Your writing provides tangible evidence of how well you think and how well you understand concepts related to the courses you are taking. It is your chance to show what you discovered through your research and demonstrate your ability to analyze and synthesize sources into a new product that is uniquely your own. Like research, writing takes practice, and it is always a good idea to ask for help. This section will get you started by providing guidelines for effective and efficient writing.
One of the more popular ways of thinking about the writing process includes the following steps:
Freewriting. This step includes preparing to write by filling your mind (and your notebook or laptop) with information from the sources that you found through your research. It is generally considered to be the first stage of exploratory writing.
Writing or drafting. Transform your less formal exploratory writing into a draft that will eventually become your final paper.
Rewriting or revision. This step involves polishing your work until it clearly explains what you want to communicate and is ready for your audience.
Also known as prewriting or rehearsing, freewriting is a way to explore a topic. This preliminary step in the writing process involves preparing to write by filling your mind and the page or the screen with information from the sources that you found through your research. Writing expert Peter Elbow asserts that it’s impossible to write effectively if you simultaneously try to organize, check grammar and spelling, and offer intelligent thoughts to your readers.2
Elbow argues that we can free up our writing and bring more energy and voice into it by writing more like the way we speak and trying to avoid the heavy overlay of editing in our initial efforts to write. By freewriting, Elbow simply means writing without worrying about punctuation, grammar, spelling, and context. In this step you are writing without trying to organize, find exactly the right words, or think about structure. Freewriting is also a way to break the habit of trying to write and edit at the same time.
When you freewrite, you might notice that you have more ideas than can fit into one paper, which is very common. Fortunately, freewriting helps you choose, narrow, and research a topic. It helps you figure out what you really want to say as you make connections between different ideas. When you freewrite, you’ll see important issues emerge that you can use as keywords in developing your theme and thesis. Remember that keywords are synonyms, related terms, or subtopics that we use to find materials for our research papers.
Once you have completed your research and you and your librarian have exhausted the information sources and ideas, it’s time to move to the writing, or drafting, stage. It might be a good idea to begin with a thesis statement and an outline so that you can put things where they logically belong. A thesis statement is a short statement that clearly defines the purpose of the paper.
Many people find creating an outline to be a helpful exercise that creates a manageable path from your thesis to your conclusion. Once you’ve set the structure for your paper, you then support the sections with analysis and synthesis of your research findings, and you’re well on your way to a final draft. Now, with your workable outline and thesis, you can begin to pay attention to the flow of ideas from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next, including subheadings where needed. If you have chosen the thesis carefully, it will help you check to see that each sentence relates to your main idea. When you have completed this stage, you will have the first draft of your paper in hand.
Next comes the stage at which you take a good piece of writing and do your best to make it great. The essence of good writing is rewriting. You read. You correct. You add smoother transitions. You slash through wordy sentences and paragraphs, removing anything that is repetitive or adds nothing of value to your paper. You substitute stronger words for weaker ones. You double-check spelling and grammar. It also might help to share your paper with one or more of your classmates to get their feedback. You should also check to see if your college provides any writing or editing assistance. Many schools offer a writing center for their students where students can get help during any stage of the writing process: brainstorming, creating a thesis, narrowing a topic, outlining, or polishing that draft. Once you have talked with your reviewers about their suggested changes, you can either accept or reject them. At this point, you are ready to finalize your writing and “publish” (turn in) your paper.
Many students turn in poorly written papers because they skip the first step (freewriting/prewriting/rehearsing) and last step (rewriting/revision) and make do with the middle one (writing/drafting). The result is often a poorly written assignment, because the best writing is usually done over an extended period of time, not as a last-minute task.
When planning the amount of time that you’ll need to write your paper, make sure to factor in enough time for the unexpected. You’ll be glad that you left enough time for the following:
Asking your instructor for clarification on the assignment
Seeking help from a librarian or from the writing center
Narrowing or expanding your topic, which might require finding some new sources
Balancing other school work and commitments
Dealing with technology problems, knowing that a technology crisis of some degree has happened to us all
Writing for class projects might be a challenge at first. As mentioned, it is important to leave time to visit your institution’s writing center both when you are starting to work on your paper and at other times during the writing process. Professional staff and trained peer consultants who work in writing centers are available to help students express their ideas clearly through writing. You can also ask your instructor for examples of papers that have received good grades, and you might show your instructor your writing in progress and how the writing center helped you.
Before you came to college, you probably spent much more time writing informally than writing formally. Think about all the time that you’ve spent writing e-mails, Facebook and blog comments, text messages, and tweets. Now think about the time that you’ve spent writing papers for school or work. The informal style that you use in writing an e-mail or text message can become a problem when you try to write a formal research paper. It is important to be aware of when it’s OK to be sloppy or use abbreviations and when you have to be meticulous. When you write research papers in college, you should assume that your audience is composed of instructors, researchers, and other serious students, people who will make judgments about your knowledge and abilities based on your writing. It’s never OK to be sloppy or casual when writing a formal paper.
Being aware of the differences between formal writing and informal writing will help you build appropriate writing skills for college work. How would you write an e-mail to friends telling them about the volunteer work you did this past weekend? How would you write that same e-mail to a potential employer who might hire you for your first job after college? How would you write about volunteer work in a research paper?
Consider your audience when you make a public presentation of your work. Taking your work from research to writing to delivering it while standing before a group of people is a step you will likely take in your first year of college. You will likely take a course in public speaking soon, or maybe you are already taking one. You need to understand the people that you’ll be talking to. Ask yourself the following questions:
What do they already know about my topic? If you’re going to give a presentation on the health risks of fast food, you’ll want to find out how much your listeners already know about fast food so that you don’t risk boring them or wasting their time.
What do they want or need to know? If your presentation will be about fast food and health, how much interest do your listeners have in nutrition? Would they be more interested in some other aspect of college life?
Who are my listeners? What do the members of your audience have in common with you? How are they different from you?
What are their attitudes toward me, my ideas, and my topic? How are your listeners likely to feel about the ideas you are planning to present? For instance, what are their attitudes about fast food?
thesis statement A short statement that clearly defines the purpose of the paper.