By the end of high school you probably mastered many of the key conventions of standard academic English, such as paragraphing, sentence-level mechanics, and the use of thesis statements. The essay portion of the SAT measures important skills such as organizing evidence within paragraphs that relate to a clear, consistent thesis, and choosing words and sentence structures to effectively convey your meaning. These practices are foundational, and your teachers have given you a wonderful gift in helping you master them. However, college writing assignments require you to apply those skills to new intellectual challenges. Professors assign papers because they want you to think rigorously and deeply about important questions in their fields.
To your instructors, writing is for working out complex ideas, not just explaining them. A paper that would earn a top score on the SAT might only get a C or D in a college class if it doesn’t show original and ambitious thinking.
Professors look at you as independent junior scholars and expect you to write as someone who has a genuine, driving interest in tackling a complex question. They envision you approaching an assignment without a preexisting thesis. They expect you to look deep into the evidence, consider several alternative explanations, and work out an original, insightful argument that you actually care about.
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’ll 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’re 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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. Below are some tips:
- Focus on the verbs. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect, or the all-purpose analyze. You’re not just producing a paper as an artifact; you’re 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?
- 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 isn’t 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.
- Try a free-write. A free-write is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time. That doesn’t 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 can’t help but produce some kind of useful nugget. Thus, even if the first eight sentences of your free write are all variations on “I don’t understand this” or “I’d really rather be doing something else,” eventually you’ll write something like “I guess the main point of this is . . . ,” and—booyah!—you’re off and running.
- 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 can’t just grind out four or five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis. It may seem strange, but even when you’re asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you’re 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.
- Undefined-Topic Assignments
Another writing assignment you’ll 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. Don’t just pick something you feel will be “easy to write about”—that almost always turns out to be a false assumption. Instead, you’ll 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’re on track. You want to feel confident that you’ve 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.
The Writing Process
The following video provides an excellent overview of research essays, one of the most common kinds of writing assignments you’ll encounter in college.
No writer, not even a professional, composes a perfect draft in her first attempt. Every writer fumbles and has to work through a series of steps to arrive at a high-quality finished project.
You may have encountered these steps as assignments in classes—draft a thesis statement; complete an outline; turn in a rough draft; participate in a peer review. The further you get into higher education, the less often these steps will be completed as part of class.
That’s not to say that you won’t still need to follow these steps on your own time. It helps to recognize that these steps, commonly referred to as the writing process, aren’t rigid and prescribed. Instead, it can be liberating to see them as flexible, allowing you to adapt them to your own personal habits, preferences, and the topic at hand. You will probably find that your process changes, depending on the type of writing you’re doing and your comfort level with the subject matter.
Consider the following flowchart of the writing process:
The flowchart is a helpful visualization of the steps involved, outside of the classroom, toward completing an essay. Keep in mind that it isn’t always a linear process, though. It’s okay to loop back to earlier steps again if needed. For instance, after completing a draft, you may realize that a significant aspect of the topic is missing, which sends you back to researching. Or the process of research may lead you to an unexpected subtopic, which shifts your focus and leads you to revise your thesis. Embrace the circular path that writing often takes!
Revision and Proofreading
These last two stages of the writing process are often confused with each other, but they mean very different things, and serve very different purposes.
Revision is literally “reseeing.” It asks a writer to step away from a piece of work for a significant amount of time and return later to see it with new eyes. This is why the process of producing multiple drafts of an essay is so important. It allows some space in between, to let thoughts mature, connections to arise, and gaps in content or an argument to appear. It’s also difficult to do, especially given that most college students face tight time lines to get big writing projects done. Still, there are some tricks to help you “resee” a piece of writing when you’re short on time, such as reading a paper backward, sentence by sentence, and reading your work aloud. Both are ways of reconceptualizing your own writing so you approach it from a fresh perspective. Whenever possible, though, build in at least a day or two to set a draft aside before returning to work on the final version.
Proofreading, on the other hand, is the very last step taken before turning in a project. This is the point where spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting all take center stage.
Learn these rules, and if you hate them, learn to love them. In college, writing stops being about “how well did you understand fill-in-the-blank” and becomes “how professionally and strongly do you argue your point.” Professionalism, I have found, is the key to the real world, and college is, in part, preparing you for it. If you do not learn how to write in a way that projects professionalism (i.e., these rules), then expect to get, at best, Cs on your papers. —Kaethe Leonard, SUNY student
A person can be the best writer in the world and still be a terrible proofreader. It’s okay not to memorize every rule out there, but know where to turn for help. Utilizing the grammar-check feature of your word processor is a good start, but it won’t solve every issue (and may even cause a few itself).
Your campus tutoring or writing center is a good place to turn for support and help. They will NOT proofread your paper for you, but they will offer you strategies for how to spot issues that are a pattern in your writing.
Finding a trusted person to help you edit is perfectly ethical, as long as that person offers you advice and doesn’t actually do any of the writing for you. Professional writers rely on outside readers for both the revision and editing process, and it’s a good practice for you to do so, too.
College courses offer a few opportunities for writing that won’t require using outside resources. Creative writing classes, applied lab classes, or field research classes will value what you create entirely from your own mind or from the work completed for the class. For most college writing, however, you will need to consult at least one outside source, and possibly more.
The following video provides a helpful overview of the ways in which sources are used most effectively and responsibly in academic writing.
Note that this video models MLA-style citations. This is one of several different styles you might be asked to practice within your classes. Your instructors should make it clear which of the major styles they expect you to use in their courses: MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), Chicago, or another.
Regardless of the style, the same principles are true any time a source is used: give credit to the source when it is used in the writing itself, as well as in a bibliography (or Works Cited page, or References page) at the end.
- Using Sources Creatively
When writing papers that require the use of outside source material, it is often tempting to cite only direct quotations from your sources. If, however, this is the only method of citation you choose, your paper will become nothing more than a series of quotations linked together by a few connecting words. Your paper will seem to be a collection of others’ thoughts and will contain little thinking on your part.
To avoid falling into this trap, follow a few simple pointers:
- Avoid using long quotations merely as space-fillers. While this is an attractive option when faced with a ten-page paper, the overuse of long quotations gives the reader the impression you cannot think for yourself.
- Don’t use only direct quotations. Try using paraphrases in addition to your direct quotations. To the reader, the effective use of paraphrases indicates that you took the time to think about the meaning behind the quote’s words. (For further assistance see our materials on “Using Paraphrases.”)
- When introducing direct quotations, try to use a variety of verbs in your signal phrases. Don’t always rely on stock verbs such as “states” or “says.” Think for a little while about the purpose of your quotation and then choose a context-appropriate verb.
Also, when using direct quotations try qualifying them in a novel or interesting manner. Depending on the system of documentation you’re using, the signal phrases don’t always have to introduce the quotation.
- For example, instead of saying:
“None of them knew the color of the sky” is the opening line of Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” (339). This implies the idea that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Wolford 18).
- Try saying:
“None of them knew the color of the sky,” the opening line of Stephen Crane’s, “The Open Boat,” implies that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Crane 339; Wolford 18).
The combination of these two sentences into one is something different. It shows thought on the writer’s part in how to combine direct quotations in an interesting manner.
Summarizing Summarizing involves condensing the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview. A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it is still necessary to use a citation to give
credit to the original author.
- How to Construct a Summary
- Decide what part of the source is most relevant to your argument.
- Pick out the most important sentences in that part of the source. In most cases, you’ll focus on the main points.
- Paraphrase those sentences. If they include any important or memorable phrases, quote those in your paraphrases. List the paraphrased sentences in the order they occur in the original.
- Add any other information that readers might need to understand how your paraphrased sentences connect to one another.
- Revise the list so that it reads not like a list but like a paragraph.
- How to Mix Quotation With Summary
A long summary can make readers feel that you and they are too distant from an important source. So when you write a summary as long as half a page, look for memorable phrases that you can quote within your summary.
Colomb and Williams emphasize that drafting is “an act of discovery” that can fuel a writer’s creative thinking. They acknowledge that some writers have to draft carefully and stick closely to their outlines, but they advise writers to draft as freely and as openly as they can. They encourage even slow and careful drafters to be open to new ideas and surprises and not to be limited by what they do before drafting. They still stress the value of steady work that follows a plan: for example, writing a little bit every day rather than all at once “in a fit of desperate inspiration.” But they show writers how to make the best of a plan while hoping that you will “discover what your storyboard has missed.”
When you add a few quotations to your summary, you seem a more lively writer. You give readers an idea of your source without quoting so much that your paper seems a cut-and-paste job. If you have pages that are mostly summary and paraphrase, add a few notable quotations that will liven up your writing.
Quoting is when one uses the EXACT wording of the source material. Direct quotations should be used sparingly, and should be used to strengthen your own arguments and ideas.
When Should One Quote? One should use quotes infrequently and only with good reason! Some valid reasons for quoting include:
- When not using the author’s exact wording would change the original meaning
- To lend authority to the point you are trying to make
- When the language of the quote is significant
Quotations should always be introduced and incorporated into your argument, rather than dropped into your paper without context. Consider this first BAD example:
There are many positive effects for advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options” (Wechsler).
In her Pharmaceutical Executive article available through the Wilson Select Internet database, Jill Wechsler writes about one of the positive effects of advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options.”
Paraphrasing is when you create your own wording of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else without directly quoting. Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing, however summaries only include the essential ideas of a work, while paraphrasing includes more details. Since your paper should only use direct quotations sparingly, you’ll probably be paraphrasing frequently. Just remember that you still need to express plenty of your own ideas. Use paraphrasing to support those ideas, and be mindful that you still need to cite paraphrased portions of your paper.
Providing Context for Your Sources
Whether you use a direct quotation, a summary, or a paraphrase, it is important to distinguish the original source from your ideas, and to explain how the cited source fits into your argument. You can think of the context for your quote, paraphrase, or summary as a sandwich with multiple parts. You’ll want to: transition into and introduce the source, use a signal phrase to actually move into the material from the source, provide a citation that can be easily connected to the full citation material in your bibliography or works cited list, and explain how this material fits into your argument. Many writing textbooks refer to this as a quotation sandwich, but it can and should also be used to integrate paraphrases and summaries. All material from sources that you use in your own work must be integrated in this way, or you risk readers becoming confused about its importance and purpose.
Check Your Understanding
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
- Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf, 9.
- Ibid., 5.
- Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
- Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition : Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 83-7.