Writing Tips and Resources
Check out the resources we've put together to help you throughout the writing process!
Whether you're just beginning, putting together research, or polishing your final draft, you'll find instructions, examples, and advice below:
- Understanding the Assignment
The first rule for starting an assignment: Follow these steps to make sure you understand what it is you are supposed to be doing!
- Pay attention in class when the instructor introduces the assignment.
- Take notes and ask the instructor questions if necessary. It is your responsibility to ask questions to clarify your understanding.
- Print the assignment if you wish & read it fully and carefully on your own.
- Prior to beginning the piece, reread what is expected, including additional materials, like rubrics, additional readings, and guidelines, the instructor provides.
- Most Important: Don't give up until you are sure you understand.
- Assignment Terminology
Below are some common terms used in writing assignments that can help you to further understand what and how you are expected to write.
Analyze: Analysis involves characterizing the whole, identifying the parts, and showing how the parts relate to each other to make the whole. In analysis, whole is broken down into parts, for example, a theory into its components, a process into its stages, an event into its causes.
Assess/Criticize/Evaluate: Determine the importance or value of something. Assessing requires the writer to develop clearly stated criteria of judgment and to comment on the elements that meet or fail to meet those criteria.
Classify: Sort something into main categories and thereby identifying its parts.
Compare/Contrast: Identify the important similarities and differences between two elements in order to reveal something significant about them. Emphasize similarities if the command is to compare and differences if it is to contrast.
Define/Identify: Give the special characteristics by which a concept, thing, event can be recognized, that is, what it is and what it is not. Place it in its general class and then differentiate it from other members of that class.
Describe: Give an account of and present the characteristics by which and object, action, person, or concept can be recognized or an event or process can be recognized.
Discuss/Examine: The writer is given room to analyze and/or evaluate a particular topic, deciding questions concerning the things to be discussed. The writer is expected to go beyond summary.
Explain/Justify: Make clear the reasons for or the basic principles of something; make it intelligible. Explanation may involve relating the unfamiliar to the more familiar.
Enumerate/List: Given essential points one by one in a logical order.
Illustrate: Use a concrete example to explain or clarify the essential attributes of a problem or concept.
Outline/Trace/Review/State: Organize a description under main points and subordinate points, omitting minor details and stressing the classification of the elements of the problem or the main points in the development of an event or issue.
Prove/Validate: Establish that something is true by citing factual evidence and/or giving clear logical reasons for believing in the truth of something.
To determine a topic for an upcoming project, it is important to explore as many ideas as possible. Generating ideas is called brainstorming because we want there to be a “storm in our brain.” We want to devise as many ideas as possible before choosing the one that most excites us.
Give your writing the chance it deserves by choosing a topic that both fits the assignment and genuinely appeals to you. That may take some additional time now, but it will likely save you time as you delve in to the process because you are interested in what you are doing.
Brainstorming strategies most often used, include:
- idea mapping
EXAMPLES: Let's say your instructor asked you to enumerate the steps of a process of your choosing. Here is what might result from 10 minutes of brainstorming:
How to raise a child
How a toddler thinks
How to get your husband to pick up his socks
How a marriage works
How to find a job
How office politics work
How "Game of Thrones" is produced
How to take up swordplay as a hobby
How to stay with an exercise program
How to pick and enjoy a good book
How to ridicule daytme television
How to enjoy daytime television
How Jerry Springer became a talk show host
How to choose a good daycare center
How to give your best friend a makeover
How I became a PTA president
How to give blood
How to talk to a man
How to mix a perfect margarita
How to avoid getting drunk
How I learned not to get drunk
How communism works
How democracy works
How the digestive system works
How to coach a little league team (without killing your players)
How to coach a little league team (without killing their parents)
How an animal shelter works
Mapping example: If you have a topic in mind or it has been assigned, but you don't know what to do next, an idea map can help you generate ideas and see connections among them.
If you want specific guidance on how to utilize these techniques, make a visit to the Writing Center, and one of the tutors can work with you. No matter what kind of brainstorming you’re doing, though, keep the following tips in mind:
- When you brainstorm, you turn off the "internal editor" that tells you an idea might be "stupid" or "wrong." All ideas are good when you brainstorm. An idea that may strike you as lame or ridiculous may be the very one that leads you in new direction and helps you find the perfect topic for your paper.
- Strive for speed and quantity. This is what makes brainstorming fun. You can be sloppy, you can be crazy, you can be poetic. Whatever happens is fine, as long you come up with a lot of raw material. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are unimportant when you brainstorm. Don't waste your creative energy worrying about them.
- Make connections. You can make logical connections, such as stringing together a list of all the things you do to maintain your car. Or you can make illogical connections, such as jumping from "how to change your oil" to "how change your mind" to "how to break up with your boyfriend."
- Ask yourself questions. A great way to push yourself for new ideas is to ask yourself questions. What was the last thing I read that made me really angry? What social trends do I see playing out in the halls of MATC? What do I think are the biggest problems my children will face 50 years from now? Why are textbooks so expensive? How can I keep my child healthy when I don’t have affordable health care?
It's a good idea to invest a large amount of your best energy in brainstorming. To maintain your own interest and enthusiasm, you will want to make sure you've considered a wide range of possibilities and chosen the best one for you.
Many students avoid outlining because they’re thinking to themselves, “Why waste time outlining when I could be writing?”
A good outline is a time-saving strategy. Would you get in your car on a cross-country trip without a map or GPS? Unless you didn’t care where you were going or when you got there (the equivalent of writing for no deadline and no particular assignment), you wouldn’t dream of it.
Make your outline as formal or informal as want. It’s important to realize that outlines don’t have to have Roman numerals and letters and five-space indents to work.
Because you’ve done a lot of good brainstorming, you now have a number of high-quality, ideas that you can cover in your paper. Look over the lists, maps, and notes you created and begin to categorize the ideas and information. Group them into three or four main ideas. These will be the sections of the body of your paper.
Here are some techniques to outline:
1. Widening/Tightening Circle Pattern – start with a large concept and narrow down or vice versa. For example, if you are writing on “the effects of mental illness,” your developing concepts may include:
2. Chronological Pattern – helps you to complete a certain set of tasks or explain events in relation to time.
Example 1: How to complete X:
- First you must…
Example 2: Attitudes about Y in:
- teenage years
3. Topical or Categorical pattern – focuses your structure on different aspects or elements of a larger topic
For example: Explaining the concept of courage
- physical courage
- intellectual courage
- moral courage
- emotional courage
Remember that these patterns are merely suggestions to get you thinking in the right direction. Your assignment may have organizational parameters that you must follow. Keep the assignment close as you outline to ensure that you’re following your professor’s guidelines.
- Developing a Working Thesis
There's nothing more frustrating than spending a lot of time and effort to plan, draft, and revise a piece of writing, only to have someone (usually your professor) pose this question in the margin comments: “So, what’s your point?”
One of the best ways to avoid this feedback is to build thesis development into your writing process. But when to do it? And how? And what exactly constitutes a good thesis, anyway?
A good thesis...
...is a statement of the unifying main idea, the argument, the point of your piece of writing. It's not a statement of your topic, but a statement of what your paper says is significant about your topic.
...is clear, precisely worded, and may even be ambitious, but that takes time. As you read more, write more, and think more, it is likely that your ideas and perspectives will evolve. Therefore, the thesis will evolve, as well, hence the term “working” thesis.
...takes practice, time, and feedback, so be patient and open-minded
...can be written at varying points of the writing process. It really depends on you!
Some writers create the working thesis before they even create an outline. This gives them a "goal" that in theory can help shape the structure of the body of the paper.
For example, if a writer knows she's going to argue that children's programming is having a negative effect on the manners of American preschoolers, she already has some pretty good clues about what major topics she'll have to discuss and what order they'll need to follow.
Other writers don't try to figure out a thesis until they've done some writing first. This is especially true for researchers who aren't sure what conclusions their research will lead them to.
Let's say our writer from the example above doesn't know where her research will lead her. There are many factors that might contribute to the disrespectfulness of preschoolers. She researches, writes, and explores. It may not be until she completes a first draft that she finally concludes that the commonly-held notion that children are ruder than they used to be is in fact a misperception unsubstantiated by evidence.
The important thing to remember is that most writing required for college and beyond must include a unifying main idea.
Here's what some other writing center sites have to say about thesis statements:
- Proofreading and Revising
Proofreading is so much more than spell check. Spell check cannot and does not catch all your mistakes. Never turn in a piece of writing without having read it over—and not just on the computer screen.
Print it out. Read it carefully. Now do it again.
Give your writing the chance it deserves, because if you make stupid mistakes, it reflects poorly on you even if the writing and ideas are high quality.
The most important thing to remember about effective proofreading is that you will have to fight the natural tendency to read what you meant to say, not what's actually written on the page.
These 3 strategies will help you look at your writing out of context:
- Read each sentence aloud...slowly.
- Read from the end, starting at the last sentence and working forward.
- Ask someone else to look over it. (Note: this should supplement your own proofread, not replace it)
Revising or what some may describe as "Re-Seeing” is probably one of the most misunderstood steps in the writing process. To truly understand the point of revision, take a look at the roots of the word—“re-” and “vision.” Revising requires that you “see again” the draft you’ve just written.
Most students know they should make changes to a first draft, but many get stuck fixing sentence-level errors rather than making the big, transformative cuts and switches that allow a draft to begin to take mature shape.
In fact, to effectively revise:
- Give yourself some time away from a draft so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
- A break of a few days is ideal, but even a few hours away from a draft can help.
- When returning to your draft, make the effort to look at your draft from a reader’s perspective rather than simply rereading it from the writer’s perspective.
- Research Writing Tips
Working with Sources
Much of college-level writing involves “source-based” writing, incorporating the words and ideas of other into you own words and ideas. Effective use of sources is about much more than "dropping in" the occasional quote or statistic. It's also much more than relying on the intellectual work of others to carry your writing--the post-secondary version of copying out of the encyclopedia.
Journalists and academics call research "digging," and it's an apt analogy. True research is…
- hard work,
- can be tedious; and
- involves trial and error. You may have to "dig up" some junk before you can find (or recognize) exactly what you are looking for.
To effectively work with sources, you as a writer will:
- Read/view/listen to our sources material carefully and critically
- Test your understanding by sketching out a summary of what you've read.
- Write questions that occurred to you.
- Do further research to look for the answers to those questions.
- Search out different viewpoints.
Synthesize different views and voices
To synthesize is to make a coherent whole out of many separate and sometimes ill-fitting pieces. It is your job as the writer to sort out and make sense of the various ideas, statistics, quotations, and data you found in your research. This is the step where you begin to "digest" the information you've consumed, turning it into the knowledge that will inform your own writing.
To completely incorporate source material into your own writing means balancing our voice as the author with the voices of the authors you're quoting. Don't let others argue for you, but do not be afraid to use the authority of others to support your points.
There are many ways to integrate quotations into a sentence or passage. By avoiding an endless repetition of "he says,...the author says...Smith says," you also provide yourself an opportunity to include your own voice. Your final choice shold depend on how you want the quotation emphasized and how you want it liked to the rest of your writing, as well as upon stylistic considerations. Some of the possibilities are as follows. Note the punctuation in each case:
- John Smith argues, "the issue isn't as simple..."
- Smith warns that "the issue isn't as simple..."
- Smith describes the problem differently, though: "the issue isn't as simple..."
Always provide a "lead in" (called a signal phrase) for your quotation. BUT, try to avoid expressions such as: "I quote" "as we see in the following statement," and "the quotation just given." These expressions are awkward and distracting. Make the quotation fit into your presentation, not the other way around.
Long and Shortened Quotes
There are no rules as to the length of quotations, but various documentation styles treat long quotations in different ways. Most styles require long passages to be formatted as block quotes. See Purdue's OWL for block quote guidelines in various styles. APA block quotes. MLA block quotes.
When you use only part of a quotation, indicate the missing material with ellipses (three dots). Use ellipses when you eliminate material from the middle of a section (or sentence). The following example shows MLA style documentation:
· Bork claims, "the movies feature sex, violence, and vile language...car chases ending in flaming crashes, the machine gunning of masses of people...these are now standard fare" (290).
- Helpful Links
Along with advice we included on the writing process, we have added some ready resources that will help with various writing assignments.
- (OWL) Purdue University's Online Writing Lab is an excellent wide-ranging resource to address many writing issues
- APA Documentation
- MLA Documentation
- Grammar Exercises (from Purdue's OWL)
- Grammar Bytes
- Writing Introductions (from UNC-Chapel Hill's Writing Center)
- Writing Conclusions (from UNC-Chapel Hill's Writing Center)
- Preventing Plagiarism