The origins of the university help explain why even skilled wordsmiths benefit from studying the assumptions and expectations behind college-level writing. College is a fundamentally different educational model; as a result the purposes and expectations for writing are different. You have learned many of the essential skills and practices of formal written communication throughout your schooling; now it’s time to take your writing a step further.
By the end of high school you probably mastered many of the key conventions of standard academic English such as paragraphing, sentence-level mechanics, and the use of thesis statements. The essay portion of the SAT measures important skills such as organizing evidence within paragraphs that relate to a clear, consistent thesis, and choosing words and sentence structures to effectively convey your meaning. These practices are foundational, and your teachers have given you a wonderful gift in helping you master them. However, college writing assignments require you to apply those skills to new intellectual challenges. Professors assign papers because they want you to think rigorously and deeply about important questions in their fields. To your instructors, writing is for working out complex ideas, not just explaining them. A paper that would earn a top score on the SAT might only get a C or D in a college class if it doesn’t show original and ambitious thinking.
Professors look at you as independent junior scholars and imagine you writing as someone who has a genuine, driving interest in tackling a complex question. They envision you approaching an assignment without a pre-existing thesis. They expect you to look deep into the evidence, consider several alternative explanations, and work out an original, insightful argument that you actually care about. This kind of scholarly approach usually entails writing a rough draft, through which you work out an ambitious thesis and the scope of your argument, 9 and then starting over with a wholly rewritten second draft containing a mostly complete argument anchored by a refined thesis. In that second round, you’ll discover holes in the argument that should be remedied, counter-arguments that should be acknowledged and addressed, and important implications that should be noted. When the paper is substantially complete, you’ll go through it again to tighten up the writing and ensure clarity.10 Writing a paper isn’t about getting the “right answer” and adhering to basic conventions; it’s about joining an academic conversation with something original to say, borne of rigorous thought.
My own experience as an instructor indicates that few students approach writing college papers in the way that professors envision. Many students first figure out what they want to say and then (and only then) write it down as clearly (and quickly) as they can. One quick round of proof-reading and they’re done. Many students have a powerful distaste for truly revising (i.e., actually rewriting) a paper because it feels like throwing away hard-won text. Consequently, when students are invited or required to revise an essay, they tend to focus on correcting mechanical errors, making a few superficial changes that do not entail any rethinking or major changes. Professors find that tendency incredibly frustrating. Some instructors craft an assignment sequence to force a true revising process; others leave it up to you. Virtually all shape their expectations for the final project around the idea that you’re writing to learn, writing to develop, writing to think—not just writing to express.
On my first college paper, I was scared. I did not know what to expect or what my professor would want. All I kept thinking about was whether or not I would get a good grade. But do not fear! At the end of the day, I talked to my professor about how I could better my writing. Professors love to be asked questions and interact with students. If you ever need help, do not hesitate to ask for advice on how you could do better.
Another major impact of this shift to a junior-scholar role is that you not only have to learn to write like a scholar, you also have to learn to write like a political scientist, a chemist, an art historian, and a statistician—sometimes all in the same semester. While most of the conventions of academic writing are common across disciplines, there is some variation. Your professors—immersed as they are in their own fields—may forget that you have such varied demands, and they may not take class time to explain the particular conventions of their field. For every new field of study, you’re like a traveler visiting a foreign culture and learning how to get along. Locals will often do you the kindness of explaining something, but you’ll have to sleuth out a lot of things on your own.