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Updated: April 27, 2014 16:08 IST
Backpacker’s Guide: Learning & Living

Content makes the grade

Usha Raman
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What determines that “winning grade”? Content, of course. File Photo.
The Hindu What determines that “winning grade”? Content, of course. File Photo.

The fancy binder and slick covers don’t matter. Structure, formatting and clean text make a winning project.

We are getting close to that part of the year when final projects are nearing completion. The submission deadline is half a day away and you have been up all hours trying to finish writing.

Finally, at 3 a.m. or some equally unearthly hour, you hit a final “save” and stumble into bed. First thing in the morning, you print out the document, hurriedly staple the pages and turn it in with minutes to spare.

Cut to the other side of the desk. This project goes on the pile with several others. Some are squeezed between the covers of a plastic binder; some have fancy title pages sporting all the colours of the rainbow; some have nothing more than a simple corner staple to hold the ideas together (and some are turned in as a bunch of loose pages, the left corner folded over to keep them from falling apart). As the deadline closes in, the pile grows higher, threatening to collapse into a landslide of rushed words, all clamouring for a winning grade.

And just what determines that “winning grade”?

Content, of course. Most paper examiners (despite the popular myths that seem to go around) want to read substance. The stuff that goes into the paper is what earns the grade, and don’t believe otherwise, no matter what you hear.

So the first and basic rule is that quality of ideas and expression is most important, and that is really what you get graded on.

But having said that, there are some other things to keep in mind as you put that final paper together. These are like little courtesies that help put your reader into a favourable state of mind.

The visual and the logical

All written material, whether it is a one-page book review or lecture summary, or a twenty-page term paper, must follow a structure. Different disciplines and courses have different requirements and expectations, but the most basic structure is this: Introduction, Body, Conclusion. The introduction lays out very briefly what the paper will do, with a few pointers that give the reader a sense of what to expect. The body provides the main argument along with the evidence to support it.

This is the meat of the paper and can take different shapes depending on the subject and the specific nature of the work (Are you describing an experiment or field work? Are you presenting viewpoints relating to a particular issue? Are you reviewing recent work in the area?).

The conclusion summarizes your main point, leaving the reader with something to think about. As you are structuring your paper, use descriptive sub headings and section headings that clearly mark out the different parts of the paper. Visually, these stand out and serve as signposts to the reader, and break the monotony of running text. Logically, they help create a framework that gives the reader a sense of where the paper is going.

Space it out

In general, it is good practice to use double or 1.5-line spacing for paper submissions. It is not only easier to read, but it also leaves enough space for the reader to write in comments or questions.

Often students turn in ten pages of unbroken text that runs in one long paragraph from beginning to end. Reading continuous text is like listening to someone speak without pause — sooner or later you feel like you desperately need a break! Breaking your text into short, logical paragraphs makes it easier to read.

Each paragraph is built around one idea, and when you need to move to another idea, move to another paragraph.

Number the pages and insert running heads, so that the reader can mark her place as she goes through the text. Emphasize key words and phrases with underlining or boldface.

No typos please

Finally, it is important to carefully read through your paper before rushing to print it out and submit it. Even the best ideas can lose their sparkle if they are full of spelling errors and missing spaces.

Check for correct capitalisation, punctuation, and other such irritants. This goes for both typewritten and handwritten material!

Most teachers don't really care about the external frills that students love to put on a paper — the fancy binders and slick covers, the ribbons and bows that very often seek to hide the lack of substance.

While it may be nice to package one’s work creatively, it is more important that the stuff inside the package has the required quality.

The internal packaging — clear structure, formatting and clean text — is much more important. Such attention to internal detail gives the impression that you have taken care with your work.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and is the editor of Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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