Skills to Develop
- Identify common types of writing tasks given in a college class
- Describe the purpose of writing tasks, and what an instructor might expect to see from your work
- Recognize strategies for success on particular types of writing tasks
- Define writing anxiety
Consider this: a recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 89 percent of employers say that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.” It was the single-most favored skill in this survey.
In addition, several of the other valued skills are grounded in written communication:
- “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” (81 percent)
- “The ability to analyze and solve complex problems” (75 percent)
- “The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources” (68 percent).
This emphasis on communication probably reflects the changing reality of work in the professions. Employers also reported that employees will have to “take on more responsibilities,” “use a broader set of skills,” “work harder to coordinate with other departments,” face “more complex” challenges, and mobilize “higher levels of learning and knowledge.”
If you want to be a professional who interacts frequently with others, you have to be someone who can anticipate and solve complex problems and coordinate your work with others, all of which depend on effective communication.
The pay-off from improving your writing comes much sooner than graduation. Suppose you complete about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelors’ degree, and—averaging across writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses—you produce about 2,500 words of formal writing per class. Even with that low estimate, you’ll write 100,000 words during your college career. That’s roughly equivalent to a 330-page book.
Spending a few hours sharpening your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to write. All of your professors care about good writing.
What to Do With Essay Assignments
Writing assignments can be as varied as the instructors who assign them. Some assignments are explicit about what exactly you’ll need to do, in what order, and how it will be graded. Some assignments are very open-ended, leaving you to determine the best path toward answering the project. Most fall somewhere in the middle, containing details about some aspects but leaving other assumptions unstated. It’s important to remember that your first resource for getting clarification about an assignment is your instructor—she or he will be very willing to talk out ideas with you, to be sure you’re prepared at each step to do well with the writing.
Most writing in college will be a direct response to class materials—an assigned reading, a discussion in class, an experiment in a lab. Generally speaking, these writing tasks can be divided into three broad categories.
Being asked to summarize a source is a common task in many types of writing. It can also seem like a straightforward task: simply restate, in shorter form, what the source says. A lot of advanced skills are hidden in this seemingly simple assignment, however.
An effective summary does the following:
- reflects your accurate understanding of a source’s thesis or purpose
- differentiates between major and minor ideas in a source
- demonstrates your ability to identify key phrases to quote
- demonstrates your ability to effectively paraphrase most of the source’s ideas
- captures the tone, style, and distinguishing features of a source
- does not reflect your personal opinion about the source
That last point is often the most challenging: we are opinionated creatures, by nature, and it can be very difficult to keep our opinions from creeping into a summary, which is meant to be completely neutral.
In college-level writing, assignments that are only summary are rare. That said, many types of writing tasks contain at least some element of summary, from a biology report that explains what happened during a chemical process, to an analysis essay that requires you to explain what several prominent positions about gun control are, as a component of comparing them against one another.
Many writing tasks will ask you to address a particular topic or a narrow set of topic options. Even with the topic identified, however, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what aspects of the writing will be most important when it comes to grading.
Often, the handout or other written text explaining the assignment—what professors call the assignment prompt—will explain the purpose of the assignment, the required parameters (length, number and type of sources, referencing style, etc.), and the criteria for evaluation. Sometimes, though—especially when you are new to a field—you will encounter the baffling situation in which you comprehend every single sentence in the prompt but still have absolutely no idea how to approach the assignment. No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is in order. Below are some tips:
- Focus on the verbs. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect, or the all-purpose analyze. You’re not just producing a paper as an artifact; you’re conveying, in written communication, some intellectual work you have done. So the question is, what kind of thinking are you supposed to do to deepen your learning?
- Put the assignment in context. Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences. For example, a social science professor may ask you to write about a controversial issue three times: first, arguing for one side of the debate; second, arguing for another; and finally, from a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective, incorporating text produced in the first two assignments. A sequence like that is designed to help you think through a complex issue. If the assignment isn’t part of a sequence, think about where it falls in the span of the course (early, midterm, or toward the end), and how it relates to readings and other assignments. For example, if you see that a paper comes at the end of a three-week unit on the role of the Internet in organizational behavior, then your professor likely wants you to synthesize that material in your own way.
- Try a free-write. A free-write is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time. That doesn’t sound very “free”; it actually sounds kind of coerced, right? The “free” part is what you write—it can be whatever comes to mind.Professional writers use free-writing to get started on a challenging (or distasteful) writing task or to overcome writer’s block or a powerful urge to procrastinate. The idea is that if you just make yourself write, you can’t help but produce some kind of useful nugget. Thus, even if the first eight sentences of your free write are all variations on “I don’t understand this” or “I’d really rather be doing something else,” eventually you’ll write something like “I guess the main point of this is…,” and—booyah!—you’re off and running.
- Ask for clarification. Even the most carefully crafted assignments may need some verbal clarification, especially if you’re new to a course or field. Try to convey to your instructor that you want to learn and you’re ready to work, and not just looking for advice on how to get an A.
Although the topic may be defined, you can’t just grind out four or five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis. It may seem strange, but even when you’re asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you’re still being asked to make an argument. You must shape and focus that discussion or analysis so that it supports a claim that you discovered and formulated and that all of your discussion and explanation develops and supports.
Defined-topic writing assignments are used primarily to identify your familiarity with the subject matter.
Another writing assignment you’ll potentially encounter is one in which the topic may be only broadly identified (“water conservation” in an ecology course, for instance, or “the Dust Bowl” in a U.S. History course), or even completely open (“compose an argumentative research essay on a subject of your choice”).
Where defined-topic essays demonstrate your knowledge of the content, undefined-topic assignments are used to demonstrate your skills—your ability to perform academic research, to synthesize ideas, and to apply the various stages of the writing process.
The first hurdle with this type of task is to find a focus that interests you. Don’t just pick something you feel will be “easy to write about”—that almost always turns out to be a false assumption. Instead, you’ll get the most value out of, and find it easier to work on, a topic that intrigues you personally in some way.
The same getting-started ideas described for defined-topic assignments will help with these kinds of projects, too. You can also try talking with your instructor or a writing tutor (at your college’s writing center) to help brainstorm ideas and make sure you’re on track. You want to feel confident that you’ve got a clear idea of what it means to be successful in the writing and not waste time working in a direction that won’t be fruitful.
Strategies for Writing Success
The secret to strong writing, no matter what kind of assignment you’ve been given, is to apply your personalized version of the writing process to the task. We’ll discuss the writing process in greater depth elsewhere in this course.
For now, here are some “quick-start” guides for how to approach writing with confidence.
Start with a Clear Identification of the Work
This automatically lets your readers know your intentions and that you’re covering the work of another author.
- Clearly identify (in the present tense) the background information needed for your summary: the type of work, title, author, and main point. Example: In the featured article “Five Kinds of Learning,” the author, Holland Oates, justifies his opinion on the hot topic of learning styles — and adds a few himself.
Summarize the Piece as a Whole
Omit nothing important and strive for overall coherence through appropriate transitions. Write using “summarizing language.” Your reader needs to be reminded that this is not your own work. Use phrases like the article claims, the author suggests, etc.
- Present the material in a neutral fashion. Your opinions, ideas, and interpretations should be left in your brain — don’t put them into your summary. Be conscious of choosing your words. Only include what was in the original work.
- Be concise. This is a summary — it should be much shorter than the original piece. If you’re working on an article, give yourself a target length of 1/4 the original article.
Conclude with a Final Statement
This is not a statement of your own point of view, however; it should reflect the significance of the book or article from the author’s standpoint.
- Without rewriting the article, summarize what the author wanted to get across. Be careful not to evaluate in the conclusion or insert any of your own assumptions or opinions.
Informative and Persuasive Essay Assignments
Write down topic ideas. If you have been assigned a particular topic or focus, it still might be possible to narrow it down, or personalize it to your own interests.
If you have been given an open-ended essay assignment, the topic should be something that allows you to enjoy working with the writing process. Select a topic that you’ll want to think about, read about, and write about for several weeks, without getting bored.
If you’re writing about a subject you’re not an expert on and want to make sure you are presenting the topic or information realistically, look up the information or seek out an expert to ask questions.
- Search for information online. Type your topic into a search engine and sift through the top 10 or 20 results.
- Note: Be cautious about information you retrieve online, especially if you are writing a research paper or an article that relies on factual information. Internet sources can be unreliable. Published books, or works found in a journal, have to undergo a much more thorough vetting process before they reach publication, and are therefore safer to use as sources.
- Check out a library. Yes, believe it or not, there is still information to be found in a library that hasn’t made its way to the Web. For an even greater breadth of resources, try a college or university library.
Write a Rough Draft
It doesn’t matter how many spelling errors or weak adjectives you have in it. This copy is just jotting down those random uncategorized thoughts. Write down anything you think of that you want included in your writing, and worry about organizing everything where it belongs later.
If You’re Having Trouble, Try Freewriting
Set a timer and write continuously until that time is up. You won’t have time to worry about errors and mistakes if you’re rushing to get the words out.
Edit for Your Second Draft
Review the rough draft and begin to put what you’ve written in the order you’ll want it in. Clean up misspellings, grammatical errors and weak writing such as repetitive words. Flesh out the plot and start thinking of anything you want to cut out.
- Edit ruthlessly. If it doesn’t fit in with the overall thesis, if it’s unnecessary, or if you don’t like what you’ve written, cut it out.
- Check for coherency. Do all parts of the essay make sense together? If so, continue. If not, consider revising whatever doesn’t fit in.
- Check for necessity. Do all parts of the essay contribute? Does each section give necessary background, advance the argument, address counterarguments, or show potential resolutions?
- Check for anything missing. Do the topic sub-points flow smoothly into one another, or are there some logical gaps?
Keep Rewriting until You’re Ready for a Second Opinion
This is an important step, as other people will see what you actually wrote, and not just what you think you wrote.
- Get feedback from people whose opinion you respect and trust, and who either read a lot or write themselves.
- Ask them to be honest and thorough. Only honest feedback, even if it’s a wholesale criticism of your entire story, can make you a better writer.
- If they need some guidance, give them the same questions you’ve been asking yourself.
- This is particularly critical if any aspect of your essay revolves around a technical area in which you’re not an expert. Make sure at least one of your readers is an expert in that area.
- Join a writer’s group in your area or online to share your writing, read others’ writing, and provide mutual feedback.
Evaluate the Response You Received
You don’t have to like or agree with everything that’s said to you about your work. On the other hand, if you get the same comment from more than one person, you should probably take it very seriously. Strike a balance between keeping aspects that you want and making changes based on input you trust.
- Re-read the essay with your readers’ comments in the back of your head. Note any gaps, places that need to be cut, or areas needing revision.
- Re-write using the insights gained from your readers and from your own subsequent critical reading.
Writing Through Fear
Writing is an activity that can cause occasional anxiety for anyone, even professional writers. The following essay about writing anxiety, by Hillary Wentworth, from the Walden Writing Center, offers insight about how to handle issues surrounding writer’s block.
I suppose fall is the perfect time to discuss fear. The leaves are falling, the nights are getting longer, and the kids are preparing ghoulish costumes and tricks for Halloween.
So here’s my scary story: A few weeks ago, I sat down at my computer to revise an essay draft for an upcoming deadline. This is old hat for me; it’s what I do in my personal life as a creative writer, and it’s what I do in my professional life as a Walden Writing Center instructor. As I was skimming through it, though, a feeling of dread settled in my stomach, I began to sweat, and my pulse raced. I was having full-on panic. About my writing.
This had never happened to me before. Sure, I have been disappointed in my writing, frustrated that I couldn’t get an idea perfectly on paper, but not completely fear-stricken. I Xed out of the Word document and watched Orange Is the New Black on Netflix because I couldn’t look at the essay anymore. My mind was too clouded for anything productive to happen.
The experience got me thinking about the role that fear plays in the writing process. Sometimes fear can be a great motivator. It might make us read many more articles than are truly necessary, just so we feel prepared enough to articulate a concept. It might make us stay up into the wee hours to proofread an assignment. But sometimes fear can lead to paralysis. Perhaps your anxiety doesn’t manifest itself as panic at the computer; it could be that you worry about the assignment many days—or even weeks—before it is due.
Here are some tips to help:
- Interrogate your fear. Ask yourself why you are afraid. Is it because you fear failure, success, or judgment? Has it been a while since you’ve written academically, and so this new style of writing is mysterious to you?
- Write through it. We all know the best way to work through a problem is to confront it. So sit at your desk, look at the screen, and write. You might not even write your assignment at first. Type anything—a reflection on your day, why writing gives you anxiety, your favorite foods. Sitting there and typing will help you become more comfortable with the prospect of more.
- Give it a rest. This was my approach. After realizing that I was having an adverse reaction, I called it quits for the day, which ultimately helped reset my brain.
- Find comfort in ritual and reward. Getting comfortable with writing might involve establishing a ritual (a time of day, a place, a song, a warm-up activity, or even food or drink) to get yourself into the writing zone. If you accomplish a goal or write for a set amount of time, reward yourself.
- Remember that knowledge is power. Sometimes the only way to assuage our fear is to know more. Perhaps you want to learn about the writing process to make it less intimidating. Check out the Writing Center’s website for tips and tutorials that will increase your confidence. You can also always ask your instructor questions about the assignment.
- Break it down. If you feel overwhelmed about the amount of pages or the vastness of the assignment, break it up into small chunks. For example, write one little section of the paper at a time.
- Buddy up. Maybe you just need someone with whom to share your fears—and your writing. Ask a classmate to be a study buddy or join an eCampus group.