Before You Begin Your Writing Project
- What Kind of Document Is It?
- How Do I Write a Thesis Statement? Do I Even Need a Thesis Statement?
- How Do I Avoid Plagiarism and Borrowed Language?
What Kind of Document Is It? How Will I Organize It?
When you first receive a writing assignment, you should assess the type of document your professor is asking you to write. Some professors will assign your writing project in the form of a memo or a client letter, while others will assign more formal essay or research papers. The audience for each of these kinds of papers is going to be quite different.
- Memos. A memo is slightly more informal than a client letter. It begins with a header that includes the date, the name of the author, the name of the intended recipient, and the subject matter under discussion. Memos can also include “I” or “we” because they are also less formal than standard essays.
- Client Letters. A business letter to a client can be formal or informal depending on the relationship of the writer and the reader. Depending on your assignment, the letter may also take the form of an opinion or position paper or a summary/analysis paper. Client letters are slightly more informal than essays and can include “I” or “we.”
- Opinion or Position Papers. An opinion paper will be a more formal essay, something akin to the “letters to the editor” you find in your local newspaper, or the position papers released by professional organizations. It will analyze your own point of view and use source material to support it.
- Summary/Analysis Essays. A summary/analysis paper will first synthesize the subject matter under consideration (usually found in a published article or articles), then scrutinize the importance of the topic. It is similar to an opinion or position paper, except in this case, you will be analyzing someone else’s point of view.
- Research Papers. These papers take a more scientific approach to the material. They suggest a hypothesis regarding a particular topic and set about to prove or disprove the hypothesis using outside sources to back up their assertions. Research papers are the most formal of all the types of papers mentioned here.
Now that you’ve identified the type of paper you’re writing, you should think about your audience. Whom are you writing for? What does that person need to know? What is your relationship to your reader? What is your goal in presenting this piece of writing? If you understand the expectations of your audience, then you will understand your own role. In many writing assignments requiring research and source material, you may be more knowledgeable in your subject than your reader. Respect your audience. However, do not rehash material your reader already knows, and refrain from using jargon with a nontechnical audience. Do your best to present your material in a coherent and concise manner, elegantly and efficiently combining your sources with your own thinking. As you know, the best writers are those who make the subject clear and compelling to their readers. That’s your goal.
How to organize your paper
When you write from a plan or outline, you are more likely to achieve your desired purpose. You can make sure you will address all the pertinent materials and that the ideas are arranged in an order that makes sense. An outline is just what it sounds like—it is the shape your paper will eventually take. If you determine this shape before you write, your results are more likely to match your goals.
Outlines are most useful for more formal essays and research papers, but you can also use them for planning the shape of client letters and memos. An outline can be as simple or as elaborate as you need it to be. You can think of it as a map of your essay, which will help you get efficiently from one point to the next as you write.
You should use an essay outline whenever you sit down to write a paper—before you start to compose your rough draft. Even when you’re just writing off the top of your head, an outline will help you to avoid redundancy, vagueness, poor organization, and many other pitfalls of hasty writing. Once you learn the basic format, creating an outline should take you no more than a couple of minutes, and it will save you a great deal of time in revisions.
Here’s the standard 5-paragraph essay outline:
II. Topic sentence #1.
A. Sub topic of #1.
B. Sub topic of #1.
C. Sub topic of #1.
III. Topic sentence #2.
A. Sub topic of #2.
B. Sub topic of #2.
C. Sub topic of #2.
IV. Topic sentence #3.
A. Sub topic of #3.
B. Sub topic of #3.
C. Sub topic of #3.
The basic rule is: Superior Items Require Subordinate Items. You can't present main ideas without also providing support for them. The essay outline is a way for you to figure out what's a main idea and what's supporting information. You may also have sub-sub topics, depending on the length and depth of your assignment, but for the most part, the above outline should work well for you.
Don’t worry if you don't know everything you’re going to say before you start writing your essay. Most people figure out what they're going to say somewhere in the middle of their first draft, which is why we write first drafts. You don't need to plan out every single sentence in your essay, but if you've done enough research to be ready to start writing at all, you should have at least a rough idea of your thesis and some main ideas. Sketching an outline will require you to articulate your thesis clearly and see how your main points relate to one another, and this preliminary work will probably help you to figure out how to manage the rest of the essay.
How Do I Write a Thesis Statement? Do I Even Need a Thesis Statement?
A thesis statement is a useful tool for helping your reader understand what your main point is going to be. Its intent is:
- to persuade your reader that the point you’re making is a valid and important one
- to telegraph how you will back up this main argument with facts.
A thesis statement both makes the paper easier for the reader to follow and helps you, as the paper’s writer, to organize your arguments more effectively.
Almost everything you will write in your career as a student (and later as an accountant), no matter if it’s a client letter or memo, a critical essay, or an analysis paper, will benefit from the inclusion of a strong thesis statement. It will highlight the importance of what you’re writing immediately, no matter the audience, and help you, as the document’s author, clarify what you’re going to discuss.
The one exception to this general rule is the taxation paper. If your professor is asking you to explain how a particular tax issue works, it is likely you don’t need a thesis statement; a summation of the tax issue under discussion will suffice.
If you’re still uncertain as to whether or not you’ll need to include a thesis statement, see one of the writing consultants for clarification.
Most of the assignments you’ll receive in the accounting department will include a question or problem the professor is asking you to address. Answering this question is the first step toward developing a strong thesis statement. For example, you might receive the following assignment from a professor:
Find an article in any accounting or business periodical that you believe is of interest to an auditor. Write a letter to a hypothetical partner synthesizing and analyzing the content of the article. Explain why you think the subject matter is important to the auditor’s firm and the auditing industry.
What kind of thesis statement will come out of this assignment? It’s simple—“explain why the subject matter is important.” If you’ve done that, you’re on your way to a good thesis statement.
In addition, a good thesis statement will do the following:
1. Identify a specific, narrow topic. Your thesis statement should give a clear and simple summary of the most important ideas or facts in your essay. It should not be vague (“Sometime around the Paleozoic era, life became abundant on earth”), overly general (“Everyone can appreciate the importance of life”), or obvious (“The Paleozoic era was a long time before our own”).
2. Present a clear and original opinion about the topic. As well as offering your reader a summary of the facts you are going to explore, your thesis statement should also make clear what your argument will be regarding those facts. That argument should be specific and narrow to avoid broad generalizations.
- “Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in response to widespread accounting abuses” is a statement of fact.
- “Congress’s passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was an important first step toward creating a more responsible accounting profession” is an opinion. It suggests that more steps are still necessary and will follow in the future. It is not fact, because someone else could take the opposite view and argue that the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley was unnecessary and cumbersome. It is not an argument because it does not establish a specific claim as to why passage of SOX was a first step toward more responsible behavior among accountants.
- “Congress’s passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was an important first step toward creating a more responsible accounting profession because__________” is an argument. It delineates a clear, specific, and narrow claim that the remainder of the paper will attempt to substantiate.
3. Establish a tone appropriate to the topic, purpose, and audience. The purpose of the paper is not only to summarize information from the article concisely but to organize and analyze it. In your paper, even if you want to convey a strong opinion about the material you’re discussing, you must avoid exclamation points, rhetorical questions, and slang. In letters and memos, you may use personal address and use “I” or “we.”
4. Appear near the beginning of the paper. A strong thesis statement can be one sentence or two (though not more than two). It should appear near the beginning of your paper, either at the end of the first paragraph or the beginning of the second paragraph. Placing your thesis statement at the beginning of your paper will highlight the argument you’re going to make before you make it, not unlike a lawyer arguing a case before a jury: you want to tell your audience what you’re going to argue and how you will set about proving your argument.
Don’t wait until your conclusion to make your argument clear. Your thesis statement should convey the general tone that your essay will take, so the reader can be prepared to agree, disagree, or suspend judgment.
- Recently, I have reviewed an article that may be of importance to your company on the topic of corporate sustainability.
- Because corporate sustainability reporting may be the wave of the future, the opportunity to provide assurance services to add credibility to those reports could be enormous.
- Corporate sustainability reporting is the best thing that could happen to the accounting profession.
The first sentence merely states the obvious; the third is vague and judgmental. Is sustainability reporting really “the best thing” that could happen to the accounting profession? Perhaps, but because the reader could answer the thesis with a “yes” or “no,” the statement is not really as strong as it could be.
The second sentence is the one that truly stresses not only what the topic will be but why the reader should keep reading: “because the opportunity…will be enormous.” It has a definable argument, one that you can back up with facts. If your thesis statement can specifically answer the question “this topic is important because…” then chances are good it will be a strong and useful thesis statement for your paper.
Plagiarism is one of the most serious charges a student can face in the course of his or her academic career. At best it can result in failing an assignment; at worst it can end in failing the course, having the incident written up for the student’s file in the Tippie College of Business, or even expulsion from the university.
The Tippie College of Business Honor Code defines plagiarism as:
- presenting the work of others without proper acknowledgement
- claiming the words and ideas of others as one’s own
- failure to properly cite and specifically credit the source of both text and web materials in papers, projects, and other assignments
- copying of source codes, graphs, programs, and spreadsheets
- copying answer keys and solution manuals without the authorization of the course instructor
To protect yourself from charges of plagiarism, you should carefully prepare your sources before and during the writing of your paper. Any time you need to use source material, whether in the form of journals or newspaper articles, websites, or database articles, you should begin to take steps to avoid plagiarizing your sources.
Pre-writing is one technique you can use to avoid plagiarizing another’s words. As you read your source material, and before you start trying to imagine the shape of your assignment, make notes about important points in the text in your own words. By making the switch to your own language at this early stage, you are more likely to “digest” the sources and their connections to each other and therefore to write an assignment that is cohesive, with a logical progression of ideas. You are also less likely to cut and paste sections of the sources into your writing, a tactic that creates a choppy document consisting of fragments of language from several writers in several styles, none of them quite connected. As the writer, your job is not simply to restate your source material; you must integrate it into a consistent and convincing whole. Also remember in this early stage that your research focus is on a topic and not just on single sources. If you think more broadly than one source at a time, then your writing is likely to reflect the thoughtfulness and inclusiveness of this approach.
For writing that is based on research, you must strike an appropriate balance in how you use your outside material. On the one hand, you should not make unsupported assertions: if there is a point you wish to make, back it up with a supporting reference from your sources. On the other hand, do not overly rely on your research materials. Your task, after all, is to write something original, with strong indications of your own voice. Too many citations of the source texts will leave little room for your voice to come through.
“Borrowed language” is a kind of plagiarism in which you use the actual language of the source material (without attribution) instead of your own.
For example, here is the original source material you might use for a paper:
Illegitimate tax shelters, however, often arise when sections of the tax code, or multiple sections of the code, are used for purposes not originally intended by Congress or the IRS. In that way, illegitimate shelters may conform "technically" with the code, and yet violate the "spirit" of the code. As the tax code has become more and more complex, "technical" manipulation of the code has become more and more problematic.
Source: “Frontline: Tax Me If You Can,” Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved on April 10, 2007, from
And here is what a “borrowed” version might look like in a student’s paper:
The problem is that illegitimate tax shelters often arise when sections of the tax code are used for purposes not originally intended by Congress or the IRS. Such shelters may conform technically with the tax code and yet violate the spirit of the code.
Notice the student in the above example has lifted the language almost word for word from the original source. It’s not a 100 percent exact match, but it’s pretty close. Without attributing the statement to the original source, the student has plagiarized the original source, even if he didn’t mean to do so. Attributing the source in the above example would help, but even better would be for the student to rewrite the original idea in his own words.
Here is an example of how to distill the original source material into an original expression:
As the tax code grows increasingly complex, tax professionals have learned to exploit the loopholes in our tax laws to create illegitimate tax shelters. Although these tax shelters are not technically illegal, tax professionals should work to avoid them to satisfy the intent of the law.
In the above example, the student has expressed the idea in a fresh, original way, making the information relevant to his topic without borrowing the exact sentences from the original source. He also uses them as a call to action—“tax professionals should work to avoid them in the future”—which is not at all in the original source. It is now his idea and his expression of the idea that is coming through in the above statement.
To avoid the pitfall of borrowed language when writing, try to change verbs and sentence structures from the source material; nouns may stay the same. (See How to Cite Sources in the Text for examples.)