Academic writing refers to writing produced in a college environment. Often this is writing that responds to other writing—to the ideas or controversies that you’ll read about. While this definition sounds simple, academic writing may be very different from other types of writing you have done in the past. Often college students begin to understand what academic writing really means only after they receive negative feedback on their work. To become a strong writer in college, you need to achieve a clear sense of two things:
- The academic environment
- The kinds of writing you’ll be doing in that environment
Differences Between High School and College Writing
Students who struggle with writing in college often conclude that their high school teachers were too easy or that their college instructors are too hard. In most cases, neither explanation is fully accurate or fair. A student having difficulty with college writing usually just hasn’t yet made the transition from high school writing to college writing. That shouldn’t be surprising, for many beginning college students do not even know that there is a transition to be made.
In high school, most students think of writing as the subject of English classes. Few teachers in other courses give much feedback on student writing; many do not even assign writing. This says more about high school than about the quality of teachers or about writing itself. High school teachers typically teach five courses a day and often more than 150 students. Those students often have a very wide range of backgrounds and skill levels.
Thus many high school English instructors focus on specific, limited goals. For example, they may teach the “five paragraph essay” as the right way to organize a paper because they want to give every student some idea of an essay’s basic structure. They may give assignments on stories and poems because their own college background involved literature and literary analysis. In classes other than English, many high school teachers must focus on an established body of information and may judge students using tests that measure only how much of this information they acquire. Often writing itself is not directly addressed in such classes.
This does not mean that students don’t learn a great deal in high school, but it’s easy to see why some students think that writing is important only in English classes. Many students also believe an academic essay must be five paragraphs long or that “school writing” is usually literary analysis.
Think about how college differs from high school. In many colleges, the instructors teach fewer classes and have fewer students. In addition, while college students have highly diverse backgrounds, the skills of college students are less variable than in an average high school class. In addition, college instructors are specialists in the fields they teach, as you recall from Chapter 7 “Interacting with Instructors and Classes”. College instructors may design their courses in unique ways, and they may teach about specialized subjects. For all of these reasons, college instructors are much more likely than high school teachers to
- assign writing,
- respond in detail to student writing,
- ask questions that cannot be dealt with easily in a fixed form like a five-paragraph essay.
Your transition to college writing could be even more dramatic. The kind of writing you have done in the past may not translate at all into the kind of writing required in college. For example, you may at first struggle with having to write about very different kinds of topics, using different approaches. You may have learned only one kind of writing genre (a kind of approach or organization) and now find you need to master other types of writing as well.
What Kinds of Papers Are Commonly Assigned In College Classes?
Think about the topic “gender roles”—referring to expectations about differences in how men and women act. You might study gender roles in an anthropology class, a film class, or a psychology class. The topic itself may overlap from one class to another, but you would not write about this subject in the same way in these different classes. For example, in an anthropology class, you might be asked to describe how men and women of a particular culture divide important duties. In a film class, you may be asked to analyze how a scene portrays gender roles enacted by the film’s characters. In a psychology course, you might be asked to summarize the results of an experiment involving gender roles or compare and contrast the findings of two related research projects.
It would be simplistic to say that there are three, or four, or ten, or any number of types of academic writing that have unique characteristics, shapes, and styles. Every assignment in every course is unique in some ways, so don’t think of writing as a fixed form you need to learn. On the other hand, there are certain writing approachesthat do involve different kinds of writing. An approach is the way you go about meeting the writing goals for the assignment. The approach is usually signaled by the words instructors use in their assignments.
When you first get a writing assignment, pay attention first to keywords for how to approach the writing. These will also suggest how you may structure and develop your paper. Look for terms like these in the assignment:
- Summarize. To restate in your own words the main point or points of another’s work.
- Define. To describe, explore, or characterize a keyword, idea, or phenomenon.
- Classify. To group individual items by their shared characteristics, separate from other groups of items.
- Compare/contrast. To explore significant likenesses and differences between two or more subjects.
- Analyze. To break something, a phenomenon, or an idea into its parts and explain how those parts fit or work together.
- Argue. To state a claim and support it with reasons and evidence.
- Synthesize. To pull together varied pieces or ideas from two or more sources.
Note how this list is similar to the words used in examination questions that involve writing. (See Table 6.1 “Words to Watch for in Essay Questions” in Chapter 6 “Preparing for and Taking Tests”, Section 6.4 “The Secrets of the Q and A’s”.) This overlap is not a coincidence—essay exams are an abbreviated form of academic writing such as a class paper.
Sometimes the keywords listed don’t actually appear in the written assignment, but they are usually implied by the questions given in the assignment. “What,” “why,” and “how” are common question words that require a certain kind of response. Look back at the keywords listed and think about which approaches relate to “what,” “why,” and “how” questions.
- “What” questions usually prompt the writing of summaries, definitions, classifications, and sometimes compare-and-contrast essays. For example, “What does Jones see as the main elements of Huey Long’s populist appeal?” or “What happened when you heated the chemical solution?”
- “Why” and “how” questions typically prompt analysis, argument, and synthesis essays. For example, “Why did Huey Long’s brand of populism gain force so quickly?” or “Why did the solution respond the way it did to heat?”
Successful academic writing starts with recognizing what the instructor is requesting, or what you are required to do. So pay close attention to the assignment. Sometimes the essential information about an assignment is conveyed through class discussions, however, so be sure to listen for the keywords that will help you understand what the instructor expects. If you feel the assignment does not give you a sense of direction, seek clarification. Ask questions that will lead to helpful answers. For example, here’s a short and very vague assignment:
Discuss the perspectives on religion of Rousseau, Bentham, and Marx. Papers should be four to five pages in length.
Faced with an assignment like this, you could ask about the scope (or focus) of the assignment:
- Which of the assigned readings should I concentrate on?
- Should I read other works by these authors that haven’t been assigned in class?
- Should I do research to see what scholars think about the way these philosophers view religion?
- Do you want me to pay equal attention to each of the three philosophers?
You can also ask about the approach the instructor would like you to take. You can use the keywords the instructor may not have used in the assignment:
- Should I just summarize the positions of these three thinkers, or should I compare and contrast their views?
- Do you want me to argue a specific point about the way these philosophers approach religion?
- Would it be OK if I classified the ways these philosophers think about religion?
Never just complain about a vague assignment. It is fine to ask questions like these. Such questions will likely engage your instructor in a productive discussion with you.
What Do Instructors Really Want?
Some instructors may say they have no particular expectations for student papers. This is partly true. College instructors do not usually have one right answer in mind or one right approach to take when they assign a paper topic. They expect you to engage in critical thinking and decide for yourself what you are saying and how to say it. But in other ways college instructors do have expectations, and it is important to understand them. Some expectations involve mastering the material or demonstrating critical thinking. Other expectations involve specific writing skills. Most college instructors expect certain characteristics in student writing.
Address the Terms of the Assignment
Again, pay particular attention to words in the assignment that signal a preferred approach. If the instructor asks you to “argue” a point, be sure to make a statement that actually expresses your idea about the topic. Then follow that statement with your reasons and evidence in support of the statement. Look for any signals that will help you focus or limit your approach. Since no paper can cover everything about a complex topic, what is it that your instructor wants you to cover? Finally, pay attention to the little things. For example, if the assignment specifies “5 to 6 pages in length,” write a five- to six-page paper. Don’t try to stretch a short paper longer by enlarging the font (12 points is standard) or making your margins bigger than the normal one inch (or as specified by the instructor). If the assignment is due at the beginning of class on Monday, have it ready then or before. Do not assume you can negotiate a revised due date.
In Your Introduction, Define Your Topic and Establish Your Approach or Sense Of Purpose
Think of your introduction as an extension of your title. Instructors (like all readers) appreciate feeling oriented by a clear opening. They appreciate knowing that you have a purpose for your topic—that you have a reason for writing the paper. If they feel they’ve just been dropped into the middle of a paper, they may miss important ideas. They may not make connections you want them to make.
Build From a Thesis or a Clearly Stated Sense of Purpose
Many college assignments require you to make some form of an argument. To do that, you generally start with a statement that needs to be supported and build from there. Your thesis is that statement; it is a guiding assertion for the paper. Be clear in your own mind of the difference between your topic and your thesis. The topic is what your paper is about; the thesis is what you argue about the topic. Some assignments do not require an explicit argument and thesis, but even then you should make clear at the beginning your main emphasis, your purpose, or your most important idea.
Develop Ideas Patiently
You might, like many students, worry about boring your reader with too much detail or information. But college instructors will not be bored by carefully explained ideas, well-selected examples, and relevant details. College instructors, after all, are professionally devoted to their subjects. If your sociology instructor asks you to write about youth crime in rural areas, you can be sure he or she is interested in that subject. In some respects, how you develop your paper is the most crucial part of the assignment. You’ll win the day with detailed explanations and well-presented evidence—not big generalizations. For example, anyone can write something broad (and bland) like “The constitutional separation of church and state is a good thing for America”—but what do youreally mean by that? Specifically? Are you talking about banning “Christmas trees” from government property—or calling them “holiday trees” instead? Are you arguing for eliminating the tax-free status of religious organizations? Are you saying that American laws should never be based on moral values? The more you really dig into your topic—the more time you spend thinking about the specifics of what you really want to argue and developing specific examples and reasons for your argument—the more developed your paper will be. It will also be much more interesting to your instructor as the reader. Remember, those grand generalizations we all like to make (“America is the land of the free”) actually don’t mean much at all until we develop the idea in specifics. (Free to do what? No laws? No restrictions like speed limits? Freedom not to pay any taxes? Free food for all? What do you really mean when you say American is the land of the “free”?)
Build Clear Transitions at the Beginning of Every Paragraph to Link From One Idea to Another
A good paper is more than a list of good ideas. It should also show how the ideas fit together. As you write the first sentence of any paragraph, have a clear sense of what the prior paragraph was about. Think of the first sentence in any paragraph as a kind of bridge for the reader from what came before.
Document Your Sources Appropriately
If your paper involves research of any kind, indicate clearly the use you make of outside sources. If you have used those sources well, there is no reason to hide them. Careful research and the thoughtful application of the ideas and evidence of others is part of what college instructors value. (We address specifics about documentation later on.)
Carefully Edit Your Paper
College instructors assume you will take the time to edit and proofread your essay. A misspelled word or an incomplete sentence may signal a lack of concern on your part. It may not seem fair to make a harsh judgment about your seriousness based on little errors, but in all writing, impressions count. Since it is often hard to find small errors in our own writing, always print out a draft well before you need to turn it in. Ask a classmate or a friend to review it and mark any word or sentence that seems “off” in any way. Although you should certainly use a spell-checker, don’t assume it can catch everything. A spell-checker cannot tell if you have the right word. For example, these words are commonly misused or mixed up:
- there, their, they’re
- its, it’s
- effect, affect
- complement, compliment
Your spell-checker can’t help with these. You also can’t trust what a “grammar checker” (like the one built into the Microsoft Word spell-checker) tells you—computers are still a long way from being able to fix your writing for you!
PLAGIARISM: How to Avoid It
The following is a video about plagiarism. If the video does not show up below you can view it on YouTube by clicking this link.