Resources for Academic Writing
Guide to Academic Writing
Writing tutors help with all types of writing, but unlike instructors, tutors don’t develop their own assignments. Students come to writing centers with various assignments in hand, and tutors help them with any stage of that process. Like anyone, we learn from what we do, so much of our expertise develops around the questions that we address during writing center appointments, including the following:
• What type of writing is expected in this particular course and how can students meet that expectation?
• How might students best understand and respond to individual assignments?
• How should they go about revising their drafts?
This guide is based primarily on observations from the vantage point of the writing center, and the goal is to share some of the knowledge gained from helping students with the writing process.
Rather than attempt to address specific questions of organization and grammar, the guide willingly defers to the Seventh Edition of the late Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers, and ACC English instructor Marian Anders’ Practical Grammar Handbook. These are our English Department’s current handbook choices for composition students. For documentation and research, students should use authoritative sources such as the handbooks produced by the Modern Language Association (for MLA Style) or by the American Psychological Association (for APA style). There are also many free online sources for handbook-style information, and the Purdue Online Writing Lab, or OWL, is particularly well regarded. ACC’s Writing Center has developed workshops for students as we see a need for help with specific skills, and these are available on our website.
TYPES OF ACADEMIC WRITING
Although there are many types and styles of writing required for academic study, most of them serve one or more of these purposes:
• To demonstrate skill in academic writing
• To demonstrate an understanding of course concepts
• To acquire the writing skills necessary to a particular profession or field of study
Demonstrating Skill in Academic Writing
Writing that is required of students in order for them to demonstrate their skill is most likely to take the form of an essay, a form that most students have studied in some way throughout their education, but that can still present a challenge. Briefly, an essay is a piece of writing that has one controlling idea, called a thesis, which is introduced to the reader, usually in the first paragraph. Typically the writer then supports the components of the thesis in several body paragraphs. A conclusion paragraph reminds the reader of the thesis and brings the essay to an end. Oftentimes writing whose purpose is to allow writers to demonstrate that they can write (and think) in a manner necessary for academic study will allow writers to draw from personal experience. When this is the case, the writer should demonstrate an ability to analyze and organize. For example, a prompt that states “Describe an incident in your life that challenged your belief system. Did you grow from the experience?” is inviting writers to draw upon their personal experience in order to show they can think deeply and organize their thoughts coherently in writing.
English composition courses, such as English 111, which are required of all degree-seeking students at ACC, focus primarily on how to write essays. It is wise not to postpone these courses since they offer an opportunity to practice a skill that will be required in other classes as well as for admission to other academic programs.
Demonstrating an Understanding of Course Concepts
Students are also asked to write in order to demonstrate an understanding of important concepts or content of a particular course. Many times this type of writing takes the form of the ‘short answer’ on tests. This type of writing may be formal or informal, so the requirements for editing and standard usage will vary according to a particular instructor’s directions. However, writing to demonstrate understanding of course concepts may take the form of an essay as well, as for example when students are given a prompt like “discuss three causes of the American Revolution.” Because this is an essay assignment, the answer should be something more than just a list of events put into paragraph form. By definition, an essay must connect one idea to another, so this format also challenges students to display the depth of their understanding. An excellent response to the preceding prompt might consider the ways in which one cause of the American Revolution brought about another, or perhaps the way in which two seemingly unrelated events came together to cause this important historical event.
As writers grow, they may find that the principles of the essay format, which may have been called the five-paragraph essay in grade school, can expand to accommodate longer and more complex writing tasks which then overflow into other categories. Serious scholars in many fields often continue to write in the style of an essay throughout their careers because the format lends itself to sharing or promoting a single idea. A scholarly book, for example, may present a great deal of evidence in support of one theory or concept.
Acquiring the Writing Skills Necessary to a Particular Profession or Field of Study
Although educators, philosophers, and scholars of all fields may continue to use essays to promote their perspectives or new discoveries, most fields have their own formats that suit their communication needs. As students advance in their studies, they are expected to gain at least some familiarity with other common formats, such as business letters and scientific laboratory reports, but it is even more important that they learn to produce the type of writing necessary for their major field of study. Engineers write specifications for projects. Nurses keep patient care logs. Automotive repair intake specialists describe the car owner’s concerns in writing so that the technician can diagnose and repair. Automotive technicians document the work that was completed. Journalists must capture a reader’s interest while reporting accurately. Creative writers use a mix of narrative and other forms to help their readers explore human experience. Business organizations write to communicate with their customers and employees. Attorneys must learn to understand and use complex legal jargon. Additionally, almost every modern enterprise is subject to legal regulations that need to be read, interpreted, and put into action.
Although even this partial list of possible writing tasks in various fields may seem overwhelming, acquiring the practical writing skills needed for particular fields depends primarily on the ability to write accurately and clearly, skills that students can develop through practice in any of their courses.
RESPONDING TO INSTRUCTORS’ ASSIGNMENTS
Because instructor requirements vary, students should give each assignment a careful reading. An assignment sheet is like a contract between student and instructor, and following instructions carefully will make success much more likely. Click below to see a sample assignment that was developed for an English 111 class; the annotations interpret the assignment in ways that can be applied to most writing assignments.
The time it takes to review all aspects of an assignment is time well spent, and students should plan to reread during the process as well. However, if in spite of reviewing the assignment carefully, students still find an assignment is unclear, they should ask the instructor for clarification. Instructors tend to appreciate questions that show students are engaged with their work, and the additional discussion may help other students as well.
A Few Notes about Audience
It is often inspirational for students to imagine an audience who will benefit from their writing, but from a practical point of view, all college writing assignments have a similar audience: an instructor. Students are perhaps hyper-aware of this, which is why so many come to a writing center and say “I am trying to figure out what my instructor wants.” This task becomes easier if students realize that any good instructor is likely to want students to show that they can understand and synthesize course content, show that they can think critically, and show that they can write proficiently. By keeping these principles in mind, students will be able to avoid pitfalls, such as shortcuts that do nothing more than put some words on paper and that are unlikely to result in good grades.
While this student strategy of thinking of all assignments as being written for the instructor is useful and understandable, writers should also think of audience in terms of the specific goals of the assignment. If, for example, part of the assignment involves incorporating new terms learned in psychology class, then imagining an audience whose knowledge is similar to, or just a bit less than, a student’s own knowledge might help the writer develop clear explanations. In a business writing course, the imagined audience might be a client, a supervisor, or a fellow worker. How does that person’s role help to define the communication? When students write about films or books, they should consider whether the audience is meant to be someone already familiar with the story, as would be the case for literary analysis, or someone who is not, as would be the case with a review of a film. A good reviewer, for example, never gives away the film’s ending, but a literary critic expects that the audience has already read the book and wants to take part in a discussion about it.
Choosing Topics and Developing Ideas
In helping students to brainstorm ideas, writing tutors often ask why a topic was chosen. Too often the answer is something like “I thought it would be the easiest.” Choosing the option that sounds simpler, such as watching the shorter documentary or reading the shorter article, can often backfire. The shortest article may well be the most complex, and the longest documentary may be the most interesting. Additionally, in reviewing papers, tutors often notice that students with a personal investment in their topic are more likely to write in an intelligent and compelling way, so any time student writers are allowed to choose a topic, they should seize the opportunity to find a subject of genuine interest.
When writers need help developing ideas, the Writing Center offers responsive listeners. Having someone who can listen to a writer’s ideas can help in itself. Additionally, most writing handbooks will include an extended discussion of brainstorming, free writing, and clustering as methods for gathering ideas for writing. Most basic composition courses will require that students experiment with some of these methods, and as writers practice, they will likely discover which processes are most useful to them personally. All writers should expect to use a prewriting, writing, and revision process; even professional writers do not expect that their work will come out the first time sounding as if it were all woven into the same cloth.
Writing tutors have many strategies for helping students revise drafts, but students can help themselves with this process as well. One simple technique is for a writer put the work aside until the next day, when fresh eyes can provide fresh insight. Students can also take a tip from writing professionals and revise their work in stages. The writing process itself can be said to have stages that include brainstorming, development, organization, and revising. When revising, writers should follow a similar pattern for examining their work. They might read one time to see if they have followed through on their ideas and developed them with sound examples and reasons. Once a writer is satisfied that the content is complete, the next move is to decide if the text is well organized. After organizing, the writer can then move to a review of grammar and sentence structure. Although the process is not likely to be quite that neat, revising in stages can save time overall. The writer is less likely to delete sentences that have been carefully crafted, or to add rough sentences to a paper that has already been revised for grammar. When it is finally time to revise for grammar, reading the text aloud can help writers to spot choppiness or errors.
Students are expected to write in many styles and for various purposes, but some strategies can be used for a wide range of writing tasks. Analyzing instructors’ assignments will help students determine the best strategies for completing those assignments.