College Writing Basics

Why Write?

College requires a lot of writing. For nearly all your classes, you will be graded on your writing in essays, on exams, on exercises, even on discussion boards and similar communications. And the higher you advance in your courses and degrees, the less your grades will be based on taking exams, and the more they will be based on writing essays.

This often seems odd to new students who come from high school or the workforce, where evaluation is based on form-filling tests, attendance, and behavior. So why do you have to write so much in college? Your professors want to see what you really know, and the best way to do that is to have you write out what you know.

By the phrase “what you really know,” I mean not what separate pieces of information you can recall and report, nor which answers from a list you can recognize as correct. I don’t even mean whether you can accomplish a skill such as correctly replacing the correct part in an engine or computer. You might be able to do all of this without really knowing how all the information fits together, or exactly why your answers or performances were correct. And if you don’t know how or why, you don’t really know.

A true college education is about really knowing. Understanding how your information and skills connect from one context to the next, and how best to apply them, and why those are the best skills and information to apply, and why you would apply them when you would exactly how you would, and why you would alter or avoid them in other contexts—this is really knowing.

Indeed, this is the only way you will be able to adapt as the world changes around you. Changes came more slowly fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago—even five years ago the world was more stable than it is now. The career you are preparing for now will be drastically different by the time you graduate, if it even exists at all by then. But you can succeed by adapting what you know, and the only way to adapt what you know is to really know it.

And the only ways you can show what you really know is by speaking it or writing it.

But speaking is spontaneous, temporary, and unalterable. Once you’ve said something, the time has passed for you to have said something different instead, so you don’t get the chance to re-think and make it better, or to unsay something bad, or to make it closer to what you really know. And even by trying to correct yourself afterward, saying something else next creates this same cycle of problems anew. So having students speak their knowledge is not the best way to find out what they really know.

Writing, on the other hand, gives you the chance to put down your ideas and make them stay put long enough for you to evaluate them. Writing gives you the chance to look at exactly what you have expressed and consider whether it really conveys what you meant. If you find that it doesn’t, writing gives you the chance to revise and edit to make it better. It also gives you the chance to see which of your ideas are good, strong, correct, and effective, and which ones are bad, weak, wrong, or ineffective. Then you get to select the good ones and cut out the bad ones. The result of a finished essay, in theory, is a collection of all the best things you can express in the best way you can express them. Reading that essay is the closest your professors can get to seeing what you really know.

But writing has another special advantage as well. It is a form of thinking itself.

Writing is not only a form of communication, as in using words to express an idea you hold. Writing is also a way to create the idea in the first place. When most people try to envision the act of thinking, they picture silent contemplation, often something like Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker, the nude sitting chin-to-knuckles, elbow-to-knee, as if deeply contemplating. But even that sculpture was intended to be an image of a writer, Dante, who used his writing to work out his thoughts. Contemplation is indeed one form of thinking—you can create and develop your ideas by silently considering them—but writing is another, different form of thinking. You can create and develop ideas by putting down words and making them grow into sentences and paragraphs. Believe it or not, you can finish a draft of an essay having created, found, or figured out real knowledge that you didn’t have when you started.

With all of these advantages, it should become clearer why and how writing is so important in college. You might even begin to see why and how writing is and has been so important to culture, history, and the very continuity of the human species.

But there is one distinct disadvantage: writing takes skill and experience. And gaining that skill and experience is hard work. That’s what this textbook is all about.

How to Make Writing Decisions

Writing in college requires innumerable open-ended decisions, which is a new and sometimes frightening proposition for many students. This is because, unlike lower levels of education that tell students what to do and how to do it, the college level will expect you to make your own decisions about the best and most efficient ways to convey the kinds of ideas that you select to discuss. This is the only way for an adult student to develop as an independent mind, a critical thinker, and a more educated human being. But sooner or later you must confront the reality that you have hundreds of thousands of possible writing decisions in every essay, in every paragraph, in every sentence, even in every single word. And as you already know, not all decisions are of equal quality—as grading emphasizes—so you need a way to help you begin making the best and most effective decisions.

There is such a way. Every time you write in college, you should be aware of three variables:

  • What you are writing (also called the subject, and eventually the claim or thesis)
  • To whom you are writing (also called the audience, or the reader)
  • Why you are writing (also called the purpose)

These will provide the guidelines for all your writing decisions. The specifics will change for each writing assignment, which is why you need to stay continually aware of these variables, but they will always be there, and the writing decisions you make—from overall essay decisions down to singular word choices—should address them.

Can you avoid these variables? No. You will make these decisions whether you are conscious of them or not, just like you make daily life choices whether you notice them or not. No matter what or how you write, every word, sentence, and paragraph will reflect some kind of subject, audience, and purpose. Being unaware simply means higher likelihood of handling these variables in chaotic, aimless, and failed ways. Being aware of them is the beginning of self-control and self-development in the formation and expression of thought.

What You Are Writing (Subject, Thesis)

You need to know exactly what your subject is and what you plan to say about it. This is not as obvious as it might seem, and many students get stuck because they have failed to take this variable seriously. One reason is the common error of confusing your assigned subject for your own subject. For instance, receiving an essay assignment that tells you to write about “morality in social media” has not told you what your own subject is, so trying to write about “morality in social media” in general will quickly find you fumbling with too many big ideas in a lost and wandering fashion, or it might even find you stuck with only a blank page. Instead, you will need to become aware of exactly what kind of morality you will focus on, or which model of moral philosophy you will focus on, or which behaviors in social media you will focus on. Most importantly, you will need to become aware of what specific point you want to make about it. Only then can you begin making real writing decisions and real progress.

To Whom You Are Writing (Audience)

It’s natural to think that your professor is your audience or reader for your essay, for that is the person who will indeed read and critique your work. But the professor is not your true audience for an essay assignment. Your true audience is merely supposed. They are imaginary readers who need to know what you are explaining in your essay, or are curious and skeptical about your claims. Many English class assignments specifically tell you which kinds of readers to suppose (a common audience is adult college students and graduates), but often you will need to determine this for yourself, and then make your writing decisions based on what would be most effective for that audience.

For instance, an audience of adult college graduates can be assumed to know already what the United States Constitution is, so if you took time to define it in your essay, you have made a bad writing decision. You failed to address your audience by wasting their time writing below their level. But if you took time to define it for an audience of children, you have made a good writing decision, for skipping over it would have caused confusion.

Why You Are Writing (Purpose)

In an essay, your writing purpose is different from your purpose as a student. Your purpose as a student might be to get a good grade, or to avoid a bad one, or to try out your writing skills, etc. But your writing purpose is the intention you use to guide what you discuss and how you discuss it. Again, many English classes will explicitly tell you what purpose to have in mind while writing, but most other college assignments won’t. Those classes will assume that you can determine this variable on your own given the assignment. Some writing assignments have purposes that are informative or explanatory in nature, such as summaries, reports, syntheses. Others purposes are critical in nature, such as analyses, comparisons, and responses. Some are even exploratory in nature, such as narratives or higher-level arguments. Two essays about the same subject with the same audience will be extremely different if the purposes are different. For instance, an informative essay on bullying in American schools will likely focus on facts and statistics, but a critical essay on bullying in American schools might instead compare school systems and offer judgments on them.

Regardless of your specific purpose, it’s safe to assume that nearly all college essays expect you to make some kind of point. In this way, nearly all college essays have some degree of argumentation as a purpose, some implicitly and subtle, some explicitly and obvious. For more information on this, see the section Rhetoric and Argumentation.

The Writing Process

Outside of college, many types of writing—e-mails, notes, social media posts—are simple enough for you to handle in one step. But college writing is far more complex and challenging, and unlike other types of writing, the quality of your work will be critiqued and judged carefully by professionals. So trying to write a final draft in one step is a bad idea. Instead, you will use the writing process. This means that you will use different stages to work out what you wish to say, how you wish to say it, and how you can make what you’ve produced even better. This is addressed in more detail in the chapter The Writing Process, but here is a glimpse of the steps:

  • Prewriting: In this step, the writer generates ideas to write about and begins developing these ideas.
  • Outlining: In this step, the writer determines the overall organizational structure of the writing and creates an outline to organize ideas. Usually this step involves some additional fleshing out of the ideas generated in the first step.
  • Drafting: In this step, the writer uses the work completed in prewriting to develop a first draft. The draft covers the ideas the writer brainstormed and follows the organizational plan that was laid out in the first step.
  • Revising: In this step, the writer revisits the draft to review and, if necessary, reshape its ideas and expressions. This stage involves moderate and sometimes major changes: adding or deleting a paragraph, phrasing the main point differently, expanding on an important idea, reorganizing content, and so forth.
  • Editing: In this step, the writer reviews the draft to make technical and mechanical changes, such as grammar and format. This can also involve such minute improvements as word choice. Once this stage is complete, the work is a finished piece and ready to share with others.


As we consider the basics of college writing, it’s important to be aware of the dark side of writing: plagiarism. Some students come to college thinking that it’s okay to carry along ideas they found elsewhere in their essays, but it’s not that simple. Using ideas from elsewhere requires correct citation, and using ideas from elsewhere without citation is plagiarism.

To be more specific, plagiarism in college is a form of academic dishonesty that includes acts such as (1.) presenting any other person’s work as one’s own work, (2.) reproducing another’s ideas, theories, information, syntax, or diction without giving proper credit, (3.) incorrectly citing another’s work, or (4.) reusing your own work submitted in other classes. The most common conceptualization of plagiarism is a student’s copying writing off of a Website to fill out an essay for class. But there are other and more subtle forms.

Plagiarism is more than a weakness or error in college writing: it is an academic offense. Most institutions treat it as a breach of student conduct with punishments enacted both by the professor and by the college separately. In other words, in college plagiarism is considered unacceptable, and as a student you can expect that any instance of plagiarism—whether on essays, homework, discussion forums, even bonus work—will be met with the harshest penalties available. Such penalties include failure of the assignment, failure of the course, and academic suspension.

Because adding research to your essays requires the use of others’ writing, and because many assignment require you to write about others’ writing, it is possible to plagiarize accidentally through incorrect citation. And there are many nuances in plagiarism, such as the boundaries of common knowledge, even the use of your own writing in multiple courses. More information on all of this will be covered later. For now, determine not to plagiarize intentionally, and seek to avoid plagiarizing unintentionally.

Writing Style

One of the first types of writing decisions college students become aware of is style. Before becoming aware of this, some students default to a casual, undisciplined, or imprecise writing style. Example:

It’s to where everyone is all like why should I even care about them over there when actually they’re just sitting there not doing anything with their lives if you get what I’m saying.

This is often acceptable in daily speech, especially when we’re spontaneously building on other contexts: the people we’re talking with already know us and can guess fairly well at what we mean, and our body language and tone of voice both add further information not captured in the words themselves. But in college writing, this fails to address subject, audience, and purpose, and it expresses only vague thoughts in unclear ways.

Other students come to college with some awareness of writing style but expect that only an elaborate or ornamental style is required. Example:

Particular to the substantially truncated suffrage rates directly correlated to those citizens of the less than chronologically advanced composition, especially those rates couched in the present temporal circumstances, a binary amount of positive approaches surrounds the desired outcome.

This fails as the previous example does, but in opposite ways. It addresses subject, audience, and purpose in ineffective ways by selecting abstract and indirect words, and by arranging them in convoluted phrases within a poor sentence structure. This can often be the result of a writer wanting the sound of a good, solid, academic thought without having it, which would otherwise result in the confidence to say it clearly.

Now consider this example:

Young Americans aren’t voting in high numbers right now, but there are two ways to fix this.

This is simple and direct writing, which means it is good writing. It uses the words it means, and it arranges them in a natural structure. In fact, this says what the previous two examples were trying to say. If you understand this example better than the previous two, that is good, for it is the best writing style of the three.

In college writing, aim to be simple and direct. This is not easy. In fact, one of the hardest human skills is to say what you mean.

But even knowing what you mean is difficult. Writing skill can help you figure out what you mean, and writing skill can help you say what you mean. Again, that’s what this textbook is all about.


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The Writing Textbook Copyright © 2021 by Josh Woods, editor and contributor, as well as an unnamed author (by request from the original publisher), and other authors named separately is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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