Chapter 7: Writing in College

Introduction to Chapter 7

As a new college student, you may have a lot of anxiety and questions about the writing you will do in college. That word “academic,” especially, may turn your stomach or turn your nose.

However, with this class, you begin one of the few classes in your entire college career where you will focus on learning to write. Given the importance of writing as a communication skill, I urge you to consider this class as a gift and make the most of it. But writing is hard, and writing in college may resemble playing a familiar game by completely new rules (that often are unstated). This chapter is designed to introduce you to what academic writing is like, and hopefully ease your transition as you face these daunting writing challenges.

So here’s the secret. Your success with academic writing depends upon how well you understand what you are doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task.

Early research done on college writers discovered that whether students produced a successful piece of writing depended largely upon their representation of the writing task. The writers’ mental model for picturing their task made a huge difference. Most people as they start college have wildly strange ideas about what they are doing when they write an essay, or they have no clear idea at all. I freely admit my own past as a clueless freshman writer, and it’s out of this sympathy that I hope to provide you with something useful. So grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair with good light, and let’s explore together this activity of academic writing you will be asked to do in college. We will start by clearing up some of those wild misconceptions people often arrive at college possessing. Then we will dig more deeply into the components of the academic writing situation and nature of the writing task.

7.1     Myths about Writing

Though I don’t imagine an episode of MythBusters will be based on the misconceptions about writing we are about to look at, you would still be surprised at some of the things people will believe about writing. You may find lurking within you elements of these myths—all of these lead to problems in writing.

Myth #1: The “Paint by Numbers” myth

Some writers believe they must perform certain steps in a particular order to write “correctly.” Rather than being a lock-step linear process, writing is “recursive.” That means we cycle through and repeat the various activities of the writing process many times as we write.

Myth #2: Writers only start writing when they have everything figured out

Writers figure out much of what they want to write as they write it. Rather than waiting, get some writing on the page—even with gaps or problems. You can come back to patch up rough spots.

Myth #3: Perfect first drafts

We put unrealistic expectations on early drafts, either by focusing too much on the impossible task of making them perfect (which can put a cap on the development of our ideas), or by making too little effort because we don’t care or know about their inevitable problems. Nobody writes perfect first drafts; polished writing takes lots of revision.

Myth #4: Some got it; I don’t—the genius fallacy

When you see your writing ability as something fixed or out of your control (as if it were in your genetic code), then you won’t believe you can improve as a writer and are likely not to make any efforts in that direction. With effort and study, though, you can improve as a writer. I promise.

Myth #5: Good grammar is good writing

When people say “I can’t write,” what they often mean is they have problems with grammatical correctness. Writing, however, is about more than just grammatical correctness. Good writing is a matter of achieving your desired effect upon an intended audience. Plus, as we saw in myth #3, no one writes perfect first drafts.

Myth #6: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Some people say to avoid it at all costs, while others believe no other way to write exists. With an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion, the five paragraph essay is a format you should know, but one which you will outgrow. You will have to gauge the particular writing assignment to see whether and how this format is useful for you.

Myth #7: Never use “I”

Adopting this formal stance of objectivity implies a distrust (almost fear) of informality and often leads to artificial, puffed-up prose. Although some writing situations will call on you to avoid using “I” (for example, a lab report), much college writing can be done in a middle, semi-formal style where it is ok to use “I.”

7.2     Why is Writing Important?

Consider this: A recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 89 percent of employers say that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing”[1]. It was the single-most favored skill in this survey.

In addition, several of the other valued skills are grounded in written communication:

  • “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” (81 percent)
  • “The ability to analyze and solve complex problems” (75 percent)
  • “The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources” (68 percent).

This emphasis on communication probably reflects the changing reality of work in the professions. Employers also reported that employees will have to “take on more responsibilities,” “use a broader set of skills,” “work harder to coordinate with other departments,” face “more complex” challenges, and mobilize “higher levels of learning and knowledge”[2].

If you want to be a professional who interacts frequently with others, you have to be someone who can anticipate and solve complex problems and coordinate your work with others [3], all of which depend on effective communication.

The pay-off from improving your writing comes much sooner than graduation. Suppose you complete about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelors’ degree, and—averaging across writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses—you produce about 2,500 words of formal writing per class. Even with that low estimate, you’ll write 100,000 words during your college career. That is roughly equivalent to a 330-page book.

Spending a few hours sharpening your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to write. All of your professors care about good writing.

7.3     Common Types of College Writing Assignments

In your college classes, you may encounter some or all of the following types of writing:

Assignment Type Description Example
Personal Response Paper Expresses and explains your response to a reading assignment, a provocative quote, or a specific issue; may be very brief (sometimes a page or less) or more in-depth For an environmental science course, students watch and write about President Obama’s June 15, 2010, speech about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Summary Restates the main points of a longer passage objectively and in your own words For a psychology course, students write a one-page summary of an article about a man suffering from short-term memory loss.
Position Paper States and defends your position on an issue (often a controversial issue) For a medical ethics course, students state and support their position on using stem cell research in medicine.
Problem-Solution Paper Presents a problem, explains its causes, and proposes and explains a solution For a business administration course, a student presents a plan for implementing an office recycling program without increasing operating costs.
Literary Analysis States a thesis about a particular literary work (or works) and develops the thesis with evidence from the work and, sometimes, from additional sources For a literature course, a student compares two novels by the twentieth-century African American writer Richard Wright.
Research Review or Survey Sums up available research findings on a particular topic For a course in media studies, a student reviews the past twenty years of research on whether violence in television and movies is correlated with violent behavior.
Case Study or Case Analysis Investigates a particular person, group, or event in depth for the purpose of drawing a larger conclusion from the analysis For an education course, a student writes a case study of a developmentally disabled child whose academic performance improved because of a behavioral-modification program.
Laboratory Report Presents a laboratory experiment, including the hypothesis, methods of data collection, results, and conclusions For a psychology course, a group of students presents the results of an experiment in which they explored whether sleep deprivation produced memory deficits in lab rats.
Research Journal Records a student’s ideas and findings during the course of a long-term research project For an education course, a student maintains a journal throughout a semester-long research project at a local elementary school.
Research Paper Presents a thesis and supports it with original research and/or other researchers’ findings on the topic; can take several different formats depending on the subject area For examples of typical research projects, see Writing a Research Paper”.

7.4     What to Do With Essay Assignments

Writing assignments can be as varied as the instructors who assign them. Some assignments are explicit about what exactly you will need to do, in what order, and how it will be graded. Some assignments are very open-ended, leaving you to determine the best path toward answering the project. Most fall somewhere in the middle, containing details about some aspects but leaving other assumptions unstated. It’s important to remember that your first resource for getting clarification about an assignment is your instructor—she or he will be very willing to talk out ideas with you, to be sure you are prepared at each step to do well with the writing.

Most writing in college will be a direct response to class materials—an assigned reading, a discussion in class, an experiment in a lab. Generally speaking, these writing tasks can be divided into three broad categories.

Category 1: Summary Assignments

Being asked to summarize a source is a common task in many types of writing. It can also seem like a straightforward task: simply restate, in shorter form, what the source says. A lot of advanced skills are hidden in this seemingly simple assignment, however.

An effective summary does the following:

  • reflects your accurate understanding of a source’s thesis or purpose
  • differentiates between major and minor ideas in a source
  • demonstrates your ability to identify key phrases to quote
  • demonstrates your ability to effectively paraphrase most of the source’s ideas
  • captures the tone, style, and distinguishing features of a source
  • does not reflect your personal opinion about the source

That last point is often the most challenging: we are opinionated creatures, by nature, and it can be very difficult to keep our opinions from creeping into a summary, which is meant to be completely neutral.

Summary

Here is a “quick-start” guide for how to approach writing a summary with confidence.

Start with a Clear Identification of the Work

This automatically lets your readers know your intentions and that you are covering the work of another author.

  • Clearly identify (in the present tense) the background information needed for your summary: the type of work, title, author, and main point.
    • Example: In the featured article “Five Kinds of Learning,” the author, Holland Oates, justifies his opinion on the hot topic of learning styles — and adds a few himself.
Summarize the Piece as a Whole

Omit nothing important and strive for overall coherence through appropriate transitions. Write using “summarizing language.” Your reader needs to be reminded that this is not your own work. Use phrases like the article claims, the author suggests, etc.

  • Present the material in a neutral fashion. Your opinions, ideas, and interpretations should be left in your brain — don’t put them into your summary. Be conscious of choosing your words. Only include what was in the original work.
  • Be concise. This is a summary — it should be much shorter than the original piece. If you’re working on an article, give yourself a target length of 1/4 the original article.
Conclude with a Final Statement

This is not a statement of your own point of view, however; it should reflect the significance of the book or article from the author’s standpoint.

  • Without rewriting the article, summarize what the author wanted to get across. Be careful not to evaluate in the conclusion or insert any of your own assumptions or opinions.

In college-level writing, assignments that are only summary are rare. That said, many types of writing tasks contain at least some element of summary, from a biology report that explains what happened during a chemical process, to an analysis essay that requires you to explain what several prominent positions about gun control are, as a component of comparing them against one another.

Go to chapter 11 of this resource to learn more about summary writing.

Category 2: Defined-Topic Assignments

Many writing tasks will ask you to address a particular topic or a narrow set of topic options. Even with the topic identified, however, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what aspects of the writing will be most important when it comes to grading.

Often, the handout or other written text explaining the assignment—what professors call the assignment prompt—will explain the purpose of the assignment, the required parameters (length, number and type of sources, referencing style, etc.), and the criteria for evaluation. Sometimes, though—especially when you are new to a field—you will encounter the baffling situation in which you comprehend every single sentence in the prompt but still have absolutely no idea how to approach the assignment. No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is in order.

Defined-Topic Assignments

Here is a “quick-start” guide for how to approach writing defined-topic assignments with confidence.

  1. Focus on the verbs. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect, or the all-purpose analyze. You are not just producing a paper as an artifact; you are conveying, in written communication, some intellectual work you have done. So the question is, what kind of thinking are you supposed to do to deepen your learning?
  2. Put the assignment in context. Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences. For example, a social science professor may ask you to write about a controversial issue three times: first, arguing for one side of the debate; second, arguing for another; and finally, from a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective, incorporating text produced in the first two assignments. A sequence like that is designed to help you think through a complex issue. If the assignment is not part of a sequence, think about where it falls in the span of the course (early, midterm, or toward the end), and how it relates to readings and other assignments. For example, if you see that a paper comes at the end of a three-week unit on the role of the Internet in organizational behavior, then your professor likely wants you to synthesize that material in your own way.
  3. Try a free-write. A free-write is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time. That does not sound very “free”; it actually sounds kind of coerced, right? The “free” part is what you write—it can be whatever comes to mind.Professional writers use free-writing to get started on a challenging (or distasteful) writing task or to overcome writer’s block or a powerful urge to procrastinate. The idea is that if you just make yourself write, you cannot help but produce some kind of useful nugget. Thus, even if the first eight sentences of your free write are all variations on “I do not understand this” or “I would really rather be doing something else,” eventually you will write something like “I guess the main point of this is…,” and—booyah!—you are off and running.
  4. Ask for clarification. Even the most carefully crafted assignments may need some verbal clarification, especially if you’re new to a course or field. Try to convey to your instructor that you want to learn and you’re ready to work, and not just looking for advice on how to get an A.

Although the topic may be defined, you cannot just grind out four or five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis. It may seem strange, but even when you are asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you are still being asked to make an argument. You must shape and focus that discussion or analysis so that it supports a claim that you discovered and formulated and that all of your discussion and explanation develops and supports.

Defined-topic writing assignments are used primarily to identify your familiarity with the subject matter.

Category 3: Undefined-Topic Assignments

Another writing assignment you will potentially encounter is one in which the topic may be only broadly identified (“water conservation” in an ecology course, for instance, or “the Dust Bowl” in a U.S. History course), or even completely open (“compose an argumentative research essay on a subject of your choice”).

Where defined-topic essays demonstrate your knowledge of the content, undefined-topic assignments are used to demonstrate your skills—your ability to perform academic research, to synthesize ideas, and to apply the various stages of the writing process.

The first hurdle with this type of task is to find a focus that interests you. Do not just pick something you feel will be “easy to write about”—that almost always turns out to be a false assumption. Instead, you will get the most value out of, and find it easier to work on, a topic that intrigues you personally in some way.

The same getting-started ideas described for defined-topic assignments will help with these kinds of projects, too.  You can also try talking with your instructor or a writing tutor (at your college’s writing center) to help brainstorm ideas and make sure you are on track. You want to feel confident that you have got a clear idea of what it means to be successful in the writing and not waste time working in a direction that won’t be fruitful.

Undefined-Topic Assignments

Here is a “quick-start” guide for how to approach writing undefined-topic assignments with confidence.

Brainstorm

If you have been given an open-ended essay assignment, the topic should be something that allows you to enjoy working with the writing process. Select a topic that you will want to think about, read about, and write about for several weeks, without getting bored.

Research

If you are writing about a subject you are not an expert on and want to make sure you are presenting the topic or information realistically, look up the information or seek out an expert to ask questions.

  • Search for information online. Type your topic into a search engine and sift through the top 10 or 20 results.
    • o Note: Be cautious about information you retrieve online, especially if you are writing a research paper or an article that relies on factual information. Internet sources can be unreliable. Published books, or works found in a journal, have to undergo a much more thorough vetting process before they reach publication, and are therefore safer to use as sources.
  • Check out a library. Yes, believe it or not, there is still information to be found in a library that has not made its way to the Internet. For an even greater breadth of resources, try a college or university library.
Write a Rough Draft

It does not matter how many spelling errors or weak adjectives you have in it. This copy is just jotting down those random uncategorized thoughts. Write down anything you think of that you want included in your writing, and worry about organizing everything where it belongs later.

Edit for Your Second Draft

Review the rough draft and begin to put what you have written in the order you will want it in. Clean up misspellings, grammatical errors and weak writing such as repetitive words. Flesh out the plot and start thinking of anything you want to cut out.

  • Edit ruthlessly. If it does not fit in with the overall thesis, if it is unnecessary, or if you do not like what you have written, cut it out.
  • Check for coherency. Do all parts of the essay make sense together? If so, continue. If not, consider revising whatever does not fit in.
  • Check for necessity. Do all parts of the essay contribute? Does each section give necessary background, advance the argument, address counterarguments, or show potential resolutions?
  • Check for anything missing. Do the topic sub-points flow smoothly into one another, or are there some logical gaps?
Keep Rewriting until You are Ready for a Second Opinion

This is an important step, as other people will see what you actually wrote, and not just what you think you wrote.

  • Get feedback from people whose opinion you respect and trust, and who either read a lot or write themselves.
  • Ask them to be honest and thorough. Only honest feedback, even if it is a wholesale criticism of your entire story, can make you a better writer.
  • If they need some guidance, give them the same questions you have been asking yourself.
  • This is particularly critical if any aspect of your essay revolves around a technical area in which you’re not an expert. Make sure at least one of your readers is an expert in that area.
  • Join a writer’s group in your area or online to share your writing, read others’ writing, and provide mutual feedback.
Evaluate the Response You Received

You do not have to like or agree with everything that is said to you about your work. On the other hand, if you get the same comment from more than one person, you should probably take it very seriously. Strike a balance between keeping aspects that you want and making changes based on input you trust.

  • Re-read the essay with your readers’ comments in the back of your head. Note any gaps, places that need to be cut, or areas needing revision.
  • Re-write using the insights gained from your readers and from your own subsequent critical reading.

7.5     Writing Through Fear

Writing is an activity that can cause occasional anxiety for anyone, even professional writers. The following essay about writing anxiety, by Hillary Wentworth, from the Walden Writing Center, offers insight about how to handle issues surrounding writer’s block:

I suppose fall is the perfect time to discuss fear. The leaves are falling, the nights are getting longer, and the kids are preparing ghoulish costumes and tricks for Halloween.

So here’s my scary story: A few weeks ago, I sat down at my computer to revise an essay draft for an upcoming deadline. This is old hat for me; it’s what I do in my personal life as a creative writer, and it’s what I do in my professional life as a Walden Writing Center instructor. As I was skimming through it, though, a feeling of dread settled in my stomach, I began to sweat, and my pulse raced. I was having full-on panic. About my writing.

This had never happened to me before. Sure, I have been disappointed in my writing, frustrated that I couldn’t get an idea perfectly on paper, but not completely fear-stricken. I Xed out of the Word document and watched Orange Is the New Black on Netflix because I couldn’t look at the essay anymore. My mind was too clouded for anything productive to happen.

The experience got me thinking about the role that fear plays in the writing process. Sometimes fear can be a great motivator. It might make us read many more articles than are truly necessary, just so we feel prepared enough to articulate a concept. It might make us stay up into the wee hours to proofread an assignment. But sometimes fear can lead to paralysis. Perhaps your anxiety doesn’t manifest itself as panic at the computer; it could be that you worry about the assignment many days—or even weeks—before it is due.

Here are some tips to help: 

  1. Interrogate your fear. Ask yourself why you are afraid. Is it because you fear failure, success, or judgment? Has it been a while since you’ve written academically, and so this new style of writing is mysterious to you?
  2. Write through it. We all know the best way to work through a problem is to confront it. So sit at your desk, look at the screen, and write. You might not even write your assignment at first. Type anything—a reflection on your day, why writing gives you anxiety, your favorite foods. Sitting there and typing will help you become more comfortable with the prospect of more.
  3. Give it a rest. This was my approach. After realizing that I was having an adverse reaction, I called it quits for the day, which ultimately helped reset my brain.
  4. Find comfort in ritual and reward. Getting comfortable with writing might involve establishing a ritual (a time of day, a place, a song, a warm-up activity, or even food or drink) to get yourself into the writing zone. If you accomplish a goal or write for a set amount of time, reward yourself.
  5. Remember that knowledge is power.Sometimes the only way to assuage our fear is to know more. Perhaps you want to learn about the writing process to make it less intimidating. Check out the Writing Center’s website for tips and tutorials that will increase your confidence. You can also always ask your instructor questions about the assignment.
  6. Break it down. If you feel overwhelmed about the amount of pages or the vastness of the assignment, break it up into small chunks. For example, write one little section of the paper at a time.
  7. Buddy up. Maybe you just need someone with whom to share your fears—and your writing. Ask a classmate to be a study buddy or join an eCampus group.

The writing centers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Richmond, as well as the news site Inside Higher Ed, also have helpful articles on writing anxiety.

 

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