Keys to Successful College Writing
Embrace a Robust Conception of Writing
When asked to define "writing," many people describe it as the act of placing thoughts into an alphabetic code. This definition can be too limiting because it suggests that effective writing is a matter of getting the code correct. It also implies that writing is a degenerate form of thought, which may not be the case if you consider that writing can and should be a way of developing and exploring ideas.
Some define writing as a series of activities, steps, or processes. This definition can be useful if it prompts you to develop sequential strategies for writing such as prewriting, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing. Writers who compress these potentially distinct activities when they compose a final draft in one quick sitting often do not succeed at writing tasks.
Here's a more robust definition of writing:
"Writing" is the act of a particular author writing to an particular audience about a particular topic in a style appropriate to the context.
This definition emphasizes the point that the different parts of a rhetorical context (author, topic, audience, style) are situated in a dynamic tension in which each part resonates with the others to form a particular writing expression. Thus, effective writing in a chemistry class, for example, involves a chemistry student writing to a chemistry instructor about a chemistry subject in a style appropriate to writing in the sciences. As this student moves to an art history or literature class, the rhetorical context(s) will likewise shift.
Develop Sequential Strategies for Developing a Composition
Prewrite: Write early and often. Use early freewritings, brainstorms, and diagrams to generate thought and perspective, but be willing to discard much of this early material as you refine your ideas. Begin to consult outside sources and research immediately.
Organize: Reflect on your prewriting by looking for patterns, threads, and intriguing ideas. Create a deliberate but not mechanical structure for your readers to follow. The typical five-paragraph theme is often too mechanical.
Draft: Develop at least two complete drafts before your final paper. The last of these two drafts should be complete at least one week before the due date of the paper.
Revise: Revise your drafts based upon audience feedback from instructors, peers, writing center tutors, etc.
Edit: Carefully proofread after developing a next-to final draft. Develop specific strategies for proofreading.
Develop Strategies for Proofreading
Read your paper aloud to yourself.
Have someone else read your paper aloud to you.
Use a spell-checker, but understand its limitations.
Write and edit with a college dictionary at arm's length.
Using a word processor, follow this routine:
- Save a backup copy of your file. Name it appropriately (e.g., "backup.doc").
- Using global search and replace, search for every period and replace every period with a period and two hard returns (carat-p [^p] is often the code for a hard return). This will create white space between your sentences.
- Select all of the text in the document (often with the command [ctrl+a]), and change the font style and size so that the text will look unusual to you but will not be difficult to read.
- Now read the text backward, starting at the last sentence. This strategy isolates the paper into grammatical units and enables you to notice errors more readily. You might print this version out or read it on screen to save paper. If you read on screen, you'll need to reverse step #2 above (now search for all periods with two hard returns and replace with just a period). If you edit on paper, input the electronic changes to your backup file.
Format Your Paper Appropriately
Include your name (and/or student i.d.), an informative title, page numbers, and headers.
Always include in-text and bibliographic citation--even when working on a first draft.
Provide ample margins (1-1.5 inches on all sides); do not use elaborate, tiny, or large fonts. Courier and Times; 10, 11, or 12 point font are standard; use good-quality white paper; if the toner cartridge is fading, change it.
Use underlining or italics, but not both. Underlining is generally preferred.
If you are asked to follow a particular style guide (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago, CBE, CGOS, etc.), consult these manuals closely not only in terms of rules for citation, but also for guidelines on formatting a paper.
If your instructor has additional guidelines for formatting a paper or guidelines that contradict typical practices, follow your your instructor's guidelines precisely.
Provide a Deliberate, Original Thesis or Main Point
Following this pattern can be useful: Many people believe/assume X, and from research we have learned Y, and/but I would now like to argue/add Z through a careful examination of my topic.
Make an original argument; chances are that 90% of your classmates papers' will examine the same idea in similar ways. Think outside the box.
Read the assignment very carefully, and be certain that your main point specifically answers the question or problem posed by the assignment.
Compose a thesis that prompts you to make a point and an argument rather than offering summary.
Use Abundant Evidence, Specific Analysis, and Concrete Details.
Use more outside resources than minimally required by your assignment.
Use classic references when appropriate.
The ratio of opinion to evidence in your paper should typically be no less than 1:5.
Avoid summary unless it directly supports a point of your argument.
Avoid stream of consciousness organization in final drafts.
I based the following strategy on Richard Lanham's "paramedic method."
- Get your sentences started early; do not use lengthy, oblique preambles.
- Provide a strong subject and clear agent; indefinite pronouns are typically weak. Do not place the object of the sentence in the subject (avoid passive voice).
- Provide a strong verb that relays a specific action; forms of "to be" and their synonyms (such as "exist" and "happen") are typically weak. Thus, a sentence that begins with a weak subject and verb (such as "It is" or "There are") is in trouble.
- Circle prepositions and edit to eliminate lengthy preposition chains.
- Use plain language and avoid inflated jargon
Evolve Beyond the Formulaic Essay
High-stakes, timed essay tests, like the SAT and state proficiency/literacy exams, have increased student attachment to formulaic essays. The infamous "five-paragraph theme" is an adequate place to start learning about organization, structure, transitions, and thesis statements-and it may be a good approach when writing a timed essay-but, student writers should aim to evolve quickly beyond formulas.
Student writers who are stuck on the five-paragraph formula often struggle in particular with introductions and conclusions. The formula for introductions and conclusions is most often a mechanical recapitulation of the topic sentences and the thesis. One way to break this pattern would be to use the kind of thesis described above, but, instead of cramming the entire x, y, z thesis (see above) into a giant granddaddy of a sentence, spread x, y, and z across the entire introduction.
Instead of mechanically recapping your topic sentences and the thesis itself in your conclusion, think of your conclusion this way: the opening of the conclusion can/should/might review your central point (thesis), but it should do so from the perspective of "we can now understand the thesis from a better vantage point than we did at first, because we have examined a lot of new information." In other words, an introduction projects the route you will travel (like a roadmap before driving cross-country), whereas a conclusion reviews the route traveled from a more experienced perspective (like a scrapbook from the roadtrip). Next, the conclusion might discuss what's now on the horizon: what you might write next on the topic (with more time and space), what new questions the current essay now raises, possible ways to improve upon the essay (like an error analysis in a lab report)-in other words, what might come next, if the writer were to continue building more knowledge in this direction. The key terms here are "next" and "more"; if your intro or conclusion are essentially the same, it means the essays hasn't gone anywhere. If you end up exactly where you start, then no ground has been gained. Things should appear differently at the end of your essay, and the purpose of the conclusion should be to highlight those differences (not to hammer the nail of your thesis once loud, last time).
Body paragraphs of essays can take a wide variety of forms beyond the five-paragraph formula. The most obvious first step would be to include more than three interior paragraphs (+ intro + conclusion = 5 paragraphs). "Variety" is the key term here. Paragraphs need not be cookie-cutter versions of each other. Some may be long; others short. They may arranged in terms of "point" versus "counter-point," or chronologically, or thematically, or in terms of specific-to-general (or vice versa), or by modes (description, exposition, etc.). The possibilities are limitless; so, you should explore them and avoid paragraph formulations that are mechanical, synthetic, clichéd, tired, formulaic. Like your sentences, if each paragraph looks, sounds, and reads almost exactly the same as the others, then you're being robotic-you're not really writing, composing, or communicating; you're filling in prefabricated boxes with words.
Consult Handbooks or Online Resources for Additional Help and Questions of Grammar