College Writing


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define academic writing.
  • Identify different types of papers that are commonly assigned.
  • Describe what instructors expect from student writing.

Academic writing refers to writing produced in a college environment. Often this is writing that responds to other writing, the ideas or controversies you read about. To become a strong writer in college, you need to have a clear sense of the kinds of writing you’ll be doing.

What Kinds of Papers Are Commonly Assigned in College Classes?

Think about the topic “gender roles”, which refers 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 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.

Every writing 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 approaches that do involve different kinds of writing. The approach is usually signaled by the words instructors use in their assignments.

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.

Woman with laptop and table covered in paper and booksSometimes 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, “How 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 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 okay if I classified the ways these philosophers think about religion?

Key Takeaways

  • Writing is crucial to college success because it is the single most important means of evaluation.
  • Writers in college must pay close attention to the terms of an assignment.
  • If an assignment is not clear, seek clarification from the instructor.


1. What kind(s) of writing have you practiced most in your recent past?



2. Describe academic writing. Give an example of an academic writing assignment.



3. Explain how the word “what” asks for a different kind of paper than the word “why.”