Strategies for Academic Writing

How to Respond to Writing Assignments

Step 1: Analyze the Assignment

  • If the assignment was given orally, write it out and read it until you're thoroughly familiar with it.
  • Look for key words. Pay particular attention to the thought process your instructor expects you to use, which is often captured in a single or set of key words.
  • Look for what form your paper is expected to take; most will take one of these forms.

Step 2: Consider the Writing Situation

Successful college writers look beyond the assignment to the larger picture and seek to understand the purpose and audience for the assignment.

  • Purposes: Why has my professor given me this assignment? Is it intended primarily to test my knowledge of the reading for the study, or is it asking me to go beyond the reading? Am I expected to break new ground? What might I hope to accomplish? Why is the subject important?
  • Audience: Who is the intended audience? Who will be my audience beyond the professor? Who else might be interested in reading this paper? Why should my reader be interested in what I will do in this paper?

Step 3: Ask Questions

If the assignment's purpose, subject, or audience is not clear ask your professor questions such as these:

  • What would you like me to learn from writing this?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What form do you want me to use?

Make sure you understand what kind of thinking and what type of paper is expected. Sometimes your questions help a professor clarify an assignment.

Step 4: Ask to See a Sample

Ask to see a model of what the instructor wants. Student models are often the most help. Seeing models of what is expected will help you respond to the assignment effectively.

Step 5: Make the Assignment Your Own

After you are sure about what's expected in an assignment,

  • turn the question around; instead of asking, "What does the instructor want?" ask, "What do I want to say about the assigned subject or question?"
  • ask yourself about your knowledge and experience of the subject: "What are the limits of my knowledge and how can I learn more?"; write down what you already know about the topic, why you care about it, and why you think your reader should care about it
  • answer the question, "Why write about this, anyway?"; look for a slant on the question that reflects who you are
  • relate the assignment to something you're familiar with; don't hesitate to ask if you can modify the assignment a little so you can do something you really want to do
  • read over what you have written until you can "hear" it; when you can let it flow through your hands onto the screen or paper, you have found your voice.

Time Management

Every writer follows a different process. And every paper does the same. The amount of time needed to write a satisfying paper varies from person to person and paper to paper. And, the length of time required to write a paper isn't just a matter of what kind of paper it is. Some papers seem to write themselves; others that we thought would be easy take what seems like forever. One generalization that might be safe is that it's never a good idea, no matter how simple an assignment might seem, to write it at one sitting. All papers benefit from the distance a writer gains by putting a paper down for a few hours or, preferably, longer. A good night's sleep can be more productive than three agonizing hours of trying to get a piece of writing right.

Here is a timeline distributed by St. Cloud State University for completing various kinds of papers:

  • research paper: 5-8 weeks
  • long paper (10 pages): 3-5 weeks
  • short paper (3-5 pages): 1-2 weeks
  • short theme/paper (1-3 pages): 1-2 weeks.

Dealing with Writer's Block

Interviewer: I've read that you don't get writer's block often. What is your advice to those who do?

Allan Gurganus (novelist, short story writer and essayist): My theory is you don't get it if you don't believe in it. I've never heard of anyone getting plumber's block or traffic cop's block. But if you just tell the truth in the most effective way you can, chances are you will come closer to doing what you want to do. I heard a wonderful phrase from a psychoanalyst: 'Perfect is the enemy of good.' So if you think you're going to write perfectly, chances are you'll write nothing, but if you hope to write well, chances are you'll write perfectly.

Students often report that their biggest problem with a writing assignment is getting started. What causes writer's block--fear of the empty expanse of white paper in front of you--and what can a person do about it?

Writer's block is caused primarily by judging your writing before or as you write. If you have perfectionist tendencies, writing may be particularly difficult for you. What is essential to keep in mind is that writing is a process, and a process takes time. If you expect what you write to come out perfectly in the first draft, you will be plagued by writer's block your whole life. The first draft is called a "rough draft" because it is unformed. Your job, as writer Guy de Maupassant advised, is to "get black on white." And contrary to what many people think, you don't have to know what you want to say or even what you want to write about before you begin writing. As a writer, your initial job is to find out what you know and what you don't.

C. Day Lewis said, "We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand." The way you begin writing is to try some prewriting activities.

One Solution

A way to think about writing is to imagine that there are three parts of your personality that have to get involved before any writing project is finished. Let's call these three entities:

  • inventor
  • reader
  • editor.

Writer's block occurs when your editor and your inventor try to work on a piece of writing at the same time. The inventor is revved up about an idea and the editor is being critical, maybe implying you are not articulating your idea well enough or that it's not a good idea, and pointing out problems with grammar, spelling, or syntax. Your inner inventor and your inner editor must be separated if you are to write well. The editor must wait his or her turn. You need the editor, but not until later.

The Inventor

This is the passionate part of you that conjures up ideas, visions, dreams, schemes, and plans. This is the aspect of you that is most childlike, demanding, imaginative, impulsive, playful, and opinionated. It's the part that adults often keep under wraps, which may account for so many of us having writer's block.

We need the inventor in the beginning of the writing process. We need to give this freer aspect of our personality permission to jot down ideas, get carried away on paper, be messy and disorganized, and to brainstorm and plot.

This is where the creative juices flow. If you are going to write originally, find a unique angle or perspective and locate your own voice and style, the inventor must be allowed to work, goof around on paper, doodle, make maps, and write down whatever comes to mind--even if it seems illogical or off the topic. It's the inventor who comes up with the first, rough draft after prewriting activities.

The Reader

The inventor has cooked up a rough draft. Now what do you do with it? There are probably some good ideas in it, but there's a lot to be trimmed and added. Where do you start? You need some advice, some direction, so you call on your reader self.

It's much easier to engage your inner reader after you've had some distance from your writing. Writer Isaac Asimov used to put his manuscript in a drawer for a year before he looked at it again. (If you tell your professors that that's what you're doing, either you will be ancient by the time you finish your college degree, or your professor will present you with a 'no credit' for the course.) Even a day or two away from a piece of writing can help you approach your draft more objectively than is possible right after the heat of writing it.

The reader's job is to read your draft and ask you some questions: Where do you need to develop or add more ideas and details? Where do you get off track? What works? What's clever, lively, or insightful? Does the introduction work (if you have one)? Is what you've written logical, easy to follow, clear? The reader is dispassionate, a kind of literary accountant, just noting what you have and what you don't have. The reader gathers information about your piece, pointing out what you need to do to complete it.

When the reader is done with his or her assessment, you re-engage the inventor, who's been tempered by feedback from the reader, and get to work rewriting and revising.

How many times do you revise a piece? Here's an interview with Ernest Hemingway:

Hemingway: I rewrote the ending to '"Farewell to Arms," the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had you stumped?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Another writer, James Michener, wrote, "You write the first draft really to see how it's going to come out. My connectives, my clauses, my subsidiary phrases don't come naturally to me and I'm very prone to repetition of words, so I never even write an important letter in the first draft. I can never recall anything of mine that's ever been printed in less than three drafts."

The point is that writing is mostly rewriting, or re-seeing your piece again and again, each time making the meaning clearer, further developing your ideas, doing whatever you need to communicate with your reader with clarity and conciseness. It's like watching a photograph being processed and going from blurry to sharply-focused. Revision is where the craft of writing comes in. This is where you tinker with words and fashion sentences and paragraphs to make them strong and true. In some ways it's like working on a puzzle, making each piece fit into a whole that expresses what you mean to convey.

The Editor

After you're well into the revision process, let the editor in. The editor is the critical, fussy, bossy, knowledgeable part of you who wants your writing to be as good as it can be. Let your inner editor check each sentence for unnecessary words, strong verbs and nouns, structure, and correct punctuation. Give the editor free rein to be picky, harumph and sigh, and point out clunky sentences, a weak conclusion or the failure to spellcheck. Read your writing aloud to your editor, because ears often pick up what eyes don't. Finally, get a second opinion, then hand your writing in.

The Nature of Writing

Writing is a contradictory process. It's hard, or as writer W. Somerset Maugham said, "To write simply is a difficult as to be good."

Writing is also an empowering process, as essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt noted, "The more a man writes, the more he can write."

The writing process is also frustrating and enlightening, thrilling and discouraging, humbling and exalting, just like life. Biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen said, "Writing is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once more in that mirror which waits always before or behind him."

If given the opportunity to fast-forward to the end of our lives, I doubt many of us would choose to go right to the end. We'd want to live our lives and see what happens along the way. Likewise, don't cheat yourself out of the process of writing. Often it's fun, or as Ray Bradbury, the author of more than 500 published works, pointed out, "Creativity is continual surprise."

Writing is a way to add texture and meaning to your life, to be surprised by discovering what you know and what you don't know, whether you're writing a research paper, a letter to a friend or starting a novel.

"The reward of writing is in the writing itself. It comes with finding the right word. The quest for a superb sentence is a groping for honesty, a search for the innermost self, a self-discipline, a generous giving out of one's most intimate rhythms and meanings. To be a writer is to sit down at one's desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone -- just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over..." - John Hersey

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