Part I
A NEW WAY TO THINK
ABOUT WRITING


How to Think About Writing

"I already know how to write," you may say, "I learned how to write in high school." Perhaps you are familiar with certain strategies for organizing papers or researching topics. Or perhaps you are good at grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Although it is true that most high schools teach students particular writing skills, it is important to remember that most of us continue to learn about writing throughout our lives-in college, on the job, in our own creative endeavors. If you saved any of your papers from junior high or high school, go back and read them. You will probably notice that your style, your approach, and even your ability to develop a topic has evolved as you have continued to write and to learn about writing.

Writing plays a crucial role in college and beyond. In college, you will write essays, reports, journals, research papers, reviews, and essay exams. You will be asked to reflect on your writing, to revise, and to document. The college community, which includes the administration, faculty, staff, and students, values writing as a learning tool as well as a form of communication and expression. The commitment to writing shared by this community will be evident in the courses you take, in the support for writing that is available, and in the knowledge and expertise of the faculty across campus. Writing is an important part of college education, no matter what your major, degree program, or area of academic interest.

Writing in College

Many students new to college view writing as having one goal or purpose: to show what they know about a given topic. Yet writing in college can have a number of goals.

Writing can be used:

  • To defend a position or argue a point
  • To reflect upon an idea
  • To define or explain difficult terminology
  • To analyze data
  • To review or evaluate a book or film
  • To express your views
  • To apply a theory you've read
  • To propose a change in an existing policy
  • To tell a story
  • To respond to an article you've read
  • To take notes in a lecture course

As you can probably figure out by looking at this list, not all of these uses of writing call for the same formats, skills, or approaches. Some are more formal than others, and some require research. Some involve personal experience, and others don't. It is important to remember, however, that learning how to write many different kinds of papers requires flexibility and range.


Is There a "Magic" Formula for Writing a Good Paper?

In my experience as a writing teacher, I have found that students will sometimes ask me how I want them to write a paper. They will ask me to tell them exactly how to do it and insist that there is a form that they can follow that will result in a perfect paper.

There is no "magic formula" for effective writing.

There is no one format, style, or structure that will help you write well in all situations.

The quality of written work is often measured by what a piece of writing does rather than what it is-does it show that you've learned the course material? Does it move or inspire readers? Does it teach them something new? Does it explain a procedure so that you understand how to better solve a problem?

Think about it this way-suppose I had you compare the following pieces of writing and forced you to choose which one was better: The Declaration of Independence, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a freshman biology textbook, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Could you choose? Is it fair to compare these texts to each other? No-because writing effectiveness depends on how well a given piece of writing fulfills its own particular purpose, and by the way the text is received by a given audience at a given place and time. Instead of asking which book is better, we ask: which one is the most effective at helping college freshmen learn about biology? Which one does the best job showing us the details of Malcolm X's life? We consider why the book was written, and what it set out to offer its readers in the first place.

The same is true for the writing you will do in college and beyond. This is why each paper or piece of writing you complete in college may be judged by different criteria, and this is why we can't offer you one way to write. This is also why it's crucial to pay attention to each writing assignment and to ask questions if you are unsure of what is expected of you.

You may wonder: Is this all arbitrary? If there is no one way to write a certain kind of paper, how do I get started? How do I approach each assignment, if each one is different? What are some qualities that my professors will look for in a paper, regardless of their field or discipline?

This is where The Guide to Writing can help you.


How to Think of Yourself As a Writer,
Even if You're Not an English Major

After reading this heading, you may ask: Why do I need to think of myself as a writer if I'm not an English major?

Writing As Communication

Writing is a form of communication, much like speaking. Would you think to ask, Why do I need to learn how to speak well? If you were to stop and take note of all the writing you do in a given day, you'd be surprised. E-mail, job application letters, to-do lists, web pages-these are all forms of writing. Writing better e-mails can help you communicate more effectively and efficiently. Writing better sympathy cards can allow you to offer much-needed support to a friend or relative. Writing good letters to the editor may win support to a cause important to you. Writing better resumes can actually get you a job. In this sense, "better" doesn't always mean more grammatically correct (though it can). It can mean more interesting, more thoughtful, more concise. It can mean considering your readers a bit more carefully and imagining how they might read your words.

Writing As Expression

"My writing is who I am - take it or leave it," someone once told me. He resisted learning anything new because he felt that his writing represented his authentic personality. He didn't want a teacher, an employer, or any reader to dictate how he would sound on the page. Now, for his own personal journals or diaries, this stance is admirable. However, he was missing one of the main goals of writing - to communicate an idea to an interested reader.

This goal sounds deceptively simple. However, consider this: before you communicate an idea, you need to have a good, well-thought-out idea to communicate. You need to have a goal. You need to have an audience. You need to have a plan for structuring what you want to say, and a format that will present your words effectively. You need to be able to show that you know something about that topic. If you're responding to an assignment, you need to know what that assignment is asking you to do. In short, writing often involves planning, thinking, and revising. The better you become at writing, the more you will understand writing's complexity.

A college curriculum is designed to help you to express your ideas and communicate more effectively in writing. Expression and communication are important in all majors and fields, as very few jobs requiring a college degree offer an environment where no written contact with others is necessary. It will always benefit you to have the tools on hand to help you approach any writing situation you might encounter in college and beyond.

"Writers" are not just the people who sit, holed up, typing day after day in the hopes of publishing a 300-page novel. They are not just the journalists who publish the articles you read

in magazines. They are also business managers, artists, insurance adjusters, tax preparers, nutritionists, and scientists.

You are already a writer.

College Writing vs. High School Writing

Right now, you may be thinking, "Yes, I know. I've always had good grades in writing. I know how to write." I often hear students grumble about having to take writing in college after having received an A in senior-level high school English. Consider this, however: like math, science, or music, high school writing provides a foundation for college-level work. An "A" in high school writing shows that you have mastered writing-for high school. College writing, like college math, science, music, and art, introduces you to new concepts and ideas and new ways of demonstrating what you are learning.

Keep in mind that what you learn in college about writing may seem to conflict with what you learned in high school. This does not mean that your high school teachers were wrong, or that your college professors are confused. What it means is that, as you learn more about writing, the "rules" can and do change.

True story: In high school, I prided myself on my ability to use big words-after all, big words make you sound smarter, right? Well, my high school teacher (one of the best teachers I've ever had) took one look at my attempts at using overly fancy language and said, "This prose is purple. Simple words are best." It was good advice. However, in college, one of my professors told me that I needed to vary my word choices and expand my vocabulary. Did that mean my high school teacher had been wrong? Not at all. It just meant that I needed to adapt my writing to suit each new situation and audience. For me, this meant using plain, precise language in most writing situations while adopting more complex vocabulary and syntax when writing formal, academic papers.


Writing As Learning

Sometimes what you will learn in college makes more sense over time, after some thought and reflection. Your job is to try to greet each writing task as an opportunity to learn rather than as a way to prove what you already know. Trust me - your attitude toward the project will show in the writing.

Writing After High School

As a college writer, you will be responsible for meeting the demands of increasingly complex writing tasks. The skills you learned in high school will help you get started, but there is much more work to do. This is not bad news - most juniors and seniors admit that moving beyond high school writing allows them the freedom to explore topics, to take risks, and to find creative ways to approach assignments. It is also true that the demands of workplace writing require a certain flexibility and range of skills. Another goal of college writing is to prepare you for writing after college, when employers, clients, and coworkers, not professors, will judge the quality of your work.

As you begin to think about what it means to write in college and beyond, it's important to have some idea what college faculty look for when they evaluate written work. While it is always important to address expectations with individual professors, knowing what we value as a campus can help you understand how we define "the basics" of an effective piece of writing.

How College Faculty View Writing

You go to one class and your professor asks you to use a particular format for a lab report. You go to another and you find that you are required to create your own structure for a research paper. In a third class, you're told to use a five-paragraph format, avoid using "I" in your paper and to use APA format for citations. In a fourth, you read that your professor would like you to "use your own voice" in a journal assignment and use "I" throughout.

Is Grading Arbitrary?

"Why do professors all want something different when it comes to writing?" students often ask. "Why can't they just get together and come to some agreement about what to look for in writing?"

Actually, most have.


Qualities That Most College Faculty Look for in a Paper:

  • A clear sense of purpose (aim, goal, objective)


  • A specific audience, e.g., the general public, peers, faculty, and/or conventions of the academic discipline


  • A sense of the writer's authority, (a writer who supports his/her purpose through serious reflection, relevant personal experience, or knowledge base)


  • An organizational schema (sequential and logical ordering of ideas)


  • Effective introductions


  • Effective conclusions


  • Clarity


  • Effective development of ideas


  • Correct grammar, punctuation and syntax


  • Correct citation and documentation

Most college students will be asked to write the following kinds of papers:

  • Essays
  • Application papers
  • Research papers
  • Lab reports
  • Reading responses

What Faculty Can't (and Shouldn't) Agree On

Clearly, then, most of your professors value the same skills and types of writing listed here. In other words, you will be expected to meet the standards listed above, regardless of your major or background in writing. Some of these standards involve specific, rule-based features of writing such as grammar, punctuation, and documentation. Fixing these problems is often simply a matter of using your handbook, looking up a rule, and making sure to follow that rule consistently. However, other standards involve more abstract features of writing such as "evidence of serious reflection" or "effective conclusions" - skills that a handbook can't teach you. These abstract qualities often involve in-depth thinking rather than mere "correction."

Although a biology professor and an art professor may agree about where a comma should be placed, they may disagree about what makes an effective introduction. This may seem frustrating to you, but consider this:

Part of the seemingly arbitrary nature of writing in college is a result of the differences between disciplines. In mathematics, the way in which knowledge is communicated might be different from the way knowledge is communicated in education. In some fields, it might be more important for you to demonstrate that you've followed the necessary steps to reach your conclusion, while in others you may need to create your own format or approach. For example:

A research study on experimental breast cancer drugs must make evident the procedure followed so that others can attempt to duplicate the results.

A journal assignment for English 101 may require your spontaneous response or reaction to a series of readings, so that your readers can understand how the writing influenced your thinking.

A math assignment may require you to interpret how you solved a problem for audiences outside of the classroom, so that you are able to show how your solution would work in business or industry.


These differences manifest themselves in obvious ways, as in the topics and material covered in courses. However, they are also evident when professors grade your essays. When a professor writes on your paper, "Please don't use personal stories in an academic paper" or "Don't use 'I'" he or she is not saying, "I don't care about you or your life" or that other professors who allowed this were overly lenient or wrong. Instead, these comments may indicate that, in that particular field, or for that particular assignment, personal experience may not provide you the authority you need to support your point. These comments provide you with more than simply an evaluation of your paper - they give you a better sense of what is appropriate and acceptable in a given field of study.

Navigating the Terrain of Academic Writing

In some cases, failing to understand or follow the conventions of writing in your field may cause others to overlook your work (or, worse, to avoid taking your work seriously). Part III of The Guide to Writing shows you how faculty define good writing in the context of their fields.

You previously read that there is no such thing as a formula or format that creates a "perfect" paper. This is why it is so important for you to pay close attention to each writing assignment you are given. If you've written a research paper for one class, don't assume that you should follow the same format or take the same approach in another course. Although certain skills should transfer from assignment to assignment (see "Qualities That Most College Faculty Look for in a Paper"), you will need to rely on the specific assignment to help you make certain decisions.

When reading an assignment, you may find answers to the following:

  • Does your professor want you to use MLA or APA documentation?
  • Does your professor mind if you use "I" in your paper, and does it suit this assignment?
  • Does your professor specify length, structure, format?
  • Is research required, and what kinds of sources are appropriate?

Writing assignments can vary greatly from course to course, from professor to professor. Paying attention to the requirements in each course can help you better adjust to the expectations others will have of your writing after college, when you will need to write without a teacher's guidelines.

How to Read and Respond to Writing Assignments

True story: In an exam, a professor asked the class to "summarize" a scholar's theory on a particular idea. The next day, when the tests were returned, the class was stunned that half of them had failed. It seemed that some members of the class simply responded to the theory, others applied it to other theories, and still others analyzed it. Only a few of the students summarized, and those who did passed that question on the exam.

"But it's not fair!" one student said. "It was actually harder to do what I did than to summarize."

The professor was unmoved. "I asked you to summarize. You didn't summarize. Zero credit for the question."


Although it may seem obvious to you that paying attention to assignments is important, and although the above example shows the most extreme consequences of misreading an assignment, paying attention to the wording of an assignment is one of the most important steps in drafting a paper.

Comparing Two Similar Assignments

Take a few minutes to think about how you would respond differently to each prompt below. How would you approach each one, given what you are being asked to do? What are some key terms that help you interpret the assignment?

Assignment A:

Susan M. Hartmann claims that "The landscape of contemporary feminism for younger women is increasingly influenced by popular culture, by new forms of technology, and by the growth of women's studies" (24). Do you agree with this statement? If so, show how popular culture, technology, and women's studies have changed the face of feminism as you see it. If you disagree, explain how many young women you know view feminism and where these definitions come from.



Assignment B:

Susan M. Hartmann claims that "The landscape of contemporary feminism for younger women is increasingly influenced by popular culture, by new forms of technology, and by the growth of women's studies" (24). Explain the influence of popular culture, technology, and women's studies on feminism today using at least three readings from the course. Be specific about how these influences may conflict, converge, and possibly work in concert to shape young women's perceptions of feminism.



You probably notice some similarities between the two-both ask similar questions, use the same quotation, and examine the same idea. However, the subtle differences between these assignments are important to note as well.

Assignment A
Assignment B

Emphasizes personal experience.


Provides quotation for your reflection and response.


Asks you to take sides - you will need to decide whether you agree or disagree with the author.


Indicates that one goal of the assignment is to apply knowledge gained in the course.

Asks for in-depth response to the writer's point.


Response should be more formally structured.


Focuses on explaining the quotation and using the readings for support.


Requires you to demonstrate knowledge of course readings and to connect them to the quotation.



So, as you can see, two assignments that seem similar can actually require different skills, approaches, and styles. Reading all prompts carefully and thoroughly (and asking questions of your professor) will help you to understand what it is you are asked to do with each writing assignment. The following checklist should help guide you through this process:

How to Read a Writing Assignment

  • Zero in on key verbs that indicate exactly what you are expected to do (explain, narrate, argue, summarize, synthesize, persuade, apply, reflect, report).


  • Decide the appropriate audience for the paper. Does your professor imply that you are writing for him/her, or should you write for an outside audience? Is this audience comprised of general readers (the general public, parents, high school students) or are they specialists (professors, restaurant managers, teachers, business owners)?


  • Pay attention to any shorter directives, such as "Be specific" or "Proofread carefully." You'd be surprised by how many people forget about these. Ignoring them can affect both the quality of the writing and your grade.


  • Take heed of the length requirement and plan accordingly - note also that shorter is not always easier. Sometimes a five-page paper can be easier to write than a two-page paper. Don't assume that professors assigning two-pagers will grade more leniently.


  • Find out if your professor prefers a certain documentation style, even if this is not specified in the assignment (see Part II on documentation styles).

  • Check to see if a specific format is required. If the assignment asks for one, make sure you know what that is. For example, if your professor writes "manuscript format" and you don't know what it is, don't guess - ask.


  • Determine whether outside research is necessary. If so, check to see how the sources are to be used. How does the paper assignment define the relationship between the research and your own ideas? In other words, is the research to be used as the primary basis of the paper, or to support your own argument?


  • Notice the wording of the assignment. Does your professor want you to offer your own perspective and experience? If you are not sure, always ask - never assume.


  • Never wait until the night before a paper is due to read the assignment guidelines.


  • Keep your handbook handy - and refer to it regularly. While many students believe that the handbook is useful for looking up comma rules and documentation specifics, it can be helpful in the drafting and composing stages of writing as well.

You'll notice a theme here:

Take responsibility for your own writing.

Misunderstanding an assignment is no excuse for poor performance. Learning how to read and understand assignments is one step toward becoming a successful writer. The next step is learning how to ask the right questions.

How to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing:
Seeking Help from Professors, Tutors, and Peers


Imagine that you are taking an exam. You don't know the answer to a question, so you walk up to the professor's desk and ask, "Can you tell me the answer to question 3? I can't figure it out, and I want to get a good grade on this test. Just give me the answer I need to get an A."

Obviously, not many students would do that.

However, when it comes to writing papers, students often do something quite like it. You may not even be aware that you're doing it.

Three Students: Why Their Approaches Didn't Work

Here are some requests that I have heard before:

How can I revise this paper to get an A? Could you tell me what I could say that would make this an A paper?

Is this an "A" yet? If not, could you mark my errors and just let me know what I need to do to make it an A? I'll pick it up tomorrow-thank you!

I don't know what I'm trying to say in this paper. I really don't have time to go the Writing Center. What should I do?

Now, these students may mean well, and they certainly want to do well, which is a lot better than not caring at all. However, the way they ask for help misses the point. They are asking their professors or tutors to do their thinking for them. Since writing is as much about thinking as it is about mechanics, grammar, punctuation and the like, you may often find that you struggle with ideas as you draft and revise.

Before You Ask for Help, Take Ownership of Your Writing

Meeting with your professors during office hours can help a great deal, and it's something we encourage and promote. However, there are limits to how much professors can help you if you are unwilling to actively participate in the process. In other words, taking ownership of your writing process is one key to success. To do this, you will need to commit to your writing and understand that writing and revising is hard work. There are no easy answers, unfortunately, and while professors and tutors can inspire you, support you, and suggest improvements, they can't do the work for you.

How to Discuss Your Writing with Your Professors

Here are some tips for making your conversations with faculty as useful and as productive as possible:

Read assignment prompts. If a professor gives a writing assignment but does not put it in writing, ask him/her to write it out for you, or explain it while you take written notes.
   
Take advantage of technology. E-mail is an excellent way to ask your professors questions or send preliminary drafts. Since E-mail is a form of written communication, it often allows you to articulate your questions or concerns more carefully and deliberately.
   
Make sure you understand the assignment before you begin writing.
(see "How to Read a Writing Assignment") If you need clarification, ask the teacher in advance, rather than two days before the paper is due.
   
Write in stages or drafts. Think of writing as a process and of drafting as an early step in that process.
   
Bring drafts with you to office appointments and be ready to point out exactly where you are struggling.
   
Ask your professors what they look for when they grade papers. Don't assume each professor has the same grading criteria; different courses emphasize different skills.
   
Explain your progress on the paper and articulate what you've tried to do. Be specific. When you got the assignment, what was your plan? What have you accomplished so far?
   
Have specific questions ready for your professor. Show that you've already done some thinking about the assignment. Don't show up and say, "I have no idea what to do - help me!" What is it that you want help with? Try to pinpoint what it is that is causing you problems and explain that as well as you can.
   
Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something.
Perhaps you have never written that kind of paper before. Perhaps you've never used that particular form of documentation before. Perhaps you don't know what a "dangling modifier" is, and you see it marked on your draft. It is far better to confess this to your professor than to pretend you understand, since your professor can guide you to the resources you need. We are here to help you learn, not to judge what you have/haven't done before you signed up for our courses.
   
Bring a handbook, like Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference, or a resource guide. This is particularly important if you have questions about punctuation, grammar, editing, or documentation.
   
Be prepared to engage in a dialogue about your paper. A writing conference is not a simple question-and-answer session, at the end of which your professor replies, "Aha-here's what you should write!" You will be asked questions, too. It may begin to feel more like a conversation about your topic or your writing than a meeting about that particular paper. However, the very act of discussing the topic with someone who is interested in it can provide an entirely new direction or perspective.

Some of you may find that your schedule (or your professor's schedule) does not allow for many meetings about your writing. You may prefer, as well, to work with a peer before you meet with your professor - or you may be enrolled in a course that requires mandatory visits to the Writing Center.

How to Discuss Your Writing with Writing Center Tutors

When you visit the Writing Center, it's important to do the following:

  • Bring a copy of the assignment. This is important because it allows the tutor to judge whether or not your paper addresses the assignment effectively.
  • Bring a copy of your draft with teacher comments, if possible. This will help the tutor understand your professor's approach to grading and evaluating written work.
  • Bring a copy of your professor's grading criteria, if these have been given to you.
  • Be ready to discuss your paper with the tutor. A writing tutor will not merely "fix" or "correct" your paper. In an effective tutoring session, you will be answering questions as well as asking them.
  • Make sure to explain to the tutor what you need help with. If you know your introduction is weak, for example, and you need help with your thesis, tell the tutor that.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes the tutor will point out aspects of your paper that need revision, even if these were not aspects you felt needed work. Keep an open mind and listen-try to think of each tutoring session as a way to improve your abilities as a writer, not merely as a way to get a better grade on a specific paper.

How to Get (and Give) Feedback on Writing in the Classroom

In many of your courses, you may have the opportunity to read and respond to other students' papers. This is not intended to make the professor's job easier, nor is it intended to force you to play the role of "teacher" and mark up the paper. Most of the time, when you are asked to read and respond to a draft in class, the goal is for you to respond as a reader-as someone who might pick up this piece of writing apart from a classroom context, in the course of your day-to-day life. Now, if this seems like a stretch, remember that most writers want their words to have an effect on readers. They want readers to enjoy and learn from their writing, and not plow through it as if reading were a chore. Other students can be your best and most honest critics, because they understand what it takes to write a strong paper. Many students can sense when a writer runs out of steam or simply loses interest in a project-and they can often spot evasiveness or vagueness in an argument. In short, the fact that students are not professors and are not trained in evaluating writing means that they will provide an entirely different-yet valuable-perspective on your work.

Beware of the "junior high science project" syndrome, in which a relative does most of the work while you get most of the credit. At the college level, this constitutes academic dishonesty and can carry harsh penalties (see Part II).
   
Feedback from parents and friends should not be used as a substitute for meeting with your professors. Students sometimes say, "But my mother said this was an A paper, and she's taught high school English for ten years!" Keep in mind that although relatives can offer excellent feedback, college papers are written within certain contexts and disciplines. Plus, your relatives and friends often view your work through a subjective lens and may not be as objective as you need them to be.

Even with Help, It's Still Your Paper

Now you're on your own. Once you've read the assignment, written a draft, and met with your professor or a tutor, you should be all set, right?

Not always. Writing is extremely difficult, even for those of us who love it and do it often. Writing is a process that involves thinking, planning, composing, and revising, not necessarily in that order. It can be messy, complicated, and frustrating. However, once you've worked through a particularly challenging writing task, you'll find that the rewards are immeasurable. There are, certainly, the immediate perks such as good grades and praise. Yet one secret about writing a good paper-or writing several good papers-is that it will help you to be a better thinker. Research on the relationship between writing and thinking supports this idea.

One reason why writing improves thinking is that, as a writer, you're often forced to clarify your thoughts before you can share them with readers. The next section of The Guide to Writing will offer some strategies to get you started (or re-started if you're stuck) with the kind of thinking that will produce good writing.

How to Transform Your Thoughts into Clear Writing

"I know what I want to say, but it's not coming across on the page."

"I'm not sure what my point is. Can you see a point in my paper?"

"It's clear to me. I don't understand why it's not clear to you. How can I fix it, then?"

"This paper is giving me a headache. Can I start over with a new topic?"

These comments are typical of students stuck in a rut. They are frustrated with their papers and with their writing, and they are trying to find a way out. You'll know when you reach this stage, because you may find yourself:

  • Blaming the assignment ("This assignment is stupid! Why do I need to know this?").
  • Blaming the professor.
  • Blaming the topic ("If only I'd chosen an easier topic!").
  • Blaming yourself ("What is wrong with me? Why did I wait to start this paper?").
  • Blaming past teachers or professors ("Why didn't I learn this then?").
  • Blaming writing ("Why couldn't I just take a test instead?").
  • Working on the same paragraph, again and again, for what seems like hours.

The good news is that many, many student writers go through periods of frustration. It's usually temporary, and it usually means you're realizing how challenging it is to write a paper. You'll work through it. There's a term called "cognitive dissonance" which refers to the resistance we often feel when confronted with new knowledge or ways of learning. If you've reached the point I've described, you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Working Through Writer's Block

Usually the best way to proceed is to figure out what it is you really want to say. This is much easier than it sounds. Sometimes when you follow the assignment to the letter, you can lose sight of what it is that you want to communicate. It could be, however, that you know what you want to say but you are afraid to write it. If so, think about why this is. Are you afraid you can't suit what you want to say to that particular assignment? Are you afraid that what you want to say is too controversial? Are you afraid that writing what you really think will open you up to criticism? (Let's face it-it's easier to be critiqued on something you don't feel passionately about.)

Most professors want to read interesting, original ideas. Most of us don't want to read thirty or so copies of the same paper. Try to avoid the trap of binary thinking ("I can't do what I want and still do what the professor wants me to do.") Consider how you can form and shape your ideas within the parameters of the original assignment.

For example, let's say you're writing a paper for a political science course that compares the environmental policies of two political candidates. The purpose of this paper is to offer readers a sense of which candidate is more concerned with conservation and to persuade readers to support that candidate. After completing your research, you find both candidates' policies lacking, but admit that the policies of one candidate seem less damaging to the environment. This, however, does not make you want to endorse that candidate.

You may ask: Am I required, then, to say that one candidate's policies are good while the other candidate's are bad? You do not want to advocate for either candidate. You are stuck.

The best strategy at this point is to fully articulate what it is you want to say, on paper. Figure out what your position is on these candidates and their policies. This may offer you an entirely new direction - and will give you renewed energy for the project.

Writing out what you really think about an issue and an idea is often helpful - even if it doesn't make it into the final draft. Even if you aren't able to offer your opinion or perspective in a paper, it helps to do this as a revision exercise. Another helpful strategy is to try to understand other perspectives and viewpoints.

True Story: As a college student, I wrote a persuasive paper that argued for a meal plan in our cafeteria. Once I had my draft completed, my professor returned it, with a note: Good paper, but too easy a point to argue. Now defend the other side. Although I was not happy about it at the time, that was the best comment he could have made, because it challenged me to investigate the other side of the issue. Not only did I write a better paper, but I was able to see my opponents' perspectives more clearly-something I had been unable to do because I had been so sure that my view was the only correct view. This is one more example of how writing can change one's thinking.


Strategies for Open-Ended Writing Assignments: Generating Ideas

Here are some additional strategies that may help jump-start your writing if you get too stuck (or anxious) to carry on:

  • Freewrite. Have you ever sat in front of an empty screen waiting for inspiration to come? Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to write a "perfect" first draft. However, in my own work, I find that sometimes if I just write freely for ten minutes or so, the material I generate will be much better than what I write when I painstakingly try to follow a certain course. Everything you write when drafting does not need to be included in your paper - in fact, you may end up discarding much of it. The goal is for the writing to further your thinking on the topic so that you can go on to write a solid draft.


  • Talk about your topic. Talk about it with anyone who'll listen. Some of the best student writers tell me that they find themselves discussing their ideas with roommates, friends, parents, and even other professors. Their questions and concerns about it will continue to feed your own interest and result in a better paper.

  • Do some research. Many students believe that research is only something you should do when writing a "research paper." This simply isn't true. Research can help you find what it is you want to say, because it will provide you a sense of what others have said about your topic. For example, you may be writing about eating disorders and find that you don't know what you want to say. Even if your professor doesn't require research, it can still help you get a feel for the newest findings. In the process, your paper may take an entirely new direction. (See Part II for more on research.)


  • Change the wording of your thesis statement. This strategy was devised by my co-author, Phyllis Benay. She has students convert the wording of their thesis statements to create complex sentences. Try starting the sentence with a word that will create a dependent clause (although, while, if, however, since, because), and then follow it with an independent clause. For example, "Even though technology is the buzzword of the 21st century, many feel that it represents our downfall as a culture." Complex sentences help build connections between ideas and can help you understand your own thinking process.
Strategies for Directed Writing Assignments: Generating Ideas

What if you aren't writing a paper that requires a position or an opinion? What if you're explaining a procedure, or summarizing a complicated theory? What if you're compiling an annotated bibliography or presenting the results of your research? You are right in realizing that assignments that call for these skills require different strategies than the ones I've described. In these cases, it often helps to do the following:

Let the form and format of the assignment be your guide. If you are stuck on one section, draft the paper out of order, then cut and paste later on. When writing up the results of original research, abstracts are particularly difficult to write, for example - try beginning with the procedures section. Try writing the conclusion before the introduction if introductions tend to be more challenging for you.

Take advantage of reader feedback. When describing a theory or a procedure, clarity is important. Ask a friend, roommate, or tutor to read through what you've written to see if they follow you. Sometimes their comments will help to "unravel" what isn't working about what you've written.

Use outlines, illustrations, or other visual cues. Sometimes it helps to "visualize" a paper through the use of an outline or a "map." Sketch out the path you'd like the assignment to take. This is usually helpful for those who learn visually.

Focus on word choice. Although word choice seems like something to worry about in later drafts, the words you choose can help you imagine how a reader might understand your meaning. Revise a few key sentences so that the words you've chosen are as precise as possible. Maybe changing, for example, the word "show" to "demonstrate" or the word "find" to "investigate" will spark something as you write (and it can't hurt to expand your vocabulary in the process).

Create a "working thesis." This is not the same as a "thesis statement" - though a working thesis can become a thesis statement with some effort. The working thesis is a statement of your purpose, written in your own words. It can be stated in one sentence or several. This does more than establish your purpose - it can also guide the structure and organization of your paper. It's possible to create a working thesis for a paper that isn't particularly thesis - driven, if only to help organize your thoughts.

Note: Part II of The Guide to Writing includes suggestions on writing and revising research papers, so make sure to read it if your assignment involves research.


How to Revise (Even When You're Not Asked to)

Here is something that all professors would like to ask of you:

Do not hand in your first draft as a final draft.

Of course, there may be exceptions: in-class essay tests, some informal journal assignments, and other work your professors will specify. However, for the most part, be assured that we would all like to see you complete multiple drafts before you hand in a paper for us to grade.

When you take English 101, you are asked to complete many drafts of a paper. However, after most students complete English 101, they draft less frequently, often handing in the first effort as a final draft. Keep in mind that we expect you to retain the habits you learned in English 101 and continue them on your own, even when drafting is not a requirement. Simply put: writing more drafts beforehand will result in a better final draft.

Making Time for Revision

You may say, "I don't have time to write all those drafts! I have five courses! How can I do it all?" This is a good point. However, if it is important to you to write well (and if you are reading this, I assume that it is) then you will need to make a commitment to revising each paper you write. There is no shortcut.

First, try to avoid writing any paper at the last minute. While some students can do this and perform quite admirably, most cannot. Writing takes planning, thinking, and time. Read and absorb the assignment. Talk to your professor if you have questions, then get started. Once you have written a rough draft, you may want to ask for feedback from a friend, a writing tutor, or your professor. Revision is the next step.

Revision As Re-Seeing

I have had students hand in papers that were bland, unfocused, and repetitive, but carefully proofread and edited. I have also seen the opposite happen, when students hand in sloppy but original, interesting, thoughtful work. In all of these cases, revision would have made a difference. True revision must involve carefully considering the effectiveness of the paper at the idea level as well as at the paragraph or sentence-level.

Don't Decorate an Unfinished House: A Useful Metaphor
I like to tell my students that proofreading a confusing, bland, or unfocused paper is like furnishing and painting a house that is still just a skeletal foundation (and an unfinished foundation at that). The house must be built before finishing touches are added.

Revision is not just about proofreading or editing; it's about re-seeing your paper. It's about considering what the paper needs and how readers might respond to it. Try to think of revision as a process involving a series of stages - this will help you to manage your time and to revise more thoroughly and thoughtfully.

The following is a revision guide compiled by Phyllis Benay. It is also used by the Writing Center tutors where she works as the Director of the Writing Center at Keene State College. It will help you work through the different steps and stages of the revising process.


Revision Guide

Higher Order Concerns

These are the "big picture" issues in writing:

  1. Clarity: Is the central purpose, claim, question or dilemma made clear in the opening paragraphs? In other words, readers should have a sense of where the piece is going without having to intuit, guess, or surmise the direction of the writer.

  2. Credibility: Is this issue explored fully enough or does it leave you wondering about things that could easily be addressed? Good writing should inspire complete faith in the writer that he or she has really thought about this topic in all its dimensions.

  3. Complexity: When you finish reading the paper, do you feel you have learned something or thought about something in a new way? That's the point of it all, isn't it? Writing should shed light on something and make us pause.

  4. Debatability: Is the claim you are staking controversial or unique enough to justify the reading of this piece? There's very little point in writing about something that most people see as commonplace or self-evident.

  5. Organization: Does each paragraph lead naturally into the next one in a logical flow of sequential thought? Organizational structure means developing a point, transitioning to the next, developing that point, transitioning again, and so on.

Lesser Order Concerns

The criteria that follow are almost as important as the ones listed above; some consider them "lesser" or "lower" order concerns because they may be easier to address than the ones above.

  1. Clear, correct, and varied sentence structure that helps the reader's attention stay fixed on the meaning of the writing.


  2. Precise punctuation: commas, apostrophes, semi-colons, colons, quotation marks, ellipses, and the like are used correctly.


  3. Rich and varied words that energize the reader and make sense for the piece of writing you are working on.

The Next Step: Improving Your Writing As a
Continuous Process

Becoming an effective writer is a bit like becoming a good parent or deciding to get physically fit. The benefits are obvious and can improve your life substantially, but the process is never really complete. Would someone who has lifted weights every day for a month suddenly say, "OK, I'm in good shape - now can I stop?" Improving your writing is something that you need to work on each day, despite numerous obstacles such as deadlines, fatigue, and challenging assignments.

Your professors can't teach you everything you need to do in order to be a good writer, however. In order to improve your writing, you will need to be engaged in the world around you. You cannot be complacent or passive, and you must care about the subjects you choose to write about. Strong writers all have that in common; they all seem interested in learning and using their knowledge to expand the thinking of others. Good writers have something to say, and the discipline necessary to say it well.

You will learn a lot while you are in college. Some of it may not interest you, but a lot of it will. Think of writing as an opportunity to learn more about those topics, theories, and ideas that stay with you, that keep you thinking long after you leave the classroom. Write it all down, and keep writing.