Chapter 6: Learning & Studying

Writing Strategies

Key terms for writing assignments

Although every writing assignment in every course is unique, there are specific writing approaches that involve concrete kinds of writing that apply across all disciplines. In order to meet the requirements of each assignment, students need to understand what exactly they are being asked to do. Working alone or with your peers, define the following words commonly found in writing assignments:

  • Summarize
  • Respond
  • Define
  • Classify
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Analyze
  • Synthesize
  • Argue
Two open journals on a table
It ain’t whatcha write; it’s the way atcha write it. —Jack Kerouac, author

Why Do Writing Skills Matter?

Given the prevalence of social media posts, many students today are engaged with writing text like no other generation before, but college is a time to spend even more time and attention on writing skills. Research shows that deliberate practice with a close focus on improving one’s skills makes all the difference in how one performs. Developing the craft of writing and becoming an excellent communicator will save you a lot of time in your studies, advance your career, and promote better relationships and a higher quality of life off the job. Honing your writing is a good use of your time because it pays off academically, personally, and professionally.

Also, consider this: a recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 89 percent of employers say 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 employers cited are also 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).

Writing in College

If the average student completes about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelors’ degree and produces about 2,500 words of formal writing per class, it equates to 100,000 words during their college career. That’s roughly equivalent to a 330-page book.

Sharpening your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to write. All your professors care about good writing.

Because most professors have different expectations, it can be tricky knowing what exactly they’re looking for. Pay attention to the comments they leave on your paper, and make sure to use these as a reference for your next assignment. I try to pay attention and adapt to the professor’s style and preferences. —Aly Button, SUNY student

College writing assignments require students to apply their existing writing skills, such as paragraphing, supporting a thesis, using correct punctuation, to new intellectual challenges in new ways. Professors assign papers because they want students to think rigorously and deeply about important questions in their fields. To college instructors, writing is for working out complex ideas, not just explaining them. A paper that would earn a top score in high school might only get a C or D in a college class if it doesn’t show original and ambitious thinking.

Professors look at students as developing scholars and expect them to write as someone who has a genuine interest in tackling a complex question. They expect them to look deeply into the evidence, consider several alternative explanations, and work out an original, insightful argument that they care enough about to spend a significant amount of time and energy developing into an effective essay that meets the requirements of each unique assignment. 

Types of Assignments

Writing assignments can be as varied as the instructors who assign them. Some are explicit about what exactly you’ll need to do, in what order, and how it will be graded while some assignments are very open-ended, leaving you to determine the best path forward. Most fall somewhere in the middle, containing details about some aspects but leaving other assumptions unstated.

Most writing in college will be a direct response to class materials, such as an assigned reading, a discussion in class, or an experiment in a lab. Generally speaking, these writing tasks can be divided into the three broad categories described below.

Summary Assignments

Being asked to summarize a source is a common requirement in many types of writing assignments. At first it can seem like a straightforward task to simply restate, in shorter form, what the source says, but a lot of advanced skills are required to effectively capture what someone else has attempted to communicate.

An acceptable 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 the original source
  • remains free of 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 that should be completely neutral.

Although college-level writing assignments that are only summary are rare, most require students to summarize some important information before they move on to other tasks such as analyzing, contrasting, or persuading.

Defined-Topic Assignments

Sometimes instructors will ask you to address a particular topic or a narrow set of topic options. Often, they will give out an assignment sheet explaining the purpose, required parameters (length, number, and type of sources, referencing style), and criteria for evaluation. Even with all that information, however, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what aspects of the writing will be most important when it comes to grading.

Below are some tips that may help when you are unsure how to approach or need more clarification on a defined-topic writing assignment:

  1. Focus on what is expected. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect, or the all-purpose analyze. Remember you’re not just producing a paper as an artifact; rather, you’re conveying, in written communication, some intellectual work you have done. What kind of thinking are you supposed to do to deepen your learning in that particular discipline?
  2. Put the assignment in context. Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences or units. 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, incorporating text produced in the first two assignments to help you think through a complex issue in a more comprehensive and nuanced manner. 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.
  3. Try a free-write. A free-write is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time about whatever comes to mind. Professional writers use free-writing to get started on a challenging writing task and to overcome writer’s block or procrastination. 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 that will help move you in the right direction.
  4. Ask for clarification. Even the most carefully crafted assignments may need some verbal clarification, especially if you’re new to a course or field. When reaching out to your instructor for clarification via email or during office hours, try to convey that you want to learn and you’re ready to work. When the assignment is being discussed in class, raise your hand and ask a question. Most likely you’re not the only student in class who could use some clarification.

Although the topic may be defined, you can’t just grind out four or five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis; even when you’re being asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you’re still being asked to make an argument. You must shape and focus your discussion or analysis so that it supports a claim or thesis and all of your discussion and explanations develop and support that claim. 

Undefined-Topic Assignments

While defined-topic essays demonstrate your knowledge of the content, undefined-topic assignments are used to demonstrate skills such as your ability to perform academic research, to synthesize ideas, or to apply the various stages of the writing process.

Undefined-topic assignments you’ll potentially encounter may be only broadly identified (“water conservation” in an ecology course, for instance, or “the Dust Bowl” in a U.S. History course) or completely open (“compose an argumentative research essay on a subject of your choice”). The first hurdle with this type of task is to find a focus that interests you.

You’ll get the most value out of, and find it easier to work on, a topic that intrigues you personally in some way, so spend some time exploring potential topic ideas before settling on one. The same getting-started ideas for defined-topic assignments described above will help with these kinds of projects, too. You can also talk with your classmates, instructor, or a writing tutor to help brainstorm ideas and make sure you’re on track.

The Writing Process

The research process

Search online for videos explaining the writing process. Use one of the note-taking methods described in this chapter to capture the main points of the video. Be prepared to share what you learn from your video in small groups and then with the class. We will work as a class to create a set of steps we could use to write a research paper.

No writer, not even a professional, composes a perfect draft in the first attempt. Every writer fumbles and has to work through a series of steps to arrive at a high-quality finished project.

You may have encountered these steps as assignments in classes: draft a thesis statement; complete an outline; turn in a rough draft; participate in a peer review; revise and edit; create a final copy. Most likely in higher education, these writing process steps won’t often be completed as part of class, but you should still follow them on your own.

It helps to recognize that the steps of the writing process, aren’t rigid and prescribed. Instead, they are flexible, so you can adapt them to your own personal habits, preferences, and the topic at hand. You will probably find that your process changes, depending on the type of writing you’re doing and your comfort level with the subject matter.

Research Paper Writing Steps

  1. Come up with a topic or question. What do you want to answer with your paper?
  2. Do your research. Learn research strategies from the Getting Started with Research: Basic Information.
  3. Develop a thesis statement and outline. Come up with a “working” thesis, an argument that you might change but will help you direct your paper.
  4. Write a draft. Try setting a goal word count for each day and do your best to stick to it.
  5. Revise, edit, and proofread your paper. Read your paper out loud to yourself to catch any mistakes and see if it makes sense.

These steps are a helpful overview of what is involved in completing an essay. Keep in mind that it isn’t always a linear process, though. It’s okay to loop back to earlier steps again if needed. For instance, after completing a draft, you may realize that a significant aspect of the topic is missing, which sends you back to researching. Or the process of research may lead you to an unexpected subtopic, which shifts your focus and requires you to revise your thesis. Embrace the circular, recursive path that writing often takes because it helps you become a better thinker and communicator.

Revision and Proofreading

These last two stages of the writing process are often confused with each other, but they mean very different things and serve very different purposes.

Revision is literally “reseeing.” It asks a writer to step away from a piece of work for a significant amount of time and return later to see it with new eyes. Producing multiple drafts of an essay is important because it allows some space in between each one to let thoughts mature, connections to arise, and gaps in content or an argument to appear.

Although it’s important to leave time between drafts, it’s difficult to do given that most college students face tight time lines to get big writing projects done. One way to help that happen is to start right away, and some tricks can help you “resee” a piece of writing when you’re short on time. Reading a paper backward sentence by sentence and reading your work aloud both allow you to approach your paper from a fresh perspective. Whenever possible, though, build in at least a day or two to set a draft aside before returning to work on the final version.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is the very last step taken before turning in a project. This is the point where spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting all take center stage.

Learn these editing rules, and if you hate them, learn to love them. In college, writing stops being about “how well did you understand fill-in-the-blank” and becomes “how professionally and strongly do you argue your point.” Professionalism, I have found, is the key to the real world, and college is, in part, preparing you for it. If you do not learn how to write in a way that projects professionalism, then expect to get, at best, Cs on your papers. —Kaethe Leonard, SUNY student

It’s okay not to memorize every grammar rule, but it’s also important to know where to turn for help. Utilizing the grammar-check feature of your word processor is a good start, but it won’t solve every issue (and may even cause a few itself). Your campus tutoring or writing center is a good place to turn for support and help. They will not proofread your paper, but they will offer strategies for how to spot and correct issues that are a pattern in your writing.

Finding a trusted person to help you edit is perfectly ethical, as long as that person offers you advice and doesn’t actually do any of the writing for you. Professional writers rely on outside readers for both the revision and editing process, and it’s a good practice for you to do so as well.

Using Sources

College courses offer few opportunities for writing that won’t require using outside resources. Creative writing, applied lab, or field research classes will value what you create entirely from your own mind or from the work completed for the class. For most college writing, however, you will need to consult at least one outside source.

The following video provides a helpful overview of the ways in which sources are used most effectively and responsibly in academic writing.

Note that this video models MLA-style citations. MLA is one of several different styles you might be asked to practice within your classes. Each instructor should make it clear which of the major style will be used in their courses:

  • MLA (Modern Language Association) is generally used for courses in the Humanities
  • APA (American Psychological Association) is used for most courses in Education, Psychology, and the Sciences
  • Chicago is often used for courses in Business, History, and the Fine Arts

Regardless of the style, the same principles are true any time a source is used: give credit to the source in the paper as well as in a bibliography (or Works Cited page or References page) at the end. Each of these associations publishes handbooks and guidelines on how to effectively use their citation style, and most learning centers can provide materials and support to accurately write papers and cite sources in the conventions of all three styles.

Writing and time management

Imagine you have a ten page research paper due in three weeks. Based on what you learned in this chapter about writing research papers and what you learned previously about time management, create a schedule to complete your research paper. Consider consulting the Research Paper Calculator on the MCC Library website.

Writing Style Guides

Examining your writing assignments

  • Review the syllabi for courses you’re taking this term. Make note of the writing-based assignments you’ll be asked to complete for each course you’re taking. For each one, identify the following:
    • what kind of writing task it is (essay, journal, memo, annotated bibliography, online discussion, scientific report) and if the topic is defined or undefined
    • what the purpose of the assignment seems to be; why it is a graded requirement of the class
    • the extent to which it requires summary
    • how much of your course grade it represents
    • how much time you estimate it will take you to complete
    • how you will schedule out time for brainstorming, drafting, revising, peer review, and proofreading
  • Compare lists with a small group of your classmates. How do their lists of writing assignments compare to your own? What are some common factors across writing assignments? What are some notable differences?

  1. Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf, 9.

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