In college, almost all of your classes will contain some writing components. This is because writing demonstrates your understanding of that subject and improves your ability to clearly articulate the ideas you are learning, integrate them with your own, and communicate them to others. In addition, regardless of your major, improved and practiced writing skills are among the primary skills gained with a college degree and will be a constant in your working life.

While the specifics of writing assignments will vary depending on the academic subject and the task at hand, the following strategies will help you to approach your writing assignments in a productive way.

Know the Expectations of the Task

Read the assignment carefully. For example, a writing assignment might ask you to follow a specific essay structure. Your professor might also require particular formatting. Academic formatting is based on traditions in different disciplines. If you are to write a lab report, find out what format the professor wants you to master. If you are writing shorter answers to questions on an exam, find out how long the answers should be and make sure to write them in complete sentences.

Know Your Materials

Find out what background knowledge you are expected to bring to the assignment and what kind of research, if any, is required. If you are to reference specific materials, read and annotate them before you start writing. If research is involved, do some preliminary research. This will help you think about your topic and give you some information to start writing as well as some ideas about what you need to research next. Schedule enough time to conduct research, and bear in mind that your research will expand and deepen your knowledge of your topic–it might even cause you to change your mind!

Once you’ve found your sources and started writing, don’t fill up your paper with quotes! If a quote contains an idea that you think is important, ask yourself why. Write down your response to that question. You are starting to engage with the author of the quote by exploring your own thoughts. Make your ideas the focus of the assignment and choose only the most significant and impactful quotes to include in your paper. Use citation methods as instructed by your professor, and remember that you must cite not only direct quotes but also any ideas or information found in your sources, even if you write them in your own words.

Explore Your Ideas

Brainstorming allows you to generate ideas without judgment. Write down any idea that comes to mind, the more the better, without stopping yourself by considering impediments (avoid telling yourself, “That won’t work because…”). Other ways to see your ideas include free writing, making a T-chart for argumentative essays, clustering ideas, or creating lists. Once you have generated some ideas, consider what evidence you have to support each idea, and possibly how the ideas you have generated connect to each other. You may then want to send an email or text message to a friend that explains your idea in one sentence. Try various brainstorming techniques to find what is effective for you.

Make a Plan

Successful writing incorporates some form of organization. For essays in English class, organization might be based on a thesis statement and points of support. Some students find it helpful to begin with an outline; other students write a first draft and then make an outline before editing and rearranging their ideas in a second draft; still others start with one idea and write about that, then connect to another idea, moving freely from one idea to the next and then editing and reorganizing their writing after they’ve gotten their ideas down on the page.

Begin Writing

Often, simply starting a writing assignment is the biggest challenge. For essays and other longer writing projects, you may not know exactly what you want to say before you start writing. That’s okay. Dedicate a study segment to writing out your ideas. Some students find that writing by hand works best at this early stage, while others prefer typing. Either choice is fine. The important thing is that you set aside a segment of your study time for this work and use that full segment to write a first draft without stopping. Revising and cultivating your ideas comes easier after you have material on the page.

If you are writing short answers in class, write in complete sentences the first time around. You may not have time to rewrite your ideas into better-developed ideas. If you do have time, re-read, edit, and revise your work.

Revise Your Ideas

After you complete a first draft, the real work of writing can begin. Editing is the secret weapon. Cutting what is not needed, adding ideas and connections that are missing, rearranging words, sentences, paragraphs … revision is a learned skill that professional writers rely on to shape their work.

Whatever you write, from an important email to a long essay, from a memorandum to a lab report, after you complete a draft, set it aside for a time, and come back to it. Before editing, read aloud what you have written so far. Be honest. Where do you lose what you were trying to say? Where do your points become repetitive? Here are some things to consider as you revise your work:

  • Reread the assignment carefully, then read your draft again to make sure you have addressed everything that the assignment requires.
  • If you are writing an essay, evaluate your thesis statement and supporting ideas. Consider how you might support your argument better by providing examples or other evidence.
  • Review the structure of your work. Is your writing divided into paragraphs, each of which expresses one main idea? Do your ideas progress logically from one paragraph to the next? Do you need to add transitions to help your reader follow your train of thought?
  • Are there any paragraphs or ideas that don’t seem to fit with the rest of your draft? If you feel something you wrote is good, but not useful for the current task, start another document (“Notes”) and save those thoughts for another time.
  • If your writing uses quotes, facts, or ideas from another source, make sure that you have included citations and properly given credit to each of your sources, in the citation method required by your professor.
  • Consider how your language and tone support what you are saying. Could a better word or phrase be used?
  • If you are writing short answers, make sure your answers make sense and stay focused on the questions asked.

Evaluate Your Writing for Proper Formatting

What is the required formatting for the assignment? Leave enough time to format your paper well. Composing papers on a cell phone or other small-screened device makes it difficult to organize and format work correctly. If you write your first draft on your phone, review and revise on a computer before completing your final draft.

Print Your Work Out on Paper

Even if the final product is to be submitted online, reading a paper copy of your own work provides interaction and perspective that revising on screen cannot support. Reviewing on paper allows you to read more objectively, and you will spot more errors or opportunities to improve. Free printing is available for students at several locations on campus, including the library and the computer lab in G-600.

Proofread Your Language and Ideas

When composing your work, use your software’s grammar and spell-checking tools. Re-read your work and check for technical or grammar errors. Also, connect with a classmate (or a sympathetic friend) and read your writing aloud. Listen to your ideas and consider whether they are well supported and make sense. Ask your listener what could be improved.

Get Help with Your Writing

Make an appointment with a writing tutor at the Writing Center to read your work and offer advice. Seek advice from your instructor during office hours (see your syllabus for the course).

Turn Your Paper in On Time

Turning in a writing assignment promptly is essential to doing well in the course. Though some professors might accept papers late, with or without penalty, turning assignments in on time shows that you are able to complete work in a timely and mature manner and that you are able to handle college work. Your professor will notice this demonstration of maturity. These kinds of behaviors are remembered when students ask professors for recommendations for internships or jobs. It is also good practice for the workplace, where your employer will expect that projects will be completed on time.



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The Companion for the First Year at City Tech Copyright © by Office of First Year Programs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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