Things to Keep in Mind When Writing
For all of the papers we write, how often do we ask ourselves, “Why am I writing this essay?” A student asked me that question, a question I had never really thought about before, during my first semester as a Writing Fellow. Sadly, I found myself stymied and struggling to come up with a response. Ruminating on the question further that night, I came up with a few answers that I have since used as a guide for myself and others.
The answer is constituted of two simple ideas, ideas that act as the crux of a college education: understanding concepts and critical thinking. Teachers use essays as means to evaluate your understanding of the material, your ability to think critically about the material and formulate your own ideas about it, and your ability to communicate those ideas effectively.
Before you can show off your unique, paradigm-shifting ideas on a topic, you must demonstrate that you have knowledge about the topic and the context within which you write. The key term here is, well, key terms. But be wary, do not just give definitions and move on. Make connections with concepts discussed in class and in the textbook. Use terms, concepts, and criticisms as springboards for your own ideas.
If you are writing a paper for Sociology, discuss a few social theories and elaborate on how they relate to your topic or idea. Integrate terms that you would learn for a test into your paper to show your professor that you have learned and understand the language of the subject.
This is especially important for essay questions on tests. Professors want to see if you actually understand the material and can summon the information on your own, not just guess on a bubble. I once had a professor who determined our grade on essay questions by going through the essay and counting all of the key terms and proper nouns.
Demonstrating that you know the material is fundamental to success, but it is not the only factor.
The difficult aspect of writing often comes with this next part: formulating ideas of your own. The foundation of a college education is learning how to think independently. Surely, this is often not an easy task. Following the step above can actually, in my experience, help you come up with ideas to write about.
When you begin to think about the concepts about you subject and make connections to stuff you already know, think, or have experienced, you begin to formulate your own, unique ideas about or interpretations of the subject. The classroom concepts discussed above become evidence and examples to use in support of your thesis.
This is what professors want to see. It is an element that cannot be evaluated on an objective test with multiple choice or true/false answers. Essays are a unique medium in which students have to apply what they learned, not just regurgitate it.
Lastly, you write to show that you know how to write. Whereas the preceding points dealt with content, this final point is about how you present that content. Professors are looking to see that you have developed the necessary skills to write effectively. Paraphrasing a quote that Professor Dillon once gave us, what good is an idea if you are unable to explain it to other people? In the much-rumored “real world” that we are all supposedly expected to enter into after college, difference between effective and ineffective communication skills, even in writing, could often be the difference between gainful employment and, well, you know the rest.
Having a proper structure in your writing, using proper evidence, creating a solid thesis, having a sense of coherence among paragraphs, and so on are all part of communicating your ideas effectively. And they are elements that professors will be looking for when grading papers.
This is where the Writing Fellows come into play. In essence, we help students make sure that their papers make sense. I have had so many students with great ideas for papers that far exceed what I am capable of, but their papers simply did not make sense. Most were because they just didn’t know the rules.
Furthermore, the editing issues such as using proper grammar and spelling, a topic Writing Fellows are not responsible for when larger issues exist, are also a factor in proper communication. We can read something completely brilliant, but if there is a misplaced comma in the sentence then the otherwise brilliant idea is discredited as our brains focus on that miniscule error. Editorial errors are ugly and distracting.
Professors are the same way. I know. I am the king of editing mistakes. The gratuitous amount of red gashes on all of my papers attests to this. Let not their bloody ends be in vein, I implore you!
I realize that all of this sounds incredibly obvious. Good, it should. But how often do we write with these purposes in mind? Making these three points into a checklist for each of your papers will offer you more of a template to follow for well-written papers. Do your best at giving the professors what they want, and your chances of getting what you want, a good grade, will improve.
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