Writing is essential to success in college and in virtually all careers. Some people choose to go into careers that involve writing long documents every day, but all of us need to write effectively when we apply to jobs, report our productivity, and seek advancement. The types of writing tasks vary from class to class and from career to career, but there are essential writing skills that are expected across the board.

If you find that a scary thought, take heart! By paying attention to your writing and learning and practicing basic skills, even those who never thought of themselves as good writers can succeed in college writing. As with other college skills, getting off to a good start is mostly a matter of being motivated and developing a confident attitude that you can do it.

Most college students take a writing course their first year, often in the first term. Even if you are not required to take such a class, there are aspects of college writing that differ from other writing tasks that you might have experience with. This short chapter cannot cover even a small amount of what you will learn in a full writing course. Our goal here is to introduce some important writing principles, if you are not yet familiar with them, or to remind you of things you may have already learned in a writing course. As with all advice, always pay the most attention to what your instructor says—the terms of a specific assignment may overrule a tip given here!

What is “College Writing?”

Academic writing refers to writing produced in a college environment. The most notable aspect of college writing is that it typically involves responding to other writing through quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing, analyzing, or arguing.

Differences between High School and College Writing

College students who encounter difficulty with writing often fall back on two oversimplifications.

  • Their high school teachers taught them wrong.
  • Their college teachers are too focused on little things.

While these are typically not true, these feelings are too widespread to simply ignore. High school writing differs from college writing so some strategies that worked well in high school will not work in college. Also, writing is a key professional skill so even in classes that are not “writing classes,” the professors are often providing feedback on mechanics or citation because these are important in the profession.

Many high school English instructors focus on specific, limited goals. For example, they may teach the “five paragraph essay” as the right way to organize a paper because they want to give every student some idea of an essay’s basic structure. They may give assignments on stories and poems because their own college background involved literature and literary analysis. In classes other than English, many high school teachers must focus on testing an established body of information and assess that learning through multiple choice, short answer, or other similar means. It is easy to see why some students think that writing is important only in English classes. Many students also believe an academic essay must be five paragraphs long or that “school writing” is usually literary analysis.

College instructors are specialists in the fields they teach and (especially in higher level courses), they are expecting at least some of the students will go on to become experts. These courses are designed to test students’ ability to think critically about the information, seek out information on their own, and engage with complex questions. For all of these reasons, college instructors are much more likely than high school teachers to assign writing, respond in detail to student writing, and ask questions that cannot be dealt with easily in a fixed form like a five-paragraph essay.

Your transition to college writing could be even more dramatic. The kind of writing you have done in the past may not translate at all into the kind of writing required in college. For example, you may at first struggle with having to write about very different kinds of topics, using different approaches. You may have learned only one kind of writing genre (a kind of approach or organization) and now find you need to master other types of writing as well.

What Kinds of Papers Are Commonly Assigned in College Classes?

There are hundreds of different “types” of papers all governed by the norms of a field, of an institution, or an individual instructor. Some professors talk about “research paper,” “analysis papers,” “term papers,” and other types with the expectation that the students already know what they mean. The easiest way to think about how to write for a course is to think about what you read for that course.

Think about the topic “gender roles” (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 film’s 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.

It would be simplistic to say that there are three, or four, or ten, or any number of types of academic writing that have unique characteristics, shapes, and styles. Every 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. An approach is the way you go about meeting the writing goals for the assignment. The approach is usually signaled by the words instructors use in their assignments.

As soon as you receive a writing assignment, pay attention first to keywords for how to approach the writing. These will also suggest how you may structure and develop your paper.

Reading assignment prompts

Sometimes 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, “Why 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 the instructor is requesting, or 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 OK if I classified the ways these philosophers think about religion?

Never just complain about a vague assignment. It is fine to ask questions like these. Such questions will likely engage your instructor in a productive discussion with you.

Expectations and Norms for College Writing

Some instructors may say they have no particular expectations for student papers. This is partly true. College instructors do not usually have one right answer in mind or one right approach to take when they assign a paper topic. They expect you to engage in critical thinking and decide for yourself what you are saying and how to say it. But in other ways college instructors do have expectations, and it is important to understand them. Some expectations involve mastering the material or demonstrating critical thinking. Other expectations involve specific writing skills. Most college instructors expect certain characteristics in student writing. Here are general principles you should follow when writing essays or student “papers.” (Some may not be appropriate for specific formats such as lab reports.)

Title the paper to identify your topic.

This may sound obvious, but it needs to be said. Some students think of a paper as an exercise and write something like “Assignment 2: History 101” on the title page. Such a title gives no idea about how you are approaching the assignment or your topic. Your title should prepare your reader for what your paper is about or what you will argue. (With essays, always consider your reader as an educated adult interested in your topic. An essay is not a letter written to your instructor.) Compare the following:

  • Incorrect: Assignment 2: History 101
  • Correct: Why the New World Was Not “New”

It is obvious which of these two titles begins to prepare your reader for the paper itself. Similarly, don’t make your title the same as the title of a work you are writing about. Instead, be sure your title signals an aspect of the work you are focusing on:

  • Incorrect: Catcher in the Rye
  • Correct: Family Relationships in Catcher in the Rye

Address the terms of the assignment.

Again, pay particular attention to words in the assignment that signal a preferred approach. If the instructor asks you to “argue” a point, be sure to make a statement that expresses your idea about the topic. Then follow that statement with your reasons and evidence in support of the statement. Look for any signals that will help you focus or limit your approach. Since no paper can cover everything about a complex topic, what is it that your instructor wants you to cover?

Pay attention to the little things.

For example, if the assignment specifies “5 to 6 pages in length,” write a five- to six-page paper. Don’t try to stretch a short paper longer by enlarging the font (12 points is standard) or making your margins bigger than the normal one inch (or as specified by the instructor). If the assignment is due at the beginning of class on Monday, have it ready then or before. Do not assume you can negotiate a revised due date.

The Writing Process

Writing instructors distinguish between process and product. The expectations described here all involve the “product” you turn in on the due date. Although you should keep in mind what your product will look like, writing is more involved with how you get to that goal. “Process” concerns how you work to actually write a paper. What do you actually do to get started? How do you organize your ideas? Why do you make changes along the way as you write? Thinking of writing as a process is important because writing is actually a complex activity. Even professional writers rarely sit down at a keyboard and write out an article beginning to end without stopping along the way to revise portions they have drafted, to move ideas around, or to revise their opening and thesis. Professionals and students alike often say they only realized what they wanted to say after they started to write. This is why many instructors see writing as a way to learn. Many writing instructors ask you to submit a draft for review before submitting a final paper. To roughly paraphrase a famous poem, you learn by doing what you have to do.

How Can I Make the Process Work for Me?

No single set of steps automatically works best for everyone when writing a paper, but writers have found a number of steps helpful. Your job is to try out ways that your instructor suggests and discover what works for you. As you’ll see in the following list, the process starts before you write a word. Generally there are three stages in the writing process:

  • Preparing before drafting (thinking, brainstorming, planning, reading, researching, outlining, sketching, etc.)—sometimes called “prewriting” (although you are usually still writing something at this stage, even if only jotting notes)
  • Writing the draft
  • Revising and editing

Involved in these three stages are a number of separate tasks—and that’s where you need to figure out what works best for you.

Because writing is hard, procrastination is easy. Don’t let yourself put off the task. Use the time management strategies described in Chapter 2 “Staying Motivated, Organized, and On Track”. One good approach is to schedule shorter time periods over a series of days—rather than trying to sit down for one long period to accomplish a lot. (Even professional writers can write only so much at a time.) Try the following strategies to get started:

  • Discuss what you read, see, and hear. Talking with others about your ideas is a good way to begin to achieve clarity. Listening to others helps you understand what points need special attention. Discussion also helps writers realize that their own ideas are often best presented in relation to the ideas of others.
  • Brainstorm. Jot down your thoughts as they come to mind. Just write away, not worrying at first about how those ideas fit together. (This is often called “free writing.”) Once you’ve written a number of notes or short blocks of sentences, pause and read them over. Take note of anything that stands out as particularly important to you. Also consider how parts of your scattered notes might eventually fit together or how they might end up in a sequence in the paper you’ll get to later on.
  • Keep a journal in which you respond to your assigned readings. Set aside twenty minutes or so three times a week to summarize important texts. Go beyond just summarizing: talk back about what you have been reading or apply the reading to your own experience. See Chapter 5 “Reading to Learn” for more tips on taking notes about your readings.
  • Ask and respond in writing to “what,” “why,” and “how” questions. Good questions prompt productive writing sessions. Again, “what” questions will lead to descriptions or summaries; “why” and “how” questions will lead you to analyses and explanations. Construct your own “what,” “why,” and “how” questions and then start answering them.

All of these steps and actions so far are “prewriting” actions. Again, almost no one just sits down and starts writing a paper at the beginning—at least not a successful paper! These prewriting steps help you get going in the right direction. Once you are ready to start drafting your essay, keep moving forward in these ways:

  • Write a short statement of intent or outline your paper before your first draft. Such a road map can be very useful, but don’t assume you’ll always be able to stick with your first plan. Once you start writing, you may discover a need for changes in the substance or order of things in your essay. Such discoveries don’t mean you made “mistakes” in the outline. They simply mean you are involved in a process that cannot be completely scripted in advance.
  • Write down on a card or a separate sheet of paper what you see as your paper’s main point or thesis. As you draft your essay, look back at that thesis statement. Are you staying on track? Or are you discovering that you need to change your main point or thesis? From time to time, check the development of your ideas against what you started out saying you would do. Revise as needed and move forward.
  • Reverse outline your paper. Outlining is usually a beginning point, a road map for the task ahead. But many writers find that outlining what they have already written in a draft helps them see more clearly how their ideas fit or do not fit together. Outlining in this way can reveal trouble spots that are harder to see in a full draft. Once you see those trouble spots, effective revision becomes possible.
  • Don’t obsess over detail when writing the draft. Remember, you have time for revising and editing later on. Now is the time to test out the plan you’ve made and see how your ideas develop. The last things in the world you want to worry about now are the little things like grammar and punctuation—spend your time developing your material, knowing you can fix the details later.
  • Read your draft aloud. Hearing your own writing often helps you see it more plainly. A gap or an inconsistency in an argument that you simply do not see in a silent reading becomes evident when you give voice to the text. You may also catch sentence-level mistakes by reading your paper aloud.

What’s the Difference between Revising and Editing?

Some students think of a draft as something that they need only “correct” after writing. They assume their first effort to do the assignment resulted in something that needs only surface attention. This is a big mistake. Good writers know that the task is complicated enough to demand some patience. “Revision” rather than “correction” suggests seeing again in a new light generated by all the thought that went into the first draft. Revising a draft usually involves significant changes including the following:

  • Making organizational changes like the reordering of paragraphs (don’t forget that new transitions will be needed when you move paragraphs)
  • Clarifying the thesis or adjustments between the thesis and supporting points that follow
  • Cutting material that is unnecessary or irrelevant
  • Adding new points to strengthen or clarify the presentation

Editing and proofreading are the last steps following revision. Correcting a sentence early on may not be the best use of your time since you may cut the sentence entirely. Editing and proofreading are focused, late-stage activities for style and correctness. They are important final parts of the writing process, but they should not be confused with revision itself. Editing and proofreading a draft involve these steps:

  • Careful spell-checking. This includes checking the spelling of names.
  • Attention to sentence-level issues. Be especially attentive to sentence boundaries, subject-verb agreement, punctuation, and pronoun referents. You can also attend at this stage to matters of style.

Remember to get started on a writing assignment early so that you complete the first draft well before the due date, allowing you needed time for genuine revision and careful editing.


Optional Activity

Open up your UNIV journal and find a previous entry. Revise your journal entry to make it more clear and compelling.

  1. Begin by re-reading the entry, taking note of what you notice.
  2. Go back through and underline or highlight areas that you want to improve.
  3. Pick 2-3 areas of improvement–maybe you want to re-organize one of the paragraphs, make a sentence clearer, fix some typos, or add more detail.
  4. Write up a new version of this journal entry with your revisions.

What If I Need Help with Writing?

Writing is hard work. Most colleges provide resources that can help you from the early stages of an assignment through to the completion of an essay. Your first resource may be a writing class. Most students are encouraged or required to enroll in a writing class in their first term, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Use everything you learn there about drafting and revising in all your courses.

Tutoring services. Most colleges have a tutoring service that focuses primarily on student writing. AUM has extensive writing tutoring available and they help everyone from first-year students to graduate students.

Three points about writing tutors are crucial:

  • Writing tutors are there for all student writers—not just for weak or inexperienced writers. Writing in college is supposed to be a challenge and it is supposed to be a social act (even if it is a solo writing project). Some students make writing even harder by thinking that good writers work in isolation—good writers are often the people who have learned from good editors.
  • Tutors are not there to “correct” or “edit” your drafts. They will help you identify and understand sentence-level problems so that you can achieve greater control over your writing. Their more important goals often are to address larger concerns like the paper’s organization, the fullness of its development, and the clarity of its argument.
  • Tutors cannot help you if you do not do your part. Tutors respond only to what you say and write; they cannot enable you to magically jump past the thinking an assignment requires. So do some thinking about the assignment before your meeting and be sure to bring relevant materials with you. For example, bring the paper assignment. You might also bring the course syllabus and perhaps even the required textbook. Most importantly, bring any writing you have done in response to the assignment (an outline, a thesis statement, a draft, an introductory paragraph). If you want to get help from a tutor, you need to give the tutor something to work with.

Instructors are often willing to help, but the help will vary depending on the professor and the kind of class. Some instructors offer only limited help. They may not, for example, have time to respond to a complete draft of your essay. But even a brief response to a drafted introduction or to a question can be tremendously valuable. Remember that instructors want to help you learn and want you to succeed, but they can only grade what is in front of them.

Online writing help is widely available, but it varies in quality. Using tools like Grammarly or sites like the Purdue Online Writing Lab or the Dartmouth College Writing Center is a good way to improve your work but asking strangers for help writing your paper often goes badly. In fact, some forms of online help cross the line over into plagiarism.

Plagiarism—and How to Avoid It

Plagiarism is the unacknowledged use of material from a source. At the most obvious level, plagiarism involves using someone else’s words and ideas as if they were your own. There’s not much to say about copying another person’s work: it’s cheating, pure and simple. But plagiarism is not always so simple. Notice that our definition of plagiarism involves “words and ideas.” Let’s break that down a little further.

Using Someone Else’s Words

Copying the words of another is clearly wrong. If you use another’s words, those words must be in quotation marks, and you must tell your reader where those words came from. But it is not enough to make a few surface changes in wording. You can’t just change some words and call the material yours; close, extended paraphrase is not acceptable. For example, compare the two passages that follow. The first comes from Murder Most Foul, a book by Karen Halttunen on changing ideas about murder in nineteenth-century America; the second is a close paraphrase of the same passage:

  • The new murder narratives were overwhelmingly secular works, written by a diverse array of printers, hack writers, sentimental poets, lawyers, and even murderers themselves, who were displacing the clergy as the dominant interpreters of the crime.
  • The murder stories that were developing were almost always secular works that were written by many different sorts of people. Printers, hack writers, poets, attorneys, and sometimes even the criminals themselves were writing murder stories. They were the new interpreters of the crime, replacing religious leaders who had held that role before.

It is easy to see that the writer of the second version has closely followed the ideas and even echoed some words of the original. This is a serious form of plagiarism. Even if this writer were to acknowledge the author, there would still be a problem. To simply cite the source at the end would not excuse using so much of the original source.

Using Someone Else’s Ideas

Ideas are also a form of intellectual property. Consider this third version of the previous passage:

  • At one time, religious leaders shaped the way the public thought about murder. But in nineteenth-century America, this changed. Society’s attitudes were influenced more and more by secular writers.

This version summarizes the original. That is, it states the main idea in compressed form in language that does not come from the original. But it could still be seen as plagiarism if the source is not cited. This example probably makes you wonder if you can write anything without citing a source. To help you sort out what ideas need to be cited and what not, think about these principles:

What is common knowledge?

There is no need to cite common knowledge. Common knowledge does not mean knowledge everyone has. It means knowledge that everyone can easily access. For example, most people do not know the date of George Washington’s death, but everyone can easily find that information. If the information or idea can be found in multiple sources and the information or idea remains constant from source to source, it can be considered common knowledge. This is one reason so much research is usually done for college writing—the more sources you read, the more easily you can sort out what is common knowledge: if you see an uncited idea in multiple sources, then you can feel secure that idea is common knowledge.

What isn’t common knowledge?

Sometimes people assume that textbooks, blogs, encyclopedias, social media, or class lectures are common knowledge because they have heard that these do not count as “sources” for some research papers. This is incorrect. While you might find some common knowledge in these sources, each of these would need to be cited since much of the information from these sources is the intellectual property of the writers and they should be credited accordingly.

Forms of Citation

You should generally check with your instructors about their preferred form of citation when you write papers for courses. No one standard is used in all academic papers. You can learn about the three major forms or styles used in most any college writing handbook and on many Web sites for college writers:

  • The Modern Language Association (MLA) system of citation is widely used but is most commonly adopted in humanities courses, particularly literature courses.
  • The American Psychological Association (APA) system of citation is most common in the social sciences.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is widely used but perhaps most commonly in history courses.

Many college departments have their own style guides, which may be based on one of the above. Your instructor should refer you to his or her preferred guide but be sure to ask if you have not been given explicit direction.


Optional Activity

Go online and find a newspaper article about college students. (Consider searching on a well-known news source like The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, or The Washington Post). Select a quote from the source that you find interesting and integrate that quote into your journal entry for this week.

In order to successfully use quotes from sources, it’s vital that you integrate the quote instead of just “plugging it in.” Here’s a process for integrating quotes:

  1. Introduce the source by author’s name. You may also include their qualifications, title of the source, year it was published, and name of publication. Consider which details are the most relevant.
  2. Integrate the quote by combining it with your own words, using a signal phrase like “says,” “writes,” “argues”
  3. Include the quote and a proper in-text citation.
  4. Follow up with reflection and/or analysis


College is getting even more expensive. Mia Juarez, a researcher for the Department of Education, claims that “college tuition has increased by 30%, relative to wages” (365). This financial burden can put a lot of stress on students who are already anxious about starting school.


Warhawk Wisdom

Being a good college writer also helps you develop some of the core qualities we outlined in Chapter 1. Using your own voice and standing by your ideas develops your autonomy. You are responsible for the words in your essay, which means that it’s important that you learn how to balance your own ideas with your professor’s expectations and any outside sources that you want to use in your paper. Good writing also develops perseverance. Writing can feel grueling sometimes, and it can be a challenge to “push through” those feelings. If you continue to think about writing as a process, not just as a final product, then it can be easier to persevere through the moments when you feel like you’ll never be done.

Journal Prompts

  1. How do you feel about writing? Do you think you’re a good writer? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a “good writer”?
  2. What challenges do you think you’ll face when it comes time to write an essay for college? How might you prepare for those challenges?
  3. Why do you think it’s important to develop your writing skills?


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Composing Ourselves and Our World Copyright © 2019 by Auburn University at Montgomery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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