Writing Assignments: Getting Started


One of the most common problems with student writing we see here in the Writing Center is actually not with the writing itself. It’s a failure to understand the assignment guidelines. Just this week, the majority of those I’ve helped have either not fully read their instructor’s assignment guidelines or simply not followed them. This is a sure way to get started on the wrong foot and waste a lot of valuable time.

What is Your Purpose?

The assignment should direct your research and set boundaries. Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we talked about beginning your research with considering what type of topic it is. Some topics are better suited to the requirement of peer-reviewed sources. If that isn’t a requirement, then you’ll have more flexibility in terms of source material. Newspapers or websites might be acceptable. You’ll only know this, however, with carefully reading your assignment guidelines.

What is the Product?

Has your instructor asked for a short opinion piece, or a longer in-depth research paper? What is the required number of pages? Are there any restrictions on the topic you can choose? Instructors often have their own list of topics that are overdone (legalize marijuana), too broad (we shouldn’t go to war abroad), too narrow (our school needs to recycle glass) or just too boring (cats make better pets than dogs).

Does your instructor ask that he/she approve the thesis statement? If this is a requirement, don’t skip it. Revising your thesis after you’ve started writing is often difficult. Do you know how your project will be assessed? Instructors often hand out rubrics, or a grade sheet, of how each section or requirement will be assessed. This is a gift. Make sure you study this carefully so there won’t be any surprises.

What is the Process?

How much time do you have to complete each step? It’s important to chart out at least a rough timeline to keep yourself on track, otherwise, it can get overwhelming and you can easily fall behind.

Do you have to turn it in after you’ve completed each step? For instance, is an outline one assignment, an annotated bibliography one assignment, and a first short draft another assignment, each related to the whole?

It’s common for instructors to ask that you write the first draft of an argument paper as an opinion piece, without the use of research. This prevents the writer from taking on the ideas and voice of outside experts that so often can happen when we read too much research in the beginning.

What Types of Sources are Expected?

Primary research involves interviewing subjects, conducting surveys, or making observations. Primary research may not be required for your argument essay, but it’s often acceptable to instructors, as they see it as the student taking initiative and showing interest in their topic.

In the past, it was common for instructors to require only print sources, such as books or academic journals. However, that’s becoming less and less important with the proliferation of credible sources now found online and especially in library databases. If you are allowed web sources, do they need to be .gov or .edu?

Other Considerations

Will you be expected to define who your audience is? For instance, is the audience in agreement with your position, or are they a hostile audience? This will determine many aspects of your paper, including the organization and the type of research you’ll include.

Are there any key words in the assignment guidelines that specifically ask you to evaluate, analyze, or compare and contrast? These key words each ask for the writer to do something different. If you are not familiar with their meaning in regards to your assignment, ask your instructor to clarify. Click this link to read more on these terms.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, understanding assignment guidelines is a key component in a successful final paper. No two assignments are alike, so don’t assume since you’ve written an argument essay in high school that an argument essay in college will require the same components. Schedule enough time in each step of the process to do a thorough job and not rush yourself. Finding credible research is time consuming and always takes longer than students often anticipate. Once you feel confident you understand the guidelines, you have overcome the first hurdle toward a successful paper.

The Research Paper: Beginning Your Search for Research

research-studies_000When assigned a research paper, many students become anxious, as they may be unfamiliar with research basics. Even though your instructor may have given you guidelines to follow, it’s daunting to know where to begin. With the tremendous amount of online resources now available, a student can get lost for days scrolling through information and get bogged down to the point of drowning in TMI: too much information!

So where to begin?

1.    First, consider your topic. Is it a current issue? Is it a more scientific topic? What field of interest is it? A current issue, say, the debate on the college bowl system, isn’t going to be found in peer-reviewed journals. A current issue will be written about in newspapers or magazines, and most likely on some websites. Your instructor may have strict guidelines that prohibit the use of these types of sources.

If you’ve picked a topic based more in the sciences, for instance, genetically modified food or organ transplantation, you’ll probably find research on these topics in peer-reviewed or academic journals, as well as books and respected websites. Current social or ethical topics, like cyberbullying or wind farms, would most likely be found in newspapers or magazines, as they are current issues, but might also be found in academic journals as well and even books.

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 BCS playoff system might not work.

2.    Think quality over quantity. If your assignment requires you to cite 8 sources, citing 16 isn’t going to double your chances of a better grade. Using too many sources may send up a red flag that you’ve relied too heavily on source material and not your own ideas. Quality sources are books, peer-reviewed journals, scholarly articles, most library databases, and some websites. I guide my students to only utilize “.edu” or “.gov,” as even some “.org” websites can be misrepresentative. Wikipedia is hit and miss. Most instructors oppose its use, though some permit limited use for only a bit of historical information. And please, oh please, avoid using a dictionary or encyclopedia definition as a source.

3.    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. Who has your source referenced? These are often the best sources for your topic. Still having a love affair with Wikipedia? You might not be able to use Wiki in your paper, but it’s often not a bad starting point to find other research that you can use. Search your topic, then scroll down to Wikipedia’s references. They are often quite long. I searched “Wind Farm” in Wikipedia and 111 sources came up. They also have a “Further Reading” list at the bottom of most pages.

4.    When searching library databases such as EBSCO or ERIC, I often see students repeatedly use the same keyword in different databases and getting the same poor result. Database searches are all about keywords, and your best results come from careful consideration of search terms. Brainstorm a list of possible keywords, either general topics or titles, even synonyms will bring up different results. You might also consult the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which contain the keywords that librarians use when they classify materials. A search of “wind farm” brought up “wind power plants,” and “wind power parks.” If in doubt, ask your librarian. That’s what they’re there for.

5.    As you spend some time sifting through research, it’s important to keep careful records. You’ll save a lot of 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.

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. You can’t write a research paper without research. It’s also important to understand the research and show that you’ve developed insights into the problem or debate. You’re not just compiling data to dump in between your own paragraphs. You must synthesize the research and link this new information to what you already know.



In the Beginning: Introductions


When beginning to compose an argument paper, you’ve probably read a wide variety of discussion on the topic, picked out several key pieces of research you want to include, have constructed at least a working thesis statement, and developed at least three solid reasons that will support the thesis. You may even have an outline. It’s time to start writing – but you’re already stuck. Overwhelmed with all the information you want to communicate, you don’t know where or how to begin.

Sound familiar?

Writing an effective introduction for a research paper is one of the most difficult tasks facing students as they begin the writing process. Introductions are more than simply a good “hook.” Before sitting down to write, it’s important to consider a few key points:

1.    What is your rhetorical purpose?

Understanding rhetorical purpose helps to clarify what exactly you want your writing to do at each stage of the paper. Consider what you want the introduction to do:

·         Do you need to grab the audience’s attention by stating startling statistics?

·         Would it be more effective to tell a narrative to create empathy?

·         Does the argument need historical information or background to inform the reader of the issue?

Below is a list of rhetorical purposes that will help you clarify what you want your introduction to accomplish (this can be done for each section or paragraph):

·         Explain

·         Inform

·         Challenge

·         Create Interest

·         Describe

·         Argue

Ask yourself, what exactly do I want or need to DO in this paragraph? Once you can answer this question, you can more easily decide how to begin.

2.    Who is your Audience?

Your instructor has given you an assignment to write a research paper, but keep in mind that even though you are writing this paper for a class assignment which your instructor will grade, your instructor alone isn’t your audience. You will most likely be writing for a general readership and academic community, unless otherwise directed. Consider this audience as you begin crafting the introduction. If you are still fuzzy on what your rhetorical purpose is, considering who your audience will be might help clarify the purpose. What do they need to know? Answering this question will help you plan your strategy.

3.    What is your focus?

Consider an email; an email has a subject line to identify what the content is for the recipient. This is a simplified way to think about the focus of your paper. Be specific. Keep asking yourself, what do I want to say about this topic? So what about your topic? So what about stem cell research or landfills or texting while driving or bio-engineered crops or fill-in-the-blank? You can’t write an introduction until you can clearly articulate your exact focus in the form of a thesis statement. The thesis serves as the guiding force of your paper, and without it, your argument – and organization – will fall apart.

Beginning the Beginning: What is the Context?

Once you have answered these questions, begin setting the context for your paper. What is the discussion or debate that this argument is a part of? What are the pros and cons of the issue? Who are the players involved? To set the context, provide general information on the issue for your reader, considering why the reader should care about this topic. Provide enough information to compel the audience to pay attention and keep reading. Make the reader care enough to act on an issue, if that is your purpose. Start broad and end narrow, meaning, offer general information about the topic, and conclude the intro with your thesis statement.

What NOT to do in an Introduction:

·         Begin with your thesis statement

·         Tell the reader what the paper will be about (In this paper I will. . .)

·         Reference a dictionary (According to Merriam Webster.com, a landfill is. . .)

 Final Thoughts

Once you have a first draft of the entire paper and are ready to begin the revision process, go back to the introduction to reconsider if you need to add or remove any information. This is just a first draft, so if it’s not communicating what you want, you can always revise it. The intro might not be exactly the way you want it, but it’s at least a starting point to get you going.

Remember that these suggestions are for argument papers. A research paper might also be an exploratory essay, which will be more an inquiry than argument, and with different rhetorical purposes. Defining your purpose, audience, and focus, then putting the argument  in context, will help you compose a successful introduction and essay.

I Cite: Basic In-Text Citations


When writing a research paper, referring to any works or references requires what is called a parenthetical citation –  parenthetical, meaning in parenthesis, and citation, meaning a word or words taken from a piece of writing. Parenthetical citations are also referred to as “in-text” citations, as they are “in the text” of a paper, as opposed to the end (referred to as a Works Cited, Reference, Bibliography or Works Consulted, depending on the style guide you are following and assignment requirements).

MLA has general guidelines for what goes in parenthetical citations:

·         Information in parenthetical citations depends on the type of source you are citing, whether it is in print form, web form, film, DVD, etc.

·         Parenthetical citations must correspond to the Works Cited page (or Reference page in APA). This means that if a work is cited in the text by an author’s name, that author’s name must appear on the Works Cited page.

In MLA, parenthetical citations usually consist of either an author-page citation, or a page number citation.

Signal Phrases

If the author’s name is mentioned in a signal phrase (also referred to as an author or attributive tag), the parenthetical citation will include only the page number:

Ex. 1

Direct Quote: Herring states, “For the first time, I began to understand the courage and absolute vulnerability it took to put words on a page” (2).

Ex. 2

Paraphrase: In her research, Herring learned how high the emotional stakes are for writers (2).

In both examples above, the author, Herring, is given in the text, so the name will not be in the citation.

If the author’s name is NOT mentioned in a signal phrase, the parenthetical citation will include the author’s last name only and page number:

Direct Quote: The author understands it takes “courage and absolute vulnerability . . . to put words on a page” (Herring 2).

Paraphrase: The emotional stakes are high for writers who compose creative texts (Herring 2).

So the rule for in-text citations is, if the author’s name is given in a signal phrase, only give the page number. If it is not given in a signal phrase, the citation must include the last name only, followed by the page number.

What does this parenthetical citation tell us? We know who the author is, and we know on what page of the book we can find this quote. It doesn’t tell us, however, if it came from a print or web source. We assume it is a book, but only because there is a page number, but this isn’t always the case. We would look alphabetically on the Works Cited page, under “H” for Herring, to learn what type of source the research originated from.

Works Cited Entry:

Herring, Laraine. The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice. Boston: Shambhala, 2010. Print.

Non-Print Web Sources

Today, web environments are often a respected source of information, and you may find some quality sources in online-only texts, though online sources must be carefully evaluated. Parenthetical citations for online sources can be tricky, but keep in mind you need basically the same information you would for a print source; however, it is rare that online sources will have page numbers. So what do you put in the parenthetical reference if the source has no page number?

·         First, include the author’s last name.


The Purdue OWL is a great online source for students (Jackson).

Works Cited:

Jackson, Tom. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The OWL at Purdue.

17 June 2012. Purdue University Writing Lab. 2 April 2014.


But what if there is no author given?

·         Include the title of the article. If the title is very long, you can shorten it.

Once the boards are cut to specifications, glue sides to roof (“How to Build”).

Works Cited

“How to Build a Better Bird House.” eHow. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2005.

What should you NOT list in a parenthetical citation if you have no page numbers?

·         Non-existent page numbers!

Never create page numbers from the browser’s print preview. Only give page numbers if the actual numbers are shown on the text. A PDF file, even though you may open it online, most likely has page numbers. Only when a source has numbered paragraphs or sections, use “par.” (or “pars.”) or “sec.” (or “secs.”) in parentheses: (Smith par. 4). Never make up page, paragraph, or section numbers.

The preferred method to cite a source with no page numbers is to include the name of the author, editor, etc., in a signal phrase. Examples below edited from Purdue Owl:

Ex. 1:

No parenthetical citation:

Garcia stated that Fitzcarraldo is “…a beautiful and terrifying critique of obsession and colonialism.”

Works Cited Entry:

Garcia, Elizabeth. “Herzog: a Life.” Online Film Critics Corner. The Film School of New Hampshire, 2 May 2002. Web. 8 Jan. 2009.

Ex. 2:

No parenthetical citation:

In his article “Allston Gothic,” local historian Forman Jackson demonstrates how completely the neighborhood’s gruesome past has been forgotten by its residents.

Works Cited Entry:

Jackson, Forman. “Allston Gothic.” American Historian. 16 Aug. 2002. Web. 4 May 2009.

In both of these examples from web sources, no page numbers existed, so the author is given in a signal phrase, so no parenthetical citation is necessary. The name of the author corresponds with the Works Cited entry. If there is no author, list by the title; the same rule applies that it must correspond with the Works Cited entry.

No Author

If you have no author or page number to list in a parenthetical reference, you can give the title of the article, as shown below. But as stated earlier, the title in a signal phrase is preferred:

Ex. 1

Big foot is believed to reside in the Pacific Northwest and Canada (“Myths and Folklore”).

Ex. 2

Cable television has become more popular than network television (“Trends in Programming”).
This is only the basic formula for parenthetical citations. For more information, visit Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab at


or Bedford St. Martin’s at









A Match Made in Heaven: Subjects and Predicates


We learned last week that failure to include a subject or verb in a sentence will cause a sentence fragment. Even when subjects and verbs are both present, you still may not have a grammatically correct sentence. Subjects and verbs must fit together grammatically. When they don’t, the sentence has a mixed structure, or faulty predication.  A mixed construction is a sentence with parts that do not logically fit together.

Faulty Predication

A predicate is the part of the sentence that makes a statement about the subject, and the main part of the predicate is the verb. Sentences must be logical, meaning the predicate must have the ability to act on the subject. Faulty predication is created when the subject can’t logically do or be whatever the verb says it’s doing or being. Consider the sentence below:


  • A quality that I admire is someone who is patient.

“Someone” is not really a “quality,” so this sentence isn’t logical. This is considered faulty predication because the subject (quality) isn’t consistent with the predicate (is someone who is patient).

  • A quality that I admire is patience.

Is patience a quality? Yes. But note that a person can be patient; a quality is patience. The only way to correct the sentence is to change the form of the word, patient.


  • The rules of the game expect all players to be in full uniform.

“Rules” can’t “expect” anything, right? Rules can require:

  • The rules of the game require that all players be in full uniform.

Trouble with Linking Verbs

Another illogical construction with faulty predication is using when, where, and because immediately after the linking verb “is.”


  • An idiom is when a word or phrase has an unpredictable meaning.

In the previous sentence, the subject, “idiom” is a noun. The sentence is illogical, because a noun must follow the linking verb “is.” When used as a linking verb, “is” must join two nouns:

  • An idiom is a word or phrase with an unpredictable meaning.

The same rule applies to “where” in the following sentence:


  • The summit is where a mountain is the highest.

Omit  “where” and follow “is” with a noun:

  • The summit is the highest point of a mountain.


  • A gulf is where a portion of ocean or sea is partially surrounded by land.
  •  A gulf is a portion of ocean or sea partially surrounded by land.

Reason. . . is Because

Using “is because” following “reason” creates a confusing structure. It’s redundant, as the meaning of “because” is “the reason that.” It’s not only illogical, but confusing:


  • The reason I like to play tennis is because it keeps me in shape.
  • I like to play tennis because it keeps me in shape.


  • The reason I went to work early was to catch up on emails.
  • I went to work early to catch up on emails.

Both of these examples are corrected by removing “the reason” and the linking verb preceding “because.”

Finding these types of sentence-level errors is tricky, and they are often overlooked in academic papers. Read sentences carefully, paying close attention to the subject and predicate of each sentence. You can also try using MS Word’s FIND tab to locate illogical constructions such as “is when,” “is where,” and “reason. . . is because.” When working to eliminate faulty predicate construction, nothing works better than a close reading.

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