Get to the Point

Improve Your Writing by Eliminating Wordiness

If you’ve ever read a style guide, you’ve probably read that the best writing is concise writing. Even academic writing, though it may include unfamiliar vocabulary, should always be clear and concise. It’s actually a myth that the best academic writing should be verbose. The word, “verbosity” comes from Latin, verbosus, meaning “wordy.” Wordy writing can be confusing writing.

Read the following example, and judge for yourself:

In spite of the fact that it is an extremely common occurrence, both in the secondary and post-secondary level, that applying verbose, extraneous, inflated language to our academic discourse, most specifically written compositions, in the quest to elevate our standing in the eyes of our peers and those who would evaluate our discourse for a grade, only serves not only to confuse and confound the very audience we hope to impress, but to also significantly frustrate the reader that our attempts often are met with disapproval, and often contempt, but more importantly, an unsatisfactory mark.

This is an example of wordy writing. Overly verbose and “puffy.” While reading a passage like the example above is obviously over-the-top, how can we edit our own writing to eliminate wordiness?

Language and Vocabulary

While it’s great to incorporate new terminology as our vocabulary grows, our writing will sound more natural and be clearer if we write in our own voice and incorporate language that we understand. Trying to write in a style that’s not fully our own can lead to awkward or confusing writing. However, in removing all the “fat” from our writing, we might also run the risk of sounding too terse. There has to be a balance. The message must be clear above all else.

“. . . Generally, the fewer the words that fully communicate or evoke the intended ideas and feelings, the more effective the communication.”                           —Mark Twain

Redundancy and Repetition

One way to write more concisely is to eliminate redundancies and when needed, to avoid repetition.

Redundancy is a word or phrase that simply repeats something previously stated, and it doesn’t add anything new. Redundancy is considered superfluous writing, as in the example below:

Wordy: Students should sit at a minimum of at least a distance of 6 feet apart.

Improved: Students should sit at a minimum of 6 feet apart.

Wordy: The stock market set a new record high.

Improved: The stock market set a record high.

Examples of some common redundant phrases are below. You can communicate in one word what is stated in two or more:

At the present time
Completely finished                      
Absolutely certain
Red in Color
End result

Same identical
Few in number

Repetition, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in writing. Repetition can aid in the understanding of complex ideas, and repetition is often used to reinforce points of argument. Reiterating important points can create a sense of ethos for the writer, communicating the author’s credibility and sincerity.

Repetition becomes problematic when a word or phrase is unnecessarily repeated, as in the example below:

Repetitive: The stock market set a record high in January, but the record high was not as high as the market would go the following month.

Improved: The stock market set a record high in January, but would go higher the following month.

Omit Bloated Phrases

Bloated phrases are another common ailment in our writing, causing sentences to be wordy.

Bloated: Due to the fact that snowy owls have lost much of their main food source in the Arctic, the rare owls are now wintering across Nebraska.

Due to the fact that is an empty, meaningless phrase often used in academic writing, but “because” is the better choice. Any time you can omit five words for one, do it. 

Improved: Because snowy owls have lost much of their main food source in the Arctic, the rare owls are now wintering across Nebraska.

Bloated: For the reason that our landfills are at capacity, the city should implement a recycling program.

Improved: Because our landfills are at capacity, the city should implement a recycling program.

Bloated: At this point in time, NASA is expanding its recruitment of women and minorities.

Improved: Currently, NASA is expanding its recruitment of women and minorities.

Some other common bloated phrases include

for the most part
for all intents and purposes
as a matter of fact
in my opinion

Ease Up on Modifiers

The term “modifier” is a word that can help describe meaning, or gives more information about another word in a sentence.

Intensifiers and qualifiers are types of modifiers. Used sparingly, they can enhance writing and clarify meaning. When overused, they can create wordy sentences.

The modifier, “really” is one of the most common modifiers (and commonly overused!):

Eliminating paper waste is a really good idea. (A better idea than just plain “good”?)

Eliminating paper waste is a really, really good idea. (Is it a better idea because they’ve used two “really”?).

Eliminating paper waste is a really, really very good idea. (Or is it simply just a very good idea?).

Often, when we start to pile on these intensifiers, the word they attempt to intensify isn’t strong enough (as in the first example, “quite hard”).

Eliminating paper waste is an excellent idea.

This sentence has omitted the intensifiers and utilized more precise language. You don’t have to eliminate these words completely, but only use when you really, really must.

Better still, only use when you absolutely must.

Best: only use when you must.

Other common words that could be omitted include

basically, totally, essentially.

Transitional Words

Our essays may require transitional words to help the reader navigate our argument’s points. Common transitional words in academic essays are ordinal (ordered) adverbs. For example:

First, second, third.  

I have 3 reasons students should study abroad. First, students will more quickly learn another language. Second, they will gain a greater appreciation for different cultures. Third, students will gain a greater understanding of the world.

If I had 6 reasons that students should study abroad, it would read, fourthly, fifthly, sixthly. . .

Oh my, what if I had twelve reasons? Twelthly? Twelvely?

Dictionary icons Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster didn’t recognize “firstly” as a word. While it isn’t incorrect to use the adverbial form, firstly, secondly, thirdly, it can become a bit ridiculous, as you can see!

Finally, when concluding an essay, use “finally,” instead of lastly.  

Other phrases to avoid include “and last but not least,” “in conclusion,” and “in summary.”

While “in conclusion” is a common concluding transitional phrase, your reader should know your essay is concluding by the content of the writing and the visual cue of the pages. While it might be necessary to use “in conclusion” when giving a speech, in writing, it can appear lazy and unnecessary.

In conclusion. . . the end.

Understanding Plagiarism

What is it and how to avoid it

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to “plagiarize” means:

•to steal or pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source.

• to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

Most students know that to pass off another’s work as his or her own is considered intentional plagiarism. “Intentional” means that the writer has purposefully, with dishonest intent, taken the words of another and placed their name as the author of the sourced material. To those in academia, intentional plagiarism is the most flagrant abuse of plagiarism.

However, many instances of plagiarism in academic student writing would be considered unintentional, or not done with dishonest intent. Plagiarism that is unintentional (not done by intention or design) could fall under the umbrella of failing to cite properly, failing to use quotation marks, or paraphrasing incorrectly. It’s essential for students to understand exactly what constitutes both types of plagiarism, and how to avoid it.

Plagiarism Examples

Which scenarios below are considered plagiarism?

Scenario 1:

Your research essay assignment requires you to use five sources. You scan the internet and library databases and find a few articles that fit your needs. You cut and paste the quotes you want to use into your paper. Each source you’ve cut and pasted is listed in your Works Cited.  

Scenario 2:

You have found the perfect sources to use in support of your argument. After choosing the section you want to paraphrase, you carefully change a word or two in each sentence so it is not worded exactly the same as the source article. Since you’ve reworded the quotes, you don’t worry about listing in the Works Cited.

Scenario 3:

You have used several direct quotes in your research paper. While you have not included author or attributive tags, you have cited the sources in the text.

Each of the previous scenarios could be considered plagiarism, as each example lacks some key elements.

Unintentional Plagiarism

One type of unintentional plagiarism is when a student uses words or ideas of another and fails to give the original source credit. This lack of acknowledgment usually happens when students are learning how to integrate research into their papers. This can be remedied by simply learning how to cite properly. The following direct quote is from an essay by Roger Sipher. For our purposes, the examples are utilizing MLA citation style.

Incorrect Direct Quote:

“A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble.”

As you can see in this example, there is no in-text citation or parenthetical reference at the end of the quote and before the final period to identify the writer or source. Who said it? Where did it come from?

When incorporating direct quotes, always include some kind of introductory or author tag along with direct quotes, as direct quotes should never stand alone as a sentence. This means that a direct quote should always have other words in the sentence, either before the quote begins, in the middle (if breaking up quote), or at the end of the sentence.

Correct Direct Quote:

According to Sipher, “A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble” (25).

The second example has not only included the page reference (25) to the source, but also added a few words of introduction, called an author or attributive tag. Regardless of whether you directly quote, summarize, or paraphrase, the original source must always be cited in the text, as well as listed on the Works Cited or Reference page.

When you want to directly quote a source, take care to put quotation marks around all of the words that came from the source, whether it’s one word or fifty. Inserting exact wording from a source without using quotation marks is also a form of plagiarism, whether you cite the source or not.


A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble (Sipher 25).

In this example, the writer has used the exact quote, which should have quotation marks around it to the reader identifies it as an exact quote.


Roger Sipher, author of, “So That Nobody Has To Go To School If They Don’t Want To,” states that “A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble” (25).

Paraphrasing & Summarizing

Paraphrasing and summarizing are used in research papers when you don’t want to use a direct quote. When paraphrasing, you’ll take a passage from source material and put the language in your own words. A summary is much shorter, and usually takes a broad overview of the subject in your own words.

When you want to paraphrase or summarize, you must not only change the words of the original source, but the sentence structure as well. Simply replacing one word with a synonym is not enough to avoid plagiarism.

When paraphrasing or summarizing, always read over the source material several times. You should understand it so well you could potentially have a conversation about it with a peer and communicate all the major points. When you know it this well, you are ready to paraphrase or summarize.

Original Material:

Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Poor Paraphrase:

Obesity in children is a serious condition that affects children and teens. It occurs when a child is above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly worrisome because the extra pounds often cause kids to have health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Poor Summary:

Obesity in children is a serious condition.

Notice that in the poorly paraphrased example, a few words were omitted and a few were changed to a word with the same meaning. The sentence structure – the order of the words in the sentences – however, has not been altered. Avoid cutting and pasting, then simply omitting one word for a synonym.

In the summary example, the writer has simply cut and pasted most of the first sentence word for word. Again, read over a passage and put into your own words.

Final Thoughts

Failing to use quotation marks, failing to cite properly, failing to add a Works Cited or Reference page, or failing to take care when paraphrasing and summarizing can all be troublesome and puts you at risk for plagiarism. Plagiarism comes in many forms, but once you understand how to correctly cite and quote research, as well as how to paraphrase and summarize, you can avoid most unintentional plagiarism errors.

The Argument Essay: Topic, Purpose, Claim, and Reasons

When writing the argument essay, you will be expected to argue a debatable topic, with a clear purpose, strong claim, and clear reasoning.


Let’s begin at the beginning.

Picking an Argument Topic

How do you know if your topic will make a good argument? Many topics might be interesting, but not all interesting topics are arguable. When constructing an argument, your topic must be more than a statement of fact; it must be debatable.

How do you know if your argument topic is debatable? Do you offer a strong opinion? If an audience or reader might disagree with your opinion or premise, it’s debatable. You want someone to disagree. That’s what makes an argument.

This confuses students who might have been told to avoid opinion as they write argument essays. The support and research should not be based on opinion, but the topic itself will be opinionated — meaning, debatable.

What is your purpose?

When we think about arguments, we assume our purpose is to win, though there is no way to determine who really wins. A writer can present his or her position with the best reasoning and evidence available, and hope to successfully rebut opposing arguments.

A writer usually tries to convince a specific audience that his or her argument is compelling enough to change minds. In proposal arguments, the writer might want to enact a solution to a problem, and to do this, the writer will have to convince a carefully-considered audience to change their mind.

Another purpose of an argument is to simply explore an issue. A writer whose intention is to explore will examine an idea in hopes of convincing a reader that the ideas are important and beneficial.

Testing your Topic

To test whether or not a topic will work as an arguable thesis, consider if you can answer “yes” to the following criteria:

  1. Does it present a position that an audience might have differing opinions on?
  2. Does it attempt to change minds or urge a reader to take some sort of action?
  3. Does it address a problem and offer a solution, or does it present a problem where no easy solutions exist?

The topic must pass the “so what” test. If a reader shrugs and says “so what?” the statement may not be interesting, or arguable, or both.

Examples of an Unarguable Statement:

Let’s test the statements below to see if they pass the so-what test:

Litter creates pollution of the environment.

Using our criteria, the statement isn’t trying to convince, present a problem (although technically, litter is a problem), nor is it a statement that others might disagree with. It’s merely an observation. So what?

Chickens make good pets.

Though we don’t often think of chickens as pets, so what about it? This is a statement of fact, and a reader couldn’t debate the statement, but we’re intrigued to learn more.

The number of women joining the military has been stagnant for over a decade.

Even though a reader may not know if this is an accurate statement or not, it is easily researchable and not an argument claim. It does raise some interesting questions that might lead to a solid argument. So what about the numbers of women in the military? Tell us more.

Examples of an Arguable Statement

As you read the following statements, ask yourself if you or others might disagree:

Recycling programs, though expensive at first, are ultimately an efficient, cost effective, and environmentally friendly way of reducing waste in our environment.

This statement meets our criteria, as it is presenting a problem and offering a solution. It can be argued, as many opponents believe the cost of implementing a recycling program is too expensive and actually not efficient.

Cities and other municipalities should allow residents to keep chickens as pets.

This is a statement that would illicit disagreement (good!), and is an attempt to change the readers’ minds of a widely held belief (chickens are farm animals, not pets!), so it definitely meets our criteria.

The military needs to focus more resources and create a long-term plan to recruit and retain women.

This statement is definitely arguable, as many would dispute that the military need more women in their ranks. Others would oppose focusing additional resources on building the ranks of women in the military. This statement addresses a problem that there may be several solutions to, making an arguable claim.

Formulating an Argument

Claim Supported by Reasons

Once an arguable topic is chosen, the next step is to formulate the claim with reasons. This will lay the groundwork for your essay, and will work like a roadmap for your reader.

The reasons, also called “because clauses” are the “why” behind the claim. Each reason will address one concern, and will act as one section of argument for the paper. Each of the reasons will be supported with its own research or support.

Claim: Military service should be compulsory for all graduating high school seniors.       

Reason 1: because it is a cost-effective way to address critical military needs of our country.

Reason 2: because it would diversify the military.

Reason 3: because it would help young people to mature and gain valuable life experience.

Reason 4: because it would reduce poverty by offering low-income students a path toward higher education and job training.

Once the claim and reasons are fully developed, you’ll then consider counter-arguments and evidence from research.

Spending time in the planning stages to identify your purpose, test your topic, and formulate an arguable claim with reasons is essential to constructing a successful argument.

Now You Try!

For the broad topics below, formulate an arguable statement and working thesis (claim with reason):

  1. Requiring Covid vaccine for college admissions.
  2. Mental health assistance in public universities.
  3. The effect of texting on youth’s literacy.

Simple Steps to Improve Your Writing

Have you ever read a sentence, then re-read, and re-read again, because by the time you get to the end, you’re lost? Long sentences that are tight and concise can read smoothly and quickly, just as short sentences can be tedious and confusing.


Wordiness. Inflated writing. Bloated sentences. More words does not necessarily communicate a clearer message. Inflating sentences with unnecessary or redundant words can become a bad habit. Strong writing, clear writing, is not complicated or wordy. Good writing is tight, concise, and to the point. Inflating your writing with superfluous words will lead to confusion in not only your sentences, but can also lead to a confusing message in your essay.

Eliminate Wordy Phrases

One of the easiest fixes to tighten your writing is to eliminate wordy phrases. Read over your essay to see if a wordy phrase can be reduced to a word or two without changing the meaning.

EX. 1:

At the present time  Today our business has no deficit.

The phrase “At the present time,” is wordy. Less is more. Always replace a wordy phrase with fewer words whenever possible.

EX. 2:

The end result is tragic if a patient is not treated swiftly.

In this example, “end result” is redundant. The word “result” doesn’t need a modifier. Its meaning is clear.

EX. 3:

The final outcome will be difficult to determine.

Like Example 2, “final” is redundant, UNLESS there is more than one outcome. If there is one outcome, then a second outcome, and a third, then “final” would help clarify.

Because of the fact that NASA has cut funding, our space missions are in jeopardy.

This is one of the most common wordy phrases in academic writing. Why do we think we need all of these words? We don’t. And “due to the fact that” isn’t any better.

Eliminate Meaningless Qualifiers and Intensifiers

Qualifiers and intensifiers are words added in front of other words to modify meaning, either by limiting it (somewhat lazy) or enhancing it (very cute).

While it’s okay to include some qualifiers in writing to communicate your certainty, for instance, with a persuasive argument, excessive use of qualifiers is distracting and repetitive, and only weakens the writing.

Below are a few qualifiers that should be eliminated when possible:

Sort of
Kind of
A lot

EX. 1:

They were really trying hard to get the bill passed.

The paper was very interesting. 

The research definitely shows that meditation reduces stress.

Kate was really, very impatient.

If you find you use very or really too frequently, it’s often a sign that the sentence needs to be rewritten with stronger language. Note the changes in the revised sentence below:

They were struggling to get the bill passed.

The paper was fascinating.

The research confirms that meditation reduces stress.

Kate was impatient (or exasperated, or aggravated).

Omit “It is” Constructions

Even tiny words, like “it” can be confusing when placed at the beginning of a sentence as the (empty) subject.

It is important to limit your alcohol intake.

Revise: Limiting your alcohol intake is important.

It is Laura who adopted the cat.

Revise: Laura adopted the cat.

It is possible that the cause of her headaches is stress.

Revised: The cause of her headaches is stress. 

Beginning a sentence with “it is” creates a subject-less, often confusing sentence. “There is” or “There are” (to begin a sentence) creates the same effect. Sometimes, this type of construction is necessary, but if you rely on it, the writing can get repetitive and slightly annoying. Eliminating this type of construction will clarify the meaning and improve style by relocating the real subject of the sentence:

There are numerous reports of widespread corruption.

Revised: Numerous reports suggest widespread corruption.

There are only two questions left to answer.

Two questions are left to answer.

There are numerous studies that show the opposite is true.

Numerous studies show the opposite is true.

Final Thoughts

Always do one final edit to eliminate redundant, excessive, or unnecessary words from your sentences. Your points will communicate more clearly, ideas will flow more smoothly, which means your ideas will be taken more seriously.

Writing in Isolation

Improve your health and mood through expressive writing

The ongoing pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, but has especially affected students at every level. The day-to-day uncertainties with no clear end in sight can make it difficult for students to concentrate and focus on the demands of schoolwork. To combat the daily anxieties and sense of isolation, narrative writing, either through a class or independent of school, could be a great way to increase our physical and mental wellness.

Research suggests that sharing our thoughts and feelings through the act of writing can improve our overall physical and mental health. The act of narrative or expressive writing has been shown to lessen our stress levels, overcome negative emotions, lessen our feelings of loneliness, and increase our sense of connectedness to others. Dr. Jeremy Nobel, faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, and founder of the Foundation for Art and Healing, believes using expressive writing as a way to connect with others can have numerous positive benefits, similar to healthy eating and exercise.

Social connection is essential to our physical and mental health, says Nobel, and writing allows you to make sense of yourself and the world around you. “Having a deeper understanding of how you think and feel — that self-knowledge — provides you with a stronger connection to yourself,” says Dr. Nobel. “It’s that connection that often allows you to move past negative emotions (like guilt and shame) and instead access positive ones (like optimism or empathy), fostering a sense of connection to others in addition to oneself.”

Through expressive writing, we often write about things that others may be experiencing and can identify with. Even though we are not directly engaged with others, we can still feel a sense of connectedness through expressing those thoughts and feelings, even if the experiences differ.  

Write On

If you’ve never tried expressive writing, this is a great time to give it a whirl. Maybe you’ll be hunkered down for the winter, the days will be longer soon, or your work or class load is less. Pick up a pen and paper and see where your mind takes you. Below are some ways to explore writing and connect with others, and possibly, finding your tribe.

Online Writing Classes

Consider taking an online creative writing class. Your college may offer creative writing classes or workshops through either a credit or non-credit class option. Here at MCC, our creative writing program offers an Associate in Arts degree in Creative Writing, in genres including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. For those not interested in attaining a degree, consider a community writing class or non-credit class, where you’ll have instruction without the assignments or grading. Check out MCC’s offerings here.

Join a Writing Group

Want to meet some like-minded people? Consider joining a writing group or club at your college. Many writing groups meet at local coffee shops, but most have moved to ZOOM meetups for now. To find a local writing group in your area, call local bookstores, libraries, colleges, or check Facebook groups. MCC has their own Writing Club for students that offers mentoring, workshops, and public reading opportunities for interested students.

Can’t find a writing group in your area? Start your own! It’s as easy as creating a Facebook page and sharing it with friends. You’ll likely have other aspiring writers beating down your door.

Follow Active Writing Communities on Social Media

I follow several online writing groups who offer advice, fellowship, and some will let you post your writing for feedback. They’re a great way to stay connected, and many members split off to start their own “group” with similar interests. Check out the online writing community, WritersCafé.org, or on Twitter, check out #writingcommunity.

Take the First Step

The pandemic has created some challenges for us all, to say the least. Don’t add to your stress by taking on too much. If you don’t have experience writing expressively, start with journaling. Once you become comfortable with just jotting down your thoughts and feelings, consider how your experiences might translate into a poem or short essay.

I just took an online workshop on making a pandemic writing plan. The focus was to just pick one piece of writing we wanted to focus on for the short term (three or six months, for instance) and make an action plan to complete one writing project. Whether you are outcome oriented or just simply wanting to write for fun, having loose goals can help your jittery mind stay focused on something positive that you enjoy. Who knows? By this time next year, you could have the next great memoir!

Visit Dr. Nobel’s The Foundation for Art and Healing webpage here to check out The Unlonely Project.

Nobel, Jeremy, MD, MPH. “Writing as an Antidote to Loneliness.” Harvard Health Publishing. September 14, 2018.

How to Succeed in Your Online English Class

Many of us have been thrown head-first into a virtual classroom. Some classes are a bit more conducive to an online learning environment. Unfortunately, English isn’t necessarily one of those classes. While high school English may have included reading assignments followed by quizzes, college English courses are normally much more discussion focused that require critical thinking about large issues and formulating independent thought through writing. Fortunately, our own Writing Center is still here at MCC — for now, virtually — to help students with their coursework. For students taking an online English course, you might have to take extra steps, such as working with your Writing Center, to ensure your success. Read on to learn some additional ways to ace your virtual English course.

Know Your Learning Management System

First things first: you’ll need to understand how to navigate your institution’s learning management system (LMS). This is where your virtual classroom will be housed, and will most likely be either Blackboard or Canvas. If you’re in a virtual learning environment, your instructor will electronically post the class syllabus, required books, unit assignments, essay guidelines and requirements, discussion questions, and other class-related info. If you’re not familiar with the LMS, take some time to play around with it before class begins.

Read All Material

The very first thing you should do — whether your class is in-person or remote — is READ THE SYLLABUS. This is one of the chief complaints of college instructors. You have no idea how many memes are floating around online about this. But if you’ve never had a syllabus in high school, how would you know how important it is, right?

The syllabus will contain essential information such as class meeting times, grade scales, attendance requirements, assignment details and due dates, class policies — virtually all the info you need to succeed. If it’s not in the syllabus, it’s most likely found in the Units or Assignments links on your class’s main page.

Now that you’ve read the syllabus, you’ll want to locate the class readings. If your instructor has given a reading assignment, read it. Don’t think you can coast by without doing the readings. In college, you will quickly become lost during discussion when your instructor starts talking about the readings, and many college instructors post discussion questions — for a grade — online. So do yourself a favor and read what you’re assigned.

Take Notes

Your English instructor will often present a lecture for each class, either a pre-recorded lecture you can view at your leisure, or a live one that you’ll be required to be present for. If there is a lecture, take careful notes. Anything an English instructor takes the time to present a lecture about is something he or she wants you to hear and understand. Lectures are essential information.

If the lecture references the required reading, make sure you’ve read ahead of time so you know what he or she is talking about. In English classes, readings, lectures, and discussions will pave the way to your written assignments. If you’ve texted your buddies or listened to podcasts during lectures and not listened or taken notes, you’ll be lost when it comes time to do the work.  

Engage in Conversations & Ask Questions

If you’re required to attend a live class, be engaged. Come to class with thoughts about the readings, ideas you’d like to brainstorm, or questions about the assignments. In college, it’s not enough just to show up. Most college instructors expect class participation, and give a grade to reflect students’ level of class contribution.

Many instructors are new to the virtual learning environment just like students, and they are hoping for — desperate for — engaged, vocal, contributing students. Those students who speak up and get their voices heard, even if it’s simply asking a question about the assignment, will get the attention of the instructor. Be an active listener, and engage in class discussion. If your scheduled class will be discussing assigned readings, jot down 3 or 4 thoughtful comments or questions you might raise in class. Being prepared will help you feel less nervous and confident when speaking remotely, and the more you do it, the more you’ll feel comfortable sharing your thoughts in front of others.

Show Up & Be Present

In a typical English class, there are students who sit in the back, keep their phone in their lap, try to disappear behind the crowd, and hope to never be called on. Then there are students who sit closer to the front, make eye contact with the instructor, leave their phone in their backpack, and engage in class discussion. Which student are you?

Now that we’re in a remote learning environment, students are actually on a more level playing field once inside the virtual classroom. Your instructor can’t differentiate between the student who hopes to hide out and the one who is engaged — until discussions begin. This is an opportunity to be present. Are you looking at your screen/instructor or classmates when they speak? What is your body language communicating, even if you’re not speaking? What are some other ways you can show you’re actively listening and engaged in the class?

Many of us are introverts (I’m one!), so in an in-person class, it’s sometimes stressful to speak up in class. But many shy or introverted students find a virtual environment much easier to manage. If you’re too nervous to speak up during a class session, try opening up the lines of communication with your instructor via email or discussion board. Even if you simply pose a question, your instructor will know you are present, you’re listening, and you’re trying.

Remote learning, especially an online English class, can be challenging for many students (and instructors!). You might be outside your comfort zone, but most likely, your instructor is too. Stay in close contact with your instructor, ask questions, stay engaged, and seek support via your Writing Center if you need it. You might find a virtual classroom can be a fun and stimulating change of pace!

Student Success Strategies: Coping with Class during Covid

As colleges have closed and we have transitioned to distance learning, many students are faced with the task of completing class assignments largely on their own. For students who didn’t sign up for online classes, independent learning can be stressful and difficult. English Composition classes can be especially challenging, as much of the vocabulary is new to Freshmen, and the writing assignments – policy proposals, research papers, analysis essays – are much longer and more complicated than perhaps they were in high school. Take a deep breath and read on for some tips on how to complete your class assignments and make it to the finish line.

Keep a Schedule

“If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.” – Napoleon Hill

Get out your academic calendar and write down “appointments” for every online class meeting. But don’t stop there. The academic rule of thumb is that for every credit class hour, you should spend 2-3 hours of outside study. If your professor has reduced the class meeting times because you’re now in class on ZOOM, that doesn’t mean the (normally) 2-3 hours weekly class is now only 30 minutes. Keep to the original schedule; if your English Comp class was to meet twice a week for a weekly total of 3 hours, schedule out an additional 6-9 hours of study/writing time. This is the MINIMUM amount of time students should devote to college-level coursework; for many of us, the current distractions could necessitate additional hours of study.

Stick to a Routine

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

It’s essential during these times of crisis to have a regular routine. Trying to navigate life right now without some kind of regular routine is like trying to run a marathon without regular training. Not gonna happen.

Establish a daily routine. Wake up at the same time, get dressed, go to bed at the same time, eat at least 3 meals a day, exercise, and maintain relationships. Once your basic needs are met, you’ll have more space – mental, emotional, and physical – to meet life’s other demands, including college coursework.

Check your syllabus to see when your professor holds virtual office hours. Pencil those hours into your academic calendar so you’ll have access to your instructor when you need it if questions or problems arise. If your instructor has offered the option of recorded classes, try your best to virtually attend the live class meeting, as you’ll have the benefit of immediate chat or breakout sessions. These live sessions can also be a great way to keep up our social interactions with our classmates.

Break School Work into Smaller Chunks

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” –Confucius

A long research paper takes time, but try to avoid sitting in front of the computer screen for hours on end. Schedule in break time to get outside and take in some fresh air and give your brain a break. Instead of scouring library databases for hours collecting sources, schedule a research session for one hour and take a break. Try creating an outline of your research assignment, and break each point in the outline into smaller chunks of actual work time.

Alternate between doing coursework and listening to music. Research has shown that listening to music can help improve cognitive performance, but listening to your favorite music before you have an especially stressful or challenging assignment or exam will also improve your emotional state (The Benefits of Studying with Music).

We’re All in this Together

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” – Buddha

If you find yourself struggling with an assignment, don’t delay in reaching out to your classmates or instructor. If you have a question, I guarantee a classmate has the same question, but might be too embarrassed or intimidated to ask. Consider starting your own virtual study group. It’s not only a great way to keep up with classes, but also a great way to keep up social connections and prevent isolation fatigue.  

If you find yourself falling behind, keep putting in the effort. In our current academic environment, professors really do appreciate the effort, and the last thing anyone wants is their students to drop or disappear. If your institution offers a virtual writing center, make an appointment with a writing consultant for assistance.

Also, consider that instructors might be struggling too. This might be the first time they’ve taught online, and many professors are just trying to figure things out as they go. They might have let some of the lessons drop that could have made your assignment easier to understand. By speaking up and posing questions, you’re not only helping your classmates, but you’re helping your instructor navigate this new academic territory we’re all finding ourselves in.

Final Thoughts

Reach out, make connections, and keep showing up. The antidote for worry is action. Take action, even if the action is imperfect. Finish the assignment, even if it’s not your best work. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, and you’ll be one step close to that final goal.

Simple Steps to Organize an Argument Essay

You’ve created a strong thesis statement, you’ve compiled your research, you may have even written your intro, but where do you go from here? Are you stumped about how exactly to put all of this information together?

Organizing a long research paper can be a daunting task, but fear not! Read on for a quick and easy way to lay out your argument essay. This organization method is only one option, and your instructor may have a preferred method, but if you are lost, this is a great road map to get you unstuck.

Start with Your Thesis

To begin, you’ll need to write down your thesis statement.

Thesis: The US should implement a cross-country high-speed rail system.

Now you have to answer the big question: Why should the US implement a cross-country high-speed rail system?

Reasoning out an Argument

Answering this question in a series of what we’ll refer to as “because clauses,” will fill out the body of your paper. These will be the reasons why your audience should support your position. Let’s pick three strong reasons, and list them here:

Thesis: The US should implement a cross-country high-speed rail system because. . .

Because Clause #1: because a rail system will greatly reduce highway congestion, resulting in lower automobile fatalities.

Because Clause #2: because a rail system will serve the poor population who cannot afford the cost of owning and maintaining a car.

Because Clause #3: because a national rail system will greatly reduce automobile emissions and be more environmentally friendly.

As you can see, each because clause smoothly follows the thesis statement. You should be able to combine the thesis with each because clause in one succinct, logical sentence. These three (or four) reasons or because clauses, as well as the information and research you include to support these reasons, will constitute the majority of your paper.

Once you decide on what your reasons will be and what research you’ll use to support each reason, you’ll simply begin to lay them out after your introduction. Organize your paper by following your reasons, keeping each “because” reason in its own paragraph/s. In other words, don’t talk about information related to because clause #1 in the paragraph for because clause #3.

Simple, right?

Think of the body of your essay as a train; each rail car is lined up one after the other, holding its own separate contents. Just as the engineer wouldn’t want to mix the rail car full of coal with a car full of apples, you don’t want to mix the information in your clauses.

Including Opposition and Rebuttal

After you have given all of your reasons, now you’ll need to include a section (one or more paragraphs) of opposition and rebuttal. Below, we have included two different oppositions.

Opposition #1 (followed by rebuttal): Many opponents against a high-speed rail system believe the monetary costs outweigh the benefits.

Opposition #2 (followed by rebuttal): The cost of high-speed rail tickets will be unaffordable for the low-income population it hopes to attract.

These opposition points are developed depending on the audience you’re hoping to persuade. The length of your paper will usually dictate how many different oppositional points (with accompanying rebuttal) you will need. For our purposes, we are placing the opposition after the reasons have all been argued, but it is also acceptable to place a direct opposition immediately after each reason, if the opposition directly argues against the specific reason. Above, Opposition #2 directly relates to Because Cause #2, and could be placed directly after.

It’s a good idea to outline your argument before you begin writing. If you’re not into numerical outlines, just draw a box for every paragraph or section, and label each box with what’s going inside, like this:

You can get as detailed as you want, including what research goes where.

To break down the body section, for instance, it might look something like this:

Once you’ve determined your reasoning, you can easily arrange and rearrange as needed. After outlining the Intro, Body, and Opposition, all that’s left is the concluding thoughts.

Easy, right?

Final Thoughts

Organizing a longer argument essay takes some time and forethought. Remember to keep the coal with the coal, and the apples with the apples! With a little work on the front end, you’ll be on track for focused and well-organized essay.

Productive Writing: 5 questions to help manage your writing project

When starting a writing assignment, sometimes we have more questions than answers, such as

What topic should I choose?
How can I get all my jumbled thoughts to make sense?
How can these jumbled thoughts ever result in a successful essay?

Beginning writing without spending any time in the initial planning stages is a recipe for failure. Careful planning is vital before any action can be taken. In the world of business, this is referred to as Project Management.

According to business writer and coach, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, our minds go through five steps to accomplish any task:

  1. Defining purpose
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next action

Our minds work in mysterious ways, but sometimes our minds become overwhelmed if we try to mentally juggle too many tasks. Instead of trying to mentally multitask a huge project like an essay assignment, take it one step at a time.

Before you ever begin developing an outline for your paper, you’ll need to answer a few key questions.

What is my purpose?

If the purpose of writing is to satisfy a class assignment, what is the assignment? What are the guidelines and requirements? What type of topic can best satisfy those requirements?

This is merely common sense. Don’t get caught up in worrisome details. Think about the “why” behind your reasons for writing. Knowing the why will help clarify your focus and make the rest of the decision-making process easier.

If you decide your purpose is to write a policy proposal on a current issue in your community, then knowing that will guide your choice of topic.

What outcome do I envision?

Having a clear vision provides the blueprint for your paper. Do you want to argue in favor or in opposition to a controversial issue? Do you want to propose changes to current laws, policies, or procedures? The vision is the “what” instead of the “why.”

Take some time here to imagine what you want the final paper to communicate. What arguments or points do you want to make? What message do you hope readers take away? What changes in thought or policy do you hope readers will consider?

For example, you might envision readers will agree that spending more in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run by reducing road maintenance, traffic, and accidents. That is the outcome that you envision.


 “If you’re waiting to have a good idea before you have any ideas, you won’t have many.” — David Allen

Now that you know your purpose and where you’re going, you’ll need to capture ideas of how to get there. Following the why and the what comes the how.

Brainstorming has lots of terms – mind-mapping, clustering, spider webbing – but they all basically mean the same thing. They are all ways to organize our thoughts. Once you’ve defined your purpose and vision, your brain will automatically begin to create thoughts and ideas, but if you don’t have any method of capturing those ideas, you will either lose them – or won’t have any. Psychologists call this “distributed cognition,” or the need to get all the stuff out of our heads and into objective, reviewable formats, such as a mind map, cluster, or even a Post-It note.

“The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.” Linus Pauling

The most important thing to keep in mind is to not judge your thoughts as you have them. You are going for quantity, not quality. You might naturally analyze them, such as, “Here’s what might not work with that idea,” which is good. You’re beginning to critically think about your project. But don’t let your critical side overtake your creative side yet. Just give all your ideas a chance at this stage and analyze their usefulness later.


Now you know the why, what, and how. Once you’ve emptied all the clutter in your head, your mind will naturally begin to organize those thoughts. You’ll think in relationship to sequences and priorities. What are the essential components for the final paper? Which of the brainstorming ideas will best support my argument?

Organizing is a matter of identifying the significant pieces, then sorting by

  • Components
  • Sequences
  • Priorities

In relation to an argument paper, what are the major components needed to reach your vision? This will most likely be the major points of argument that will support your thesis or reasons why your policy proposal should be implemented.

For example, the policy proposal, increasing spending in the city budget to increase the number of bike lanes in your town will save money in the long run, will require the components of argument points, such as

  • reducing road maintenance
  • reducing traffic
  • reducing automobile accidents

Other components might include the opposition’s side, outside research, and a call to action.

The sequences are the natural progression of the paper. How should you order the ideas – which should come first, second, and last? How will you organize the paper to best present the information for a logical flow? Should you introduce the opposition for each point, or should it come after the points are fully laid out?

Finally, what are the priorities, or essential information that must be included? What must you do first to meet these objectives? For example, once you determine your topic and brainstorm ideas, you might need to gather information from research, data or statistics. Consider what is your next step, and what steps should follow, prioritizing your work into manageable steps. Every essay is different, and no two projects are the same, so for one you might need to do more initial research before you begin, and for another, you might need to write out the points of opposition first.

Identifying Next Actions

So far, you’ve considered the why, what, and how, and begun the steps to organize how you are going to approach the work, prioritizing your next steps. The final stage of planning your writing project should come easily once you’ve defined and clarified your project.

Any writing project, especially longer projects, will have lots of moving parts. For each step above, decide what the “next action” is for each moving part of the project. For example, if you know your paper’s thesis, but not quite sure on your major points of argument, your next “action” might be to brainstorm a bit more to decide on your points of argument. If the components of your essay will require quotes from experts, your next “action” will be to locate research from reliable resources. This will most likely require you to find library databases with peer-reviewed research, read lots of articles, and begin keeping notes on source information that will best support your essay.

Make A Plan!

As you can see, a lot of planning goes into a writing project before the actual writing begins. How much planning is enough? As much as you need to get the project off your mind. The reason things are on your mind and causing you worry is that the outcome and action steps have not been clearly defined, or you may not have developed the details sufficiently to trust your plan. If you are worrying about the project, you obviously need to spend more time planning.

Feeling confused or lack clarity? You need more planning in stages 1, 2 or 3. Are you getting bogged down in research? Do you need more action? Move down to steps 4 or 5. You don’t need to read every single article on your topic in EBSCO to collect 6 or 8 required sources for your project. Focus on what you need that will meet your objectives, and move out of the research phase and onto writing.

Applying project management steps in your writing will not only save you time in the end, but will also create a mental environment where worry, stress and anxiety will be reduced, allowing creative ideas to flourish, one step at a time.

Research Required

When writing a research paper, the research process can be overwhelming and time consuming. Many writers often find themselves sucked into hour after hour of futile searching. Answering a few key questions in the beginning and creating a solid research plan will help focus your mission and guide you through the process efficiently.

Understand Assignment Guidelines

Forget starting research before you know two things: one — what are your guidelines? and two — what topic will fit those guidelines and requirements?

For instance, a topic such as the benefits of smartphone use for high school students, probably isn’t going to be found in peer-reviewed journals. If incorporating peer-reviewed or academic journal sources is a requirement of your assignment, then pick a topic accordingly. How?

Many topics based in the sciences, for instance, genetically modified food, endangered species, green energy, or organ transplantation, will likely have research in peer-reviewed or academic journals, as well as books and respected websites. Some topics that are considered current event issues will often be written about only in newspapers, magazines, or online. Your instructor may have strict guidelines that prohibit the use of these types of sources. Before you get too far into the research process, make certain your topic will work for the type of research your assignment requires. If peer-reviewed or academic research is required, debating the merits of a smartphone use or the pros and cons of a college playoff system might not work.

Finding Quality Research

Think quality over quantity. If your assignment requires 8 sources, citing 16 isn’t going to double your chances of a better grade. Using too many sources often sends up a red flag that you’ve relied too heavily on source material and not your own ideas. Quality sources — books, peer-reviewed journals, scholarly articles, library databases, and some websites — are usually written and reviewed by experts in the field. Some instructors allow “.edu” or “.gov,” websites, but beware that even some “.org” websites can be misrepresentative.

Wikipedia is an often-cited source — but most likely not allowed for an academic writing assignment. Most instructors oppose its use as a source. In addition, using a dictionary or encyclopedia definition isn’t considered “research” so avoid using definitions in place of research.

The best way to locate quality research comes from other quality research. If you’ve found one good source, look at that source’s citation page at the end of the article. Who has your source referenced? These are often the best sources for your topic.

While you might not be able to use Wiki sources in your paper, it’s often not a bad starting point to find other research. Wikipedia’s reference pages are often quite long and a good place to find further research. The search “Smartphones in School” in Wikipedia had 40 reference sources at the end of the page.

Keywords are King

When searching library databases such as EBSCO or ERIC, vary your search terms. Avoid using the same keyword, for instance, simply the one or two word topic, as you’ll usually get poor results. Database searches are all about keywords, and your best results come from careful consideration of search terms.   

Searching keywords related to your topic, however, will most likely return results that are too broad — and too many. Try to focus in on the main points you want to make. Instead of “Smartphone Use in High School” try searching one main point, such as “Phone Apps used in Education.” Instead of “global warming” try “declining ice sheets” or “atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Organizing Research

As you spend time sifting through research, it’s essential to keep careful records. You’ll save valuable time if you stay organized and maintain careful records so you don’t have to go back and try to find where all your sources came from. Keep research note cards, photocopy materials, or keep a detailed research journal.

Figure 1: Simple Research Notecard

It’s easy to use index cards for research. Simply jot down the identifying information, such as the article title, author, source, URL if web-based, and don’t forget to make a note of how you plan to use it.

Final Thoughts

Start early and schedule ample time for collecting research. This is often the most time consuming part of the essay process, but it’s also the most crucial, and will set you on course for a research paper you can be proud of.  

Once you’ve selected the best source material, it’s important that you understand the research and incorporate the information effectively. Avoid simply gathering data to dump in between paragraphs. You must incorporate the research, connect it to your main points, and contextualize the information.