Writing in College

Learning Objectives

  • Describe effective methods for approaching different kinds of college writing assignments

The Importance of Writing in the Workplace

In 2010, a 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.”[1] 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. 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.”[2]

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. Even your non-English professors care about and appreciate good writing.

Understanding the Assignment

There are four kinds of analysis you need to do in order to fully understand an assignment: determining its purpose, understanding how to answer an assignment’s questions, recognizing implied questions in the assignment, and recognizing the expectations of the assignment, which vary depending on the discipline and subject matter. Always make sure you fully understand an assignment before you start writing!

Determine the Purpose

The wording of an assignment should suggest its purpose. Any of the following might be expected of you in a college writing assignment:

  • Summarizing information
  • Analyzing ideas and concepts
  • Taking a position and defending it
  • Combining ideas from several sources and creating your own original argument.

Understand How to Respond

College writing assignments will ask you to answer a how or why question – questions that can’t be answered with just facts. For example, the question “What are the names of the presidents of the US in the last twenty years?” needs only a list of facts to be answered. The question “Who was the best president of the last twenty years and why?” requires you to take a position and support that position with evidence.

Sometimes, a list of prompts may appear with an assignment. Usually, your instructor will not expect you to answer all of the questions listed. They are simply offering you some ideas so that you can think of your own questions to ask.

Recognize Implied Questions

A prompt may not include a clear ‘how’ or ‘why’ question, though one is always implied by the language of the prompt. For example:

“Discuss the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on special education programs” is asking you to write how the act has affected special education programs.

“Consider the recent rise of autism diagnoses” is asking you to write why the diagnoses of autism are on the rise.

Getting Started

Before beginning the writing process, always establish the following:

  • Is there an assigned topic or are you free to choose your own?
  • What about your subject interests you?
  • Why is your subject worth reading about?
  • Double-check that your subject is not too broad – narrow it down if necessary.
  • Determine the purpose of the work.
  • Determine the readers of the work and their level of knowledge about the topic.
  • Determine where your evidence will come from.
  • Decide what kind of evidence would best serve your argument.
  • Identify the required style (MLA, APA, etc.) of the paper.
  • Be aware of length specifications.
  • Consider if visuals might be helpful in your paper.
  • Will someone be reviewing drafts of your paper? Who?
  • Note your deadline and how much time you have for each stage of the writing process.

This Assignment Calculator can help you plan ahead for your writing assignment. Just plug in the date you plan to get started and the date it is due, and it will help break it down into manageable chunks.

Recognize Expectations

Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, different features and formats of your writing may be expected. Always look closely at key terms and vocabulary in the writing assignment, and be sure to note what type of evidence and citations style your instructor expects.

A research Tip: Avoiding Plagiarism

All college classes will expect you to do your own work. Using another person’s words, images, or other original creations without giving proper credit is called plagiarism.

Oftentimes, as we prepare to address an assignment, we look at other material to help us with our thinking. This is research, and it’s a great thing! Professors always do research! When we do research to help us clarify our thinking, however, we need to be sure to acknowledge the sources that we have consulted and the ways in which our ideas have been influenced by others.

We use different citation guides (like APA and MLA) to format citations and lists of references. Sometimes students aren’t sure how to do these references correctly, and so they leave out the citations altogether. That’s never a good idea. Even if you aren’t sure how to create a perfect citation, always include references to all the material you’ve consulted. Otherwise, you could be committing plagiarism: taking someone else’s work (words and/or ideas) and presenting it as your own—the equivalent of cheating on a test. In order to be sure you don’t accidentally leave out a source, remember to keep track of what you consult as you begin research for a project or assignment.

The Writing Process

Have you ever received a writing assignment, thought “this won’t take long” and then stayed up all night writing the night before your assignment was due because it ended up taking a lot longer than you thought it would? If you have, you’re not alone. Many beginning writers struggle to plan well when it comes to a writing assignment, and this results in writing that is just not as good as it could be. When you wait until the last minute and fail to engage in every step of the writing process, you’re not doing your best work.

Writing itself is a process through which you ask questions; create, develop, hone, and organize ideas; argue a point; search for evidence to support your ideas…and so on. The point here is that writing really involves creative and critical thinking processes. Like any creative process, it often starts in a jumble as you develop, sort, and sift through ideas. But it doesn’t need to stay in disarray. Your writing will gain direction as you start examining those ideas. It just doesn’t happen all at once. Writing is a process that happens over time. And like any process, there are certain steps or stages.

Graphic labeled "The Writing Process." From left to right, they read: Topic, Prewrite, Evidence, Organize, Draft, Revise, Proofread.

Figure 1. Writing is a recursive process, meaning that you will work through most of these steps, but not necessarily in this exact order, and revisit most of them throughout the process.

These are some of the major stages in a strong writing process:

  1. Thinking about your assignment
  2. Prewriting
  3. Gathering information and evidence
  4. Organizing and drafting
  5. Revising and editing

The writing process is not linear, but recursive, meaning you will need to move forward through some steps and then circle back to redo previous steps. In other words, while we still think of writing as a process taking place in a series of steps, we now understand that good writers tend to switch frequently among the different steps as they work. An insight gained while editing one chapter might convince the writer that an additional chapter is needed; as a result, she might start another drafting phase—or even decide to divide one chapter into two or three, and begin reorganizing and developing new drafts.

In short, while it is very useful to think of writing as a process, the process is not a clear, always-the-same series of steps. Instead, it is a sometimes messy, forward-and-backward process in which you strive for simplicity but try to appeal to your audience, create but also organize, enjoy yourself, if possible, but also follow some rules, and eventually create a finished product that works.

Writing Through Fear

Writing is an activity that can cause occasional anxiety for anyone, even professional writers. Start early and use strategies, like those mentioned below, to help you work through the anxiety.

Writing Anxiety

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.

Decorative image.

Figure 2. Don’t let fears get in the way of your writing assignment—there are tips and tools that can help!

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: 

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Link to Learning

The writing centers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Richmond, as well as the news site Inside Higher Ed, also have helpful articles on writing anxiety.