Understanding Assignment Language

Defining different types of essays

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Narrative Essay
Summary Essay
Research Essay
Analysis Essay
Argument Essay

If you’re in a Composition or English class, chances are you’ll be assigned one or more of these essays. Do you know what each of the terms mean? What is the difference between a Summary and an Analysis? Isn’t a Research Essay essentially an Argument Essay? Let’s find out.

Narrative Essay

In most of your college writing, the writing will move from more personal to less personal – except with the Narrative assignment. For a Narrative Essay assignment, you’ll most likely be asked to tell a personal story, maybe an event from your past or a time when you learned a valuable life lesson. Narrative Essays often incorporate fictional writing techniques, such as dialogue, action, climactic scenes, vivid descriptions, and colorful language. This assignment might be the only time you’ll be invited to use the personal pronouns I, me, us, etc. This assignment is often a “warm-up” to other assignments in Composition classes.

Summary Essay

A Summary Essay is just that, a summary of something you’ve read, or perhaps watched. You will simply be expected to briefly state major points. If someone were to ask you, “What was that movie about?” we would answer with a summary of the plot. Summaries relay major details, and leave out minor, inconsequential information. When summarizing an article or chapter, a good guide is that the summary will be about one-fifth of the length of the original. To write a successful Summary, you’ll have to read, analyze, and understand the material thoroughly.

Research Essay

A Research Essay assignment can take on many forms. The assignment may be informative, meaning you will only convey information, and leave out opinion. For example, “Explain the treatment options for diabetes.” For this type of research essay, you would gather research from a variety of reliable sources and explain your findings.

Another type of Research Essay assignment might be to explore an issue, such as “Examine the pros and cons of legalizing heroin.” For this assignment, you would research both sides of the topic and lay out each side. Still another type or assignment might be a persuasive essay, such as, “Should colleges drop the grading system and only be pass or fail?” With this assignment, you would answer the question, yes or no, they should or should not. You would then collect research in support of your position, perhaps include research for the opposition, and then either concede or refute the opposition’s claims. The tone of the Research Essay is often formal.

Analysis Essay

You will be asked to analyze for just about every assignment, but the Analysis Essay specifically will ask you to critically think about any number of aspects of a given text. You could analyze the author, such as his or her fairness or accuracy. You could analyze a piece of poetry or fiction by considering the tone, word choice, or plot. If you are analyzing a persuasive essay, you could analyze the validity of the author’s research or the intended audience. Just like the Persuasive Research Essay, the Analysis Essay will ask you to critically think and form an opinion.

Argument Essay

One of the most common Composition writing assignments, the Argument Essay, is focused on a controversial issue. You will be expected to make a claim with reasons; support the claim with ideas and information to convince your audience; include evidence, such as facts, statistics, and expert opinion; and offer the opposing sides’ viewpoint, conceding or refuting their claims. You’ll often include some summary of the argument for your audience. Your job for this assignment is to argue a position to convince your audience your position is right. The content is determined by who your audience is; they may be in favor of your position, or in direct opposition. The term “Argument” essay is often used interchangeable with “Persuasive” essay. Both are a type of “Research” essay. A Policy Proposal is also a common type of Argument.

Understand Your Assignment

These are only a small sample of the types of writing assignments you might encounter in a college classroom. Others include

Cause and Effect
Compare and Contract
Concept
Descriptive
Evaluative
Profile
Policy Proposal

With any assignment, it’s essential you understand the expectations and requirements. In most cases, essays are assigned in a sequential order so that you learn the elements of the initial ones that will be included in the following ones. Summary of often included in Narrative, Analysis and Research Essays. Narrative elements are often included in Argument Essays. Critical thinking skills are crucial for all writing assignments. Consider the text, research, and your audience as you write your draft, and you’ll be on your way to a successful assignment!

 

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Final Check: Self-editing tips for your final draft

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MLA Formatting

**MLA has recently made some changes to how things are formatted and cited. Make sure you know if you are to follow the old or new edition. The following are suggestions from the old edition, as most instructors will not change over mid-term.

Include 1” margins on all sides.

Double-space all lines (no extra spaces between header and title and title and text).

Center title. Do not bold, italicize, or enlarge font.

Single space after periods or other end punctuation.

Tab all indents; spacing 5 times is not the same!

Insert a paginated right header. This means to insert your last name only, followed by a space, then the page number. Your instructor may ask that you remove this from the first page, as you’ll have your left header here.

Works Cited should be numbered consecutively after the last page of essay.

Insert 4-line left header on first page only.

Block quotes should be indented one inch with no quotation marks.

All other direct quotes should have quotation marks and in-text citation, followed by period (note: period comes after the citation).

Sources

All outside research or sources should be followed with an in-text citation, whether they are a direct quote, paraphrase, or summary.

Direct quotes should have attributive or author tags.

If a source doesn’t have an author, give the title or website.

The in-text citation should match the FIRST WORD the source is listed under on the Works Cited page.

Avoid giving dictionary definitions of a word as an “outside source.” That’s not research.

Always use italics when referring to a book or website; use quotation marks for small works (article or short story) in a larger work (book or newspaper).

Works Cited

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The title, Works Cited, should be centered at the top of the final page. Do not bold, italicize or enlarge font.

Works Cited should also be double spaced. NO EXTRA SPACES BETWEEN ENTRIES.

Works Cited should be alphabetized by author’s last name. If no author, alphabetize by the title or website. See Purdue Owl for other listings.

Each entry should have a hanging indent (the opposite of a regular line indent).

Include URL only if instructor requires it, or if the source cannot be found without it.

When using electronic sources, always include the date you accessed the source.

Other Tips

In Microsoft WORD, the default for paragraphs is set to insert an extra line space when you hit ENTER to move to a new paragraph. You must reset this to avoid triple-spacing the header, paragraphs, and Works Cited entries. To do this, go to the PARAGRAPH tab on the toolbar, clicking on the icon that has up and down arrows with five lines, just to the right of the 4 justification icons. Click the arrow on the right to open the tab, and scroll down to the bottom line that says “Add Space After Paragraph”; click this so that it says “Remove Space After Paragraph.” If you have already completed your essay and have triple spaces, highlight the entire text, follow these steps, and it should remove the extra lines.

The default font in Word is usually Calibri 11. MLA is Times New Roman 12, unless otherwise instructed. Make sure you have changed the font to follow MLA. 

This list is a very abbreviated editing checklist, and your instructor might have different directives, which we refer to as “instructor preference.” Always follow your instructor guidelines and ask for specifics if you are unsure of anything. 

This is only an abbreviated list of editing steps to take to make your essay a perfect as it can be. Hopefully, you’ve read your essay over carefully and had a peer read it as well. Don’t trust Spellcheck! Once you’ve done all you can do, turn it in and let it go. If you’ve followed your instructor’s guidelines and instruction and edited carefully, you should feel confident you’ve done your best work.

 

 

 

 

 

Brainstorm Your Way to a Great Essay

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(A version of this post originally appeared Dec. 6, 2013)

 

For many writers, beginning and experienced, simply finding a topic to write about is the most difficult part of the writing process. Utilizing some simple invention or brainstorming tools will set you on your way to uncovering an engaging topic, one audiences will be interested in reading, and you will be excited writing about for the next several weeks.  

Brainstorming

This catch-all term is thrown around quite often in the writing classroom. An instructor will ask you to spend some time “brainstorming” before you begin the writing process, but for many, this request just draws a blank. How exactly does one brainstorm?

1.  Take a piece of paper, and list numbers 1-20.
2.  To begin filling in this list, write down what interests you. If you draw a blank, consider what has been going on in your life lately – conversations you have had, or things you have read or heard on the news – and jot them down on your list.

If this seems too overwhelming, try categorizing your list into groups of 5.

Create one list of 5 labeled POLITICS (this could include current legislation that might affect you or your community; concealed weapons; mandatory military service; electoral system, etc.)

Create one list of 5 SOCIAL ISSUES (this might include healthcare, deforestation, sharing wealth, etc.)

Create one list of 5 CULTURAL ISSUES (this might include language reform, religious freedom, polygamy, etc.)

Create a list of 5 COMMUNITY ISSUES (this might include things that affect you where you work and live, such as parking, recycling, dorms on campus, A-F grade system, etc.)

Once you break it down into manageable chunks, it’s much easier to uncover some interesting and unique topics from current issues. Let’s look at our examples from above. One way to decide if a topic will make a good persuasive paper is to ask a “should” question based on the topic. Let’s look at some of the issues from our examples and put them into a “should” question:

  •   Should the government require mandatory military service?
  •   Should the government alter the tax system to force the rich to share their wealth with the poor?
  •   Should elementary schools require students to learn a second language?
  •   Should colleges and universities abolish the A-F grade scale and GPA system?

Digging Deeper: What do you already know about?

Another way to identify topics you might be interested in writing about is to consider your own knowledge and expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and many of us are knowledgeable about several things. What topics are you an authority on? Don’t sell yourself short.  A list might include:

  1.     Unique hobbies (spelunking, metal detecting, dumpster diving)
  2.     Unique skills (second language, yoga master, cartoonist)
  3.     Training or education (CPR, computer tech, sign language)
  4.     Work Experience (manager, bartender, crisis counselor)
  5.     Personal Experience (single parent, foster parent, football coach, nurse aide)

Now that you have a good list of hobbies, skills, and other knowledge and experience, consider how you can pull a topic out of those lists to compose an interesting essay. Some topics would make great informational essays, while others would make great persuasive essays.

  •   To reduce waste and our reliance on landfills, dumpster diving, or reusing or repurposing someone else’s trash, is a viable alternative.
  •   Yoga has been proven to not only improve balance, lower blood pressure, and fight disease, but can also relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  •   Training in CPR should be mandatory for all public school teachers.
  •   Bartenders should/should not be held liable for the accidental injury or death of a person by someone they served who was found to be intoxicated.
  •   Same sex couples should/should not be allowed to become foster parents.
     

Taking time in the early stages of the writing process to brainstorm will lead you to unique and engaging topics for your paper. No one wants to write another “Legalize Marijuana” or “Lower Drinking Age” essay like they did for their high school teacher, and I promise instructors don’t want to read another one either. Uncovering topics you wouldn’t normally consider or even think about will earn you the admiration of your instructor, and you’ll enjoy the research process more as well.

STUDENTS: Share your unique topic ideas with us. How did you uncover your topic?

Write on!

Quick Tips for Organizing your Research Paper

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If you’ve ever tried writing a research paper, you know that organizing the masses of information you’ve compiled can be a daunting task. If you’ve waited until the last minute to begin writing the paper (sound like you?) below are some quick tips on how you might put it all together.

Note that there is not one correct way to organize a research paper. The most important thing to consider is first your assignment guidelines. Does your instructor ask you to place your thesis at the conclusion of the introduction, or wait until you’ve set up your points of argument? Do the requirements call for a pro/con paper, a problem/solution, or another type of format? Is your audience hostile or sympathetic to your position? Although these are questions you might want to consider before you move forward, below is a basic formula for organizing the classical argument.

Title

Don’t discount the importance of a title. The title acts as an introduction to the introduction. It should reflect the content of the paper and can be a title-subtitle style, such as

Devastating Beauty: How Print Media Contributes to Negative Self Image of Teens

The title-subtitle format is effective if you want your audience to know exactly what the content of the paper will be about. In the previous example, the writer could also simply use the title Devastating Beauty, which piques the readers’ interest without giving it all away.

Introduction

The intro to your paper will offer background information about the topic, establishing common ground with the audience. Intros often contain emotional appeals to garner interest from the reader. You’ll want to introduce the problem before you state your thesis, which traditionally, comes at the end of the introduction. Hopefully you have your thesis, and it’s clear, concise, and proposes an argument.

Reason Paragraphs

Once you have your main argument or thesis claim, you must then explain the “why?” behind the argument. One easy way I teach my students to build their argument is with “because clauses.” A “because clause” answers “why?” as in the example below:

Thesis: The portrayal of young women in fashion magazines contribute to poor self-image of teens

Reason: because the images are unrealistic and unattainable.

This reason or “because” will be the basis for the first point of argument, so the next few paragraphs will contain research and support to prove this claim.

Most assignments will require at least 3 main points or reasons, but they will all follow the same pattern: expand the thesis with a reason or because clause. So a simple graphic outline of the body will look something like this:

Reason #1:   (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #1


Reason #2:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #2


Reason #3:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #3

  

Opposition: The Counter-argument

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for the claim and reasons, you’ll now introduce the antithesis or opposition. For a fair and balanced argument, you must consider what the other side believes. An audience will give more credibility to writers who offer a fair treatment of both sides, not just his or her own side. The opposition may concede a point, showing sympathy and understanding. This doesn’t weaken your argument; it actually makes it stronger if you can offer an effective rebuttal. The rebuttal is your answer to the opposition’s objections.

Opposition 1:

Some people disagree, believing that the portrayal of young women in fashion magazines actually helps improve teens’ body image (insert explanation and  information explaining this point).

Rebuttal 1:

However, recent research has shown that exposing young women to images of thin, attractive models increases body dissatisfaction and other negative feelings (Rogers).

The opposition section may counter-argue one reason, all three reasons, or the overall argument. So it might, be outlined like this:

Opposition #1
Rebuttal #1

Opposition #2
Rebuttal #2

Opposition #3
Rebuttal #3

Conclusion

Now all you have to do is bring it all home. Close the argument in a memorable and satisfying way. reinforce your thesis, offer a call to action, a warning, or a solution. This is the last opportunity to get your message to your audience, to convince them of the importance of your argument.

 

Outline

 

An informal outline of the entire process would look something like this:

Introduction (background, history, problem; conclude with thesis statement)

Reason #1 (because why?)

Reason #2 (because why?)

Reason #3 (because why?)

Opposition #1 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #1 (refute the counter)

Opposition #2 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #2 (refute the counter)

Opposition #3 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #3 (refute the counter)

Conclusion (reinforce thesis; call to action; warning)

This is only one way to organize a classical argument. Read your assignment directives and follow the guidelines carefully. Take care to develop each point fully, integrate your research carefully, and treat the opposition fairly, and you’ll find you’ll be on the way to a successful research paper.

 

Writing the Response Essay

To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
– Kenneth Burke

 

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In college, you will probably be expected to write a paper in response to another text often referred to as a Response Essay. The text could be in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, a government or business report, a book, or even visual texts, such as magazine advertisements. (For our purposes here, we will not be covering responses of literary texts.)

Instructors often assign response essays to not only encourage a deep reading of a text, but also empower students to form critical opinions of their own in response to others’ opinions. Responding to texts requires students to carefully consider how they feel about often controversial issues, perhaps issues students have never considered before. Often, the outcome for students of writing response essays can be a new understanding and appreciation – even a passion – for a topic.

How to Begin

The first step is the obvious – read the text carefully. But this step is often glossed over too rapidly. It’s not enough to read through a text once; read it enough times that you thoroughly understand the topic, the writer’s opinions, the main ideas, the minor details, and can articulate them without re-reading the text. This may take several reads before you fully understand the entirety of the text.

Annotate, Annotate, Annotate

As you read through the text, note in the margins what each paragraph is communicating. Some instructors will ask to see your annotations to make sure you’re taking notes. One way to gain a thorough understanding of the key points as you read is to note what each paragraph is saying, and what each paragraph is doing.

Annotating what the paragraph is saying is to simply summarize briefly the main idea in each paragraph. This helps you to retain the information and aids you in finding key points. Annotating what a paragraph is doing is to take note of what the author’s intention is. Does the writer argue a main point? Does the author prove his point with facts or statistics or other evidence? Does the paragraph cite background and history? Notice that when you annotate what your paragraphs “does,” you’ll use verbs to show action. This will demonstrate what rhetorical strategies the author is using to build his or her argument, and will play a key role in how you analyze the text.

Identify Major and Minor Details

Once you’ve done a thorough read-through and annotated the paragraphs, it’s a good idea to read again and highlight the details. You might use a color marker to highlight the major details of the paragraph, and then use a different color marker to highlight the minor supporting details. Although this sounds easy, this step is where students often fail. It is imperative to be able to identify the key major details that are moving the argument forward, and differentiate them from the minor details that only offer supporting evidence.

Ask Questions

Now that you have read through the text a few times, you might be thinking about some inconsistencies, contradictions, or lapses in information. This is the time to jot down questions you might have. Are you finding holes in the writer’s argument? Does the writer fail to fully communicate the full scope of the problem, or fall short of explaining other key points? Do you feel the writer is fair and unbiased, or leaning heavily toward one side without giving voice to the opposition? Does anything surprise or puzzle you?

What do YOU Think?

The objective of a Response assignment is to respond, so you’ll be asked to communicate what your opinions are. As you carefully consider your response to the text and author, think about how you feel about the text.

Do you agree or disagree?
What exactly do you agree or disagree with?
Can you recall a similar personal experience or do you have prior knowledge of the topic?
What key ideas might you want to evaluate  more closely?

Once you have a clear idea what you think about what you’ve read, now it’s time to put it all together.

Drafting: Organize your Thoughts

If you’ve followed all of these steps to prepare your response, congratulations! If you’ve taken careful notes, annotated the text thoroughly, and have an informed opinion, you may find you have the skeleton of your response paper written.


Putting it all Together

The Intro

Begin the paper by introducing the author and title of the text, as in the following example:

In Victor Frisk’s article, “No Way Out,” the author states that the US should detain all travelers coming into the country from destinations that have been proved to have Ebola cases within the last year.

This first sentence does many things: it introduces the author; introduces the article title, and gives the author’s main argument or idea.

The following sentences in the intro should briefly summarize the text. This should be a very brief summary of what you read. It’s not unusual for instructors to ask you to skip the summary, so follow your guidelines carefully.

The final sentence in the intro will state your thesis, a concise focused opinion of where you stand. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s premise?

The Body

There are several ways to organize the body of a response. Most instructors ask students to include textual evidence in the body. You might do this by inserting an author quote, contextualizing the quote, then commenting on the quote with your response. Regardless of how you organize it, the body paragraphs should contain only one idea each, and connect back to your thesis. What you include in the body will be determined by your assignment guidelines, but remember to  always relate back to the thesis as you go.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is a restatement of your thesis and how it fits with the original text’s argument. Reinforce your thesis, but avoid restating it word for word. You might leave the reader with a thoughtful comment or question to consider, or a prediction of future consequences or outcomes. Avoid inserting new information or quotes in the conclusion.

 

Response essays pose special challenges for students, but with several close readings and careful note taking, you’ll be well on your way to a successful paper.

How to Write a Thesis Statement

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Our last post at Writing Center Underground discussed how to develop a research question. The research question is more of an open-ended beginning for the research paper. Your answer to your research question is your thesis. The thesis to your paper is an assertion you make about your topic.

 

THESIS = TOPIC + SPECIFIC ASSERTION

The thesis is considered a promise you are making to the reader about the purpose and direction of your paper. Some instructors refer to the thesis as a “forecasting statement,” forecasting what will lie ahead in the paper. The thesis statement usually is placed at the end of the introductory paragraph, setting up a roadmap for the coming argument.

In the research question you hopefully already created, you posed a question you wanted to know more about, a question that, after some initial research, you came to have an informed opinion about. Your answer to that research question will lead you toward your thesis.

For instance, if you wanted to know if watching violent television programs causes violent behavior in adolescents, your answer to this question is your working thesis. We call it a “working” thesis, as it may change shape as you move further into your paper.

If you think about this question and can’t decide, or you want to present both sides or ride the fence, as they both have valid points, this is NOT a thesis statement that will work in a persuasive paper. One of the main characteristics of a thesis statement is that it must be arguable. If you make a statement that others couldn’t disagree with, then there is no other side to pose, no assertion to make, so no arguable thesis.

If you take the same research question above and give a definitive answer, for instance, watching violent TV does not cause violent behavior in adolescents, then you have a statement that an audience might disagree with. Now you’re not riding the fence, you’ve jumped on one side of the fence to argue a point – a THESIS!

Let’s take another example from last week’s research questions. You have chosen the topic of children’s programming, and pose the research question, Does watching children’s programming have a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children? After some initial research, you answer this question YES! The form of a thesis statement will be something like

Watching children’s TV programming has a positive effect on language learning in preschool-age children.

To confirm this thesis statement is arguable and well-qualified, ask yourself, could someone disagree with my assertion? For the above example, yes, some people might say that young children’s language learning might be hampered by watching TV. If you are ever in doubt about whether or not a thesis is going to work, ask yourself if someone else might disagree with you. If the answer is yes, then it’s passed the largest hurdle.

Be Specific

Vague thesis statements are one of the most common problems for beginning writers. A vague thesis statement leads to an unfocused paper, so the more specific the better. Say you want to write an argument paper on cell phone use. What about cell phone use?

Vague: All states should ban cells phone use while driving.

This thesis leaves too many unanswered questions. What kind of cell phone use? Is it okay to listen to messages? Is it okay to talk, but not text? Should all types of use be banned – texting, talking, listening? Should all drivers be banned from cell phones? All ages? What if you’re “driving” a boat or jet ski? Be Specific!

Revised: All cell phone use should be prohibited while operating a motor vehicle for all drivers under the age of 21.

The revised thesis is specific, arguable, and has research available. As you dig further into the research, you might decide to adjust the working thesis, and this is fine. This is just a starting point to focus your research and paper.

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Thesis Tips

Avoid Question Thesis – Make sure you form the thesis into a declarative statement and not a question. “Can we save the whooping crane? is a broad question that fails to express an assertion or perspective.

Focus Focus Focus – “Football should be outlawed” or “Drugs should be banned” are too broad. Both lack a specific focus. What level of football? What type of drugs? Go back to your research question and consider exactly what you want to investigate further. If you can’t answer the research question with a well-focused response, keep tweaking until you have an answer, or working thesis, that will fit the shape and scope of your assignment.

So What? – Does your thesis pass the “so what” test? – So what about banning drugs? So what about outlawing football? Consider if you are connecting your thesis to a larger issue and if you have clarified it enough so that readers will be interested and engaged in your argument.

Forecast –Your thesis should forecast what the paper will be about, without explicitly stating what it will be about. For example, “This paper will explore the extinction of prairie dogs and what we must do to stop it” is not a thesis statement, but a “signpost.” This type of statement signposts what you are writing about. Any statements of “I will do this in my paper,” or “Next I will talk about this and that” should be avoided.

Once you compose a strong working thesis, your paper will gain focus and clarity. Each paragraph will support and relate back to the thesis, which will keep the focus, flow and organization humming. Next week, we’ll discuss organizing your paper around your thesis.

 

 

 

 

Demystifying College Writing

HolmesSWriting your first college essay can feel overwhelming. Maybe English class wasn’t your strong point in high school, and now perhaps you have to get through two English Composition classes in college. You’re not familiar with the instructor’s expectations, and sweat starts to trickle from your forehead at the sight of the first writing assignment. Your classmate asks the instructor a question about the guidelines, and is told “It’s in the syllabus.” Ugh. What to do?

College writing expectations might be a little different than what you experienced in high school. What might have garnered you praise and an A+ on your high school papers might barely pass in college. Simply turning in a paper with no punctuation or grammar errors won’t impress a college instructor. They expect you to know how to write an error-free sentence. Five paragraph essays are a common assignment in high school, which is simply an essay organized with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The five paragraph essay is a great template to learn how to organize an essay, but college writing courses will expect students to write much longer papers, often with more analytical and critical thinking as well as secondary source material. Below is a partial list of college instructors’ desired student outcomes from their writing assignments (from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing). Knowing exactly what your instructor expects you to learn will help you better understand the assignments:

  • Respond to needs of different audiences (a person who is in favor of year-round school would require different reasoning than a person who is against it)
  • Respond appropriately to different rhetorical situations (analysis is different than evaluation, which is different than summary)
  • Use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation (you might introduce a thesis earlier for a literary analysis than you would for a policy proposal)
  • Adopt appropriate voice, tone, and level of formality (persuasive essays require the use of what instructors often refer to as “academic tone,” which is formal and free of slang; a narrative essay often is less formal and more conversational)
  • Write in several genres (a composition class might include assignments on narrative writing, literary analysis, personal profiles, argument, or evaluation)

As you can see, college writing instructors might have many different expectations, and learning the academic terms instructors use can be challenging. Also, be aware that most college writing instructors will expect you to write multiple drafts of a writing assignment, collaborating with peers for initial feedback towards revision. Sharing your writing with peers can be stressful if you’ve never done it. I always tell my students to avoid writing about anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their peers.

Think Creatively

Most college professors value creative, independent thinkers. Critically thinking about a topic and integrating your own ideas with those of others is not only valued, but expected. In high school you might have gotten by with regurgitating other’s ideas, but in college, you’ll be expected to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize primary and secondary source material, as well as integrate your ideas with these outside sources. Understanding not only how to find reliable sources (not from the internet), but also how to integrate your ideas with other’s is challenging for new students.

Think Outside the Box

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image from evilenglish.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a list of essay topics that all instructors keep locked in their head because even thinking about these topics makes their hair fall out. Many even include the list in their syllabus as topics NOT to write about. Even so, students still want to write about them. Why? Because they wrote about them in high school, so they think they know something about them, and it will be easy. I’ll bet you can guess what they are. A few:

  • Legalize marijuana
  • Lower drinking age
  • End childhood obesity

To instructors, these topics, and others that have been written about over and over, are stale. There is nothing new that can be said about them. When college instructors see these paper topics, they immediately assume the student is too lazy to find another, more unique and innovative topic, a topic that has personal resonance. The most creative paper I ever read was from an education major who wrote about how wall paint color in elementary classrooms can enhance student learning. She had peer-reviewed (not internet) research to back it up, and I’d never read anything like it. She was also personally invested in the topic, as she was going into education. Brilliant.

Demystifying college writing is simply a matter of understanding perhaps new and different expectations than what you’re used to. In college, it’s not unusual for instructors to have less explicitly stated guidelines than you might have had in high school, but this also gives the student writer more freedom of expression and room for critical thinking and creativity.

If you have a question about an instructor’s expectations, ask. Your peers probably have the same questions. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, visit your Writing Center for guidance. But few or broad guidelines might mean the instructor is giving you lots of room for interpretation and wants you to take advantage of the opportunity to be creative. Show them what you can do.

 

What questions or concerns do you have about your current essay? Add your questions to the Comment section below and we’ll post the Q & A at a later date.