Tips from Union's Writing Center Director
Teaching the course over the years and reading countless Precept papers from other instructors at the Writing Center have given me a broad overview of what is important in Precept. Perhaps my most important advice is to be open to learning new ideas. Precept is unlike most other courses in that it is interdisciplinary and provides opportunities to explore different perspectives. The readings may come from authors writing in different places and times or with different viewpoints. Approach them with an open mind, and you will find much to learn. You may also encounter new ideas about how to read and write, some that are specific to the college context. Expect your Precept instructor to challenge you to reconsider some of your ideas as you begin your journey through college.
Make your thesis strong and interesting: A strong thesis is important to a strong argument. Don’t be satisfied with a boring thesis like “This paper will show x.” Tell your reader why what you have to say is important, why it matters. One possibility is to argue against a “too simple” view or common misconception. Let your reader know you’ve considered different views and have something new to add. By looking at your topic from different angles, you can make a claim that shows off your knowledge while inviting the reader to take interest: “Many people think x, but y is also a possibility and provides new insights into…”
Organize the ideas for readers: So many times I’ve sat with students and asked them why they arranged their evidence or arguments in the order they did. Usually they answer that was how the ideas came to their mind. Seldom do they think of what order of ideas would work best for readers. Sometimes they don’t connect the ideas for readers either, assuming that each on its own offers enough support. To write well, you must consider the logic of your overall argument. Which ideas would work best to begin and end? How does each new idea relate to the one before? End each paragraph with your strongest sentence, making a point that is clearly related to your thesis or claim.
Integrate the ideas of others, and cite them. First-year students often write essays and then “plug in” the quotes afterwards. This may have been good enough in high school, but you can do better at the college level. Academic writing requires you to integrate the ideas of others as you make your own argument; you must make your own claim, but also provide support using the ideas of others, often multiple other authors. Learn to do this well. Introduce each source in your own voice. Use only as much of an author’s words as you need to, put quotation marks around any directly quoted words, and insert a citation afterwards. Finally, don’t mistakenly assume that an author’s words will make your point for you. Make the point yourself, in your own words. Your voice should predominate.
Words: I know you studied for the SAT, and some teachers may have rewarded you for using big $10 words you didn’t really understand, but they’re unlikely to impress your college instructors. We’d much rather you use a simple short word that fits your meaning than a word that looks impressive but just isn’t appropriate. Being listed in the thesaurus doesn’t mean it is an exact synonym for the word you want. Use words you know. BONUS: Some words your high school teachers told you never to use, like “I” and “you,” are perfectly acceptable in some college papers. Check with your professor. Can you start your paper with a rhetorical question? Why not? AVOID overly strong words--like “prove.” The standard for proof in college is very high. It is unlikely you can truly prove anything in a college paper. A better word choice is “show” or “demonstrate.” Also, be careful with absolute words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” and “nobody.” Are you really sure there are no exceptions? Academic writers typically use qualifying words such as “usually,” “generally,” “often,” and “most.” Rather than saying something like “Researchers agree that….,” you could say “Most researchers agree/Researchers generally agree….” Qualifying words actually make your claim sound stronger rather than weaker.
Work on developing your own voice—but make sure it will also work for readers. Developing y our own voice, your own style of writing, is very important, even though for many disciplines you must still work within the conventions that members of your discipline have agreed upon. There’s no one way to write well. Find your strengths and use them. Know your weaknesses and work to improve them. Some students like to write quickly and revise their paper afterwards. Others write slowly, carefully crafting each sentence or paragraph as they go. Some spend hours planning before they begin to write. Others write in order to discover what they want to say. Choose the strategies that work for you and seek help with the areas of writing that are challenging for you. A good place to get friendly and constructive assistance is at the Writing Center, where experienced writers help you write what you want to say and make it more effective.
Revising is essential to good writing. If you are a person who doesn’t plan much before you begin writing, or if you are writing something that is really new to you, you will probably need to revise. It’s great to discover what you want to say as you write, but your reader probably doesn’t want to follow your discovery process. Arrange to finish a draft of your paper so that you can set it aside for a day or two. Then you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes to revise it for readers. Alternatively, ask a friend read your paper to you so you can “hear” what you want to change. Or go to the Writing Center to get constructive advice from an interested reader. The best writers are revisers.
Read aloud to edit. We all make mistakes as we write. And we all have difficulty seeing our own mistakes as we reread a paper. As readers, we tend to see what we want to see rather than what’s there. That’s why you need a strategy for editing that enables you to find and correct errors and unclear sentences before you submit papers to the professor. Reading aloud, a slower process of reading, will help you see the words better and will also help you hear what you’ve written. It’s the best way to edit. If you know you have specific editing weaknesses, make sure you edit a second or third time with those specifically in mind. Again, this is a process where the Writing Center offers help to all student writers.
Reader feedback is essential to improving writing. You need feedback to become a better writer. All writers benefit from reader feedback to see where their writing is strong and where it might be confusing. Make it a habit to seek feedback before you submit a final draft. Some professors will consult with you on your writing before the due date. The Writing Center is always an option. If the feedback you receive on a writing assignment isn’t clear to you, ask for clarification so that you will know how to improve for the next writing assignment. Making good use of feedback, whether from professors or knowledgeable peers, is the best way to improve as a writer during your college years. Seek it out.