A NEW WAY TO THINK
"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:
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.
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
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.
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.
Most college students will be asked to write the following kinds of papers:
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
Three Students: Why Their Approaches Didn't Work
Here are some requests that I have heard before:
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:
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:
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
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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
Higher Order Concerns
These are the "big picture" issues in writing:
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.
The Next Step: Improving Your Writing As a
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.