.  Tolstoy disapproves of the aristocracy’s detachment from nature, from the world of farms and hunting, and the cycles and rhythms of nature.  He sees in these rich people’s terror at death a sign of how wrong their lives have been.  Is that fair?  Is it fair to say that all poor people accept their impending deaths so casually?  Is Tolstoy not playing fast and loose with a contrast here?  Is he stacking the deck?  He is making a point that was new and unusual at the time, but is it still an interesting and useful argument?

Revising the First Draft

Once you have drafted your essay, you should gain the perspective of hindsight—remember that most of us cannot think well until we see what we’ve written and gained some distance from the writing.  Was the subject matter more complex than you anticipated?  Did your preconceived ideas prove less interesting than discoveries you made while writing?  Would you like to revise, but feel uncertain about how to do so? 

How to revise:

1.  Put your draft aside. Time away from your essay will allow for more objective self-evaluation.

2.  Get feedback.  Since you already know what you’re trying to say, you aren’t always the best judge of where the draft is clear or unclear.  Let another reader tell you.  Then discuss aloud what you were trying to achieve.  In articulating for someone else what you meant to argue, you will clarify ideas for yourself.

3.  Construct a backward-outline of your essay.  Identify the main idea(s) in each paragraph.  Rank their importance in advancing your thesis.  Consider connections between and among ideas.

4.  Rethink your thesis.  Based on what you did in the previous step, restructure your argument: reorder your points, cut irrelevancies or redundancies, add complications and implications.  You may want to return to the text for additional evidence.

5.  Proofread.  Aim for precision and economy in language.  Read aloud so you can hear stylistic clunkers.  (Your ear will pick up what your eye has missed.)


The Creative Writing Component

I want you to do two things in your assignments: (1) write beautifully, following models of beautiful prose; and (2) approach your subject ethically, with balance, and without prejudices.

I am a particular fan of Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land.  It is optimistic travel, coming at the problem of being uprooted from a very different perspective than, say, Paul Theroux, who writes beautifully but very grumpily.  Ghosh is from another third-world country, but observes Egypt with the intervening experience of a Ph.D in cultural anthropology from Oxford, in England.  He is also a Hindu who observes Islam in a much more sympathetic and engaging way than, say, Naipaul does in Among the Believers (which many Muslims find offensive—and I find one-sided).  This is the sort of model I myself propose both to graduate students and undergraduates—a mixture of history, anthropology, and travel writing, which all travel writing is in amateur ways anyway.

Some Ideas for the Creative Paper for the A-Sem 2403 (Versions of Egypt)

Write about two characters from the two recent novels or the Rifaat stories.  These two characters do not have to be a large part of your travelogue.  Listen in on a conversation between them, interfere a little bit.  Or write a letter to a friend or family member—or two letters to different people—about one long scene or a couple of scenes of your Cairo adventure.  Jump right into the description—no tales of the flight over, of the taxi ride from the airport.  You are in the middle of a new or old neighborhood—in the city or in a village outside the city.  I want to see, in subtle ways, pieces of the experience of Cairo or the Sudan you’ve gleaned from these novels.  Use a line or two of dialogue from these two characters—lifted whole from the books—as stimulation—to get a feel for how these characters speak.

Without worrying about describing the characters, try spending time describing your location and surroundings in as much detail as you can.  This is setting the stage, so to speak, using the senses.  What do you hear, smell, see etc.?  Are you inside or outside?  Is it noisy or quiet?  What is the temperature?  What is the weather like?  Are there other people around?  Decide if you are going to be more or less stationary (sitting somewhere observing), or if are you going to be mobile in some way.  (Think of Flaubert’s trip down the Nile or the taxi drivers versus a café scene in the Yacoubian building.)  You may describe various scenes in different places or different scenes at the same place.

Decide on a reason why you are you at the location you choose even if you never mention the reason in your creative project: are you vacationing, studying, on business, visiting family etc.  This decision might affect your experiences or how you describe them.  Think about things that you typically look for or notice when you are in a completely new place.  If you are stepping outside of your comfort zone, there are probably things you look for or notice right away that speaks to this zone.  If you are not in a completely new place, what are the things you notice that make up your comfort zone in this particular place? How have things changed/not changed?

You won’t have to explain why you chose the characters in your project but knowing why you chose them may help you picture the conversation that may occur between them.  What it is about the characters you chose that interests you?  Will you choose characters that you think will get along/have things in common or will you choose two characters that you feel would not normally meet or want to meet?  These decisions will in some ways determine the scene/conversation that you are going to be describing.  Have you traveled by yourself or do you have someone along as Du Camp recruited Flaubert?

“Send” some emails to yourself or a friend—Flaubert’s daily logs are often succinct, and so are emails.  Notice who you decide to send them to and how they differ depending on who the recipients are: friends, family, co-workers etc.  The emails should contain content about your experiences, not just greetings/salutations.  Read up on the news, check the BBC about what is currently going on in Egypt
(  Type in “Egypt” in the search bar at the top of the page.

How to Take Notes


Doing so will lead to frustration in a short period of time.  You will miss vital information and possibly miss the “big picture” the professor is trying to convey.  Develop and use a set of abbreviations.  For example, try s/b for “should be” and w/ for “with” and w/o for “without.”  Try logical sounding abbreviations like GR for “Greece” and MGMT for “Management.”  Outline main ideas and/or concepts, leaving blank spaces in between to write down details during or after class.  This makes it easier to take notes from professors who jump from topic to topic.  One way to spot main ideas/concepts is by paying attention to the material the professor takes time to write on the board or overhead.  If your text provides a clear explanation or diagrams of what the professor is saying in class, be sure to write down the page number in your notes.  It will be easier to find later, when you review your notes.  Become involved in class discussions.  The best learning can come from involvement in group discussions.  Jot down the main points being covered and the ideas developed from the discussion session.  Also, write down any questions the professor asks the class.  The questions foreshadow potential test and essay questions.

After Class:

Rewrite or retype your notes as soon as possible, using your text when available. This will help you organize and develop the topics covered while taking notes.  You may remember additional items to add to your notes by completing this process.  You might also find some missing connections in your main ideas that require additional clarification.  Compare your notes with those of a classmate.  You will be able to determine if you felt the same topics were important, if you are on the right track, and if either of you missed vital information.  This strategy helps you develop good study habits, and if you ever miss class you will have someone you can get notes from.

Just keep in mind that all professors have different presentation styles.  It may take a few lecture sessions to discover the best note-taking method.  The best advice is to come to class prepared, to have a basic understanding of the materials/topics, and to ask questions about unclear lecture materials.  This will provide you with an opportunity to relax and jot down the items you do not understand, instead of trying to write down every word the professor has to say.

The above information is from:

You might also take a look at this web page: JEBrown800/HowToTakeNotes.html 

Or this:

You may also want to take a look at some of the fiction exercises I use in my fiction workshops (or these).

Return to Brian Kiteley's A-Sem 2403 course page

Brian Kiteleys home page