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Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions





What are the positives and negatives of college writing?


Contents of this page:

Definition of College Writing

Three Keys for College Writing:

      Key 1: Writing for an Audience

      Key 2: Writing in Several Disciplines

      Key 3: Thorough, Logical Research

Conclusion: What Do You Gain?



There is a famous saying from the stories of The Wizard of Oz: "You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy."  The same could be said of college writing.  In Wizard of Oz, farm fields still exist, but they are filled with poppies that make you fall asleep.  Houses exist, but they may fall on witches.  Everyone still speaks English--but the speakers are munchkins, witches, a tin man, a scarecrow, and a lion.  Similarly, college writing seems at first to just be a further extension of the writing you learned in high school.  But what kind of writing did you learn in high school, and how is college writing different from that?  This chapter offers a thorough definition of what college writing is, what it is not (and it is not like typical, average high school writing), and then it offers three important keys to what real college writing means at its best. 


Definition of College Writing

What good college writing is: College writing may be defined as writing that you learn and use in college.  You can separate those two activities--"learn" and "use."  Sometimes, you "learn" a new method or type of writing or paper. 

For example, do you know, yet, how to write a typical college analysis paper, thesis paper, or research paper?  Do you know how to write a scientific lab report, a psychological case study, or a professional recommendation report?  All of these and others vary in their style and structure.  College is the place where most people learn them. 

However, you also will "use" what you have learned like a tool.  For example, once you have learned how to write an analysis and thesis paper, you may be called upon to use these papers--or the methods of making them--in additional classes to (a) prove you've learned something or (b) more importantly, create new knowledge for yourself.  So, college writing involves both "learning" to write and "using" that writing in your courses. 

What it is not: What is not good college writing?  It is not a simple high-school "five-star essay" composed of five paragraphs--an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.  You can certainly use this pattern on essay-test questions and other very short, often less formal writing assignments, but it is only a high-school level of writing.  Good college writing also is not mindless spontaneity: unless you've specifically been assigned a very rough first draft, most instructors expect to see some serious thought and reflection.  Good college writing also is not copying other people's ideas: yes, you can quote and paraphrase (give ideas from) others, but not only must you give credit to them (even for a borrowed idea, and even if it's just your friend's or parent's), but you also must in some way reflect further on that idea.  College writing also is not, usually, something done at the last minute--an hour or, for a longer assignment, one night before it is due.  Last-minute writing like this may get you a good enough grade to pass, but it doesn't help you learn to write better or process your thinking and improve your knowledge much.  Such writing is barely acceptable (or worse) college writing, not good college writing.

College writing as intellectual tools: What, in fact, does college writing have to offer you beyond several decent grades?  Another definition of college writing is that it teaches you the tools of college-level thinking and of professional writing.  Regular tools--whether they are kitchen tools or repair, electronic, or beauty tools--are best learned by being used.  Instructions help, of course, especially coming from someone who already knows how to use them, but the strongest and most lasting tool knowledge comes from practice.  Similarly, in college, a wide variety of thinking and action tools are taught.  The best way to learn them is to practice them.  This is why college writing is so popular in many places.  It, along with speaking (formal and informal) and physical practice, are the best ways to actually absorb, recall, and make use of new knowledge--more powerful in most people than mere memorization (however important it may be at times, as well). 

The tools of college thinking that college writing teaches are many: sophisticated, careful logic; thorough comparison-contrast; several types of rational argument; perceptive, complex judgment; and so many other patterns.  These are helpful for the deeper and longer thinking and action processes you must learn and use in college. 

In addition, our majors in college prepare us for our future disciplines and professions.  The "scientific lab report" mentioned above is a fundamental tool in science--if you don't learn it so well that it becomes second nature, you can't be a good scientist.  Likewise, the "case study" mentioned above is so much a part of the way that psychologists think that if you don't make it part of your own mind on a deep level and learn its structure flawlessly, you cannot be a good professional psychologist.  Most college writing "tools" really are just reflections on paper of the fundamental ways intelligent people think and go about their jobs.

College writing as pain: Yet another definition of college writing is that it is a pain.  It's easy to feel and hear this definition when first-year students are sitting around groaning about a paper that is due the next day or one they just got back, saying and feeling they can't wait until they are done with that course or with college entirely so they can get away from writing so much.  However, consider what you learned as a little kid and how many times you groaned or even, when you were very small, cried because you didn't want to have to do something.  The situation is similar in college writing sometimes: in fact, you should count yourself lucky when you do have a teacher who requires writing or other practice rather than simple objective tests: you're much more likely to remember what you had to write (or speak, discuss, or practice) than what you simply had to repeat on an objective test.

In addition, try interviewing someone in your profession about how much writing he or she must do.  In most professions that require a two-year college degree--and in almost every profession requiring a four-year degree or more--a large part of your time will be spent in writing.  The writing may often be informal, such as email, or semi-formal, as in business letters and sharing of information with groups.  There also will be times, however, when you'll need to write a formal document, and often such documents make the difference between success when well done and failure or mediocre stagnation when poorly done.  Research survey after survey over the years shows variously that from 50-90% of your work time will be spent on some kind of writing or writing-related task.  Do you want to learn how to be a good writer in your professional life now, in college, or wait until then when supervisors and colleagues need your writing skills and you don't yet have them?

Examples of common types of college writing: The two most common types of college writing are, perhaps, the analysis paper and the thesis paper.  Each has its own chapter in this textbook. 

Briefly, an analysis paper breaks down a page, an idea, or a person, act, or event into several of its parts and examines them; or, alternately, it uses several different points of view or ideas to examine a single object, person, or event.  For example, you might use the viewpoint of a philosopher or his/her philosophy to examine several parts of a play, a social group, or a cultural event.  Or, alternatively, you might use several different methods of psychology--perhaps Freudian, behavioralist, and transactional--to examine a client or patient. 

Briefly, a thesis paper is an argument that starts with a single argumentative opinion or statement; then it proceeds, often using research, to prove that point of view using three or four main proofs.

Perhaps the third most common type of college paper, the research paper, usually is an analysis or thesis with research added.  Other types of papers exist, too.  Some of them are very different from analysis and thesis papers.  However, others are very similar, but are developed using a slightly different structural form: for example, a lab science report is both an analysis (because it applies a hypothesis to the specific parts of an experiment in a lab) and a thesis argument (because it starts with a hypothesis--which is an opinion or thesis--and uses a lab experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis).

Specific examples of papers: If you would like specific examples of excellent college writing, they are everywhere.  However, you may have to learn to ask and to look on your own.  Many instructors will give you examples of good student or professional writing.  If you have such an instructor, ask him or her to go over a sample in class, or to explain the writing assignment in detail during class.  Go to his or her office and ask questions.  Offer to turn in a rough draft of your own writing ahead of time so she can glance at and respond to it with suggestions.  If your instructor does not provide sample papers, then search for them yourself; once you've found one or more, ask your instructor to look at them and ask him/her which ones she thinks are best for her writing assignment.  The best examples and samples come from your own instructor.  In addition, this textbook has one or more samples at the end of each chapter about a specific type of writing.  You also can find some great examples of a variety of research papers in "Perfect Papers?" at Samples of a wide variety of college-level papers can be found in several of's chapters.  And samples of a variety of disciplinary and professional papers can be found in's "Chapter ."


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Three Keys for College Writing

College writing has several keys.  One is that instructors expect you to write for an audience.  Another is that you must learn to write in several disciplines.  A third is that you must, sooner or later, know how to perform good research.


Key 1: Writing for an Audience

One key is this: what does it mean to write for an audience?  This is an expectation that college instructors have, whether they say it or not.  Once you understand this expectation, it will help you get closer to unlocking the mystery, "What does my instructor expect?"

Let me start with a brief story.  Luckily, I first discovered what it meant to write for an audience in high school.  Our teacher in my English class, Mrs. Hoffman, was fresh out of school and had a lot of excitement, energy, and new ideas about teaching English.  She had us write a lot of papers.  Then she gave us an assignment to write and present a speech.  I decided to present a humorous speech. 

When I sat down to start writing the speech, I was dumbstruck.  I had no idea how to start or what to say.  I started getting scared.  I realized I was used to writing for Mrs. Hoffman--or each of my past teachers--and I had no idea how to write for twenty-five separate people at one time, let alone my own fellow students!   How, I wondered, do you make twenty-five separate people laugh? 

I finally decided that rather than make up jokes myself, I would write a report on the humor in Mad magazine.  I choose three main subtopics, and for each of them I looked for examples in Mad that might make at least half of the class laugh.  I was very nervous when I presented my speech.  I had barely started when I heard and saw some people already starting to laugh.  I became braver.  More people started laughing, and by the end almost everyone in the class had had several good laughs.  A few people even had tears in their eyes from laughing so hard.  I got a good grade, but in my own mind, what I really remembered--and still do, now--was how I made a big switch with that writing assignment.  I learned how to go beyond writing for just one teacher.  I learned how to write for an audience of many.

College instructors expect the same thing.  They don't expect humor, of course--just the opposite, usually.  And usually they will be the only person who sees your paper.  Yet the "audience" for whom your instructors want you to write is a very large, even huge, invisible-to-you (but not to your instructors!) group of experts in your instructors' fields of discipline.  In other words, your literature instructor wants you to write a paper that would be of scholarly interest in at least some small way to the thousands of college literature instructors who read academic and scholarly journals by and for literature instructors about literary subjects.  Your science lab instructor wants you to write your science lab report so well that if it were on something new, he or she could help you publish it in a science journal.  Your instructor in a composition, rhetoric, or college writing course may have a slightly different--but even larger--audience in mind: he or she would like you to write a thesis paper or analysis that is so well written that tens of thousands of liberal arts college instructors would consider it an excellent essay.

One of your first thoughts might be, "How can I possibly write that well?"  There are three methods of working your way to the point that you can, indeed, write that well, or nearly so.  One is to look at samples.  Ask your instructor for sample papers by students.  Look online.  See the samples in this textbook--there usually are two to four sample student papers in each chapter about how to write a specific type of paper.  Also take a look at the samples in in Chapter 12. "Types of College Papers" and Chapter 20. "Types of Major/Work Writing," where many of the links go to websites with sample student papers.  Ask your friends who have received A's from the same instructor to show you examples of their work for the class.  Bring several samples to your instructor and ask him or her which she thinks are the better models of what she wants, and which ones aren't.

Another method is to remember that even though you are writing for an audience of thousands in the instructor's mind, in most cases you still are writing for that one instructor--or rather, for his image of what a good paper in his disciplinary field looks like. 

In this regard, I remember when I was first struggling to become a published freelance writer.  I was starting to get my magazine articles--written for tens or even hundreds of thousands of subscribers--accepted for publication.  But the editors always seemed to change my great titles, which I had worked hard on so they would appeal to all the subscribers.  Finally, I just gave up spending a lot of time working on the titles, and I simply made a quick list of a few titles that I thought the editor would like and then chose one.  As soon as I started doing that, the editors started consistently using my titles--instead of theirs--when they published my articles. 

So, as you write for an entire discipline of thousands of unseen instructors in the field of your instructor, remember that you are really writing for his interpretation of what a good essay in his field looks like.  This also means you're really smart to ask him or her questions about your paper, its initial idea, its design, and its direction and style as you work on it.  You also can often get very sophisticated, experienced help in your school's writing center.  Both of these strategies--talking and even meeting with your instructor and a writing center tutor--are not the refuge of poor students but rather the success stories of the students who get good to excellent grades. 

Another strategy regarding audience that works very well for some people is to choose a bright friend or family member whom you like, someone who does not know much about the subject of your paper but would be able to understand it if you explained it to him or her.  Imagine you are writing the paper directly to that person.  It may give your paper a better flow with more natural and detailed examples.  I used to imagine I was writing for a close friend from high school who had gone on to another college.  And when I started getting published, I discovered that if I could find a picture of a magazine's editor, along with an editorial by that editor, I could imagine myself writing directly to that person, and I would usually write better, as a result, for that editor and magazine.  You can do something similar with either a friend or your instructor. 

A final method concerning audience is to bring your sights a little lower--to a practical level that many instructors, themselves, recognize.  This level is personified in many ways by the national undergraduate research movement.  This movement is relatively recent: it includes hundreds of universities across the country, including some of our best, where instructors have developed, at each of these universities, an undergraduate research journal and/or conference. 

At each school's conference, some of the best student papers of the year are presented to other students and to instructors, just as at a professional or scholarly conference; and/or the best student papers are published in a campus-wide research journal.  At some of these schools, the conference or journal is a state- or system-level event: students from throughout that state or that university or college system can apply to present their papers of have them published.  Any paper presented or published at this level is considered "A" level work by almost all instructors in those fields.  You can, in fact, see many of these journals themselves, and the articles in them, at the Council on Undergraduate Research website.

Who is the audience for these papers?  It is excellent students, such as those majoring in a discipline in their last two years of college.  It may help you to imagine that that is the level of excellent for which you are trying to write--and to learn how to write--when you write papers for an audience.  Ask your instructor for help in writing well "as if you were a major in that discipline."  Ask for sample papers, if possible, and as mentioned above, bring your own writing or other samples to your instructor to see what works and what does not.  Asking questions of instructors is one of the most important success methods in college.


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Key 2: Writing in Multiple Disciplines

Second, what does it mean to write in multiple disciplines?  Another way of asking this question is what are the standards and expectations of each discipline or course and its instructor?

In high school, when you wrote, you often wrote what might be called the generic high school essay: an introduction, a conclusion, and several middle paragraphs.  If you had to write in some other courses, you may also have briefly experienced scientific lab reports, possibly a little business writing (such as letters), and writing short essay answers to tests.  Unless you had AP or college-level courses during high school, you probably didn't experience much variety in types of writing.

However, college offers so many other types.  In introductory composition, writing, or rhetoric courses, you learn to expand the "high-school essay" into much more complex, rich, and rewarding multi-paragraph essays.  Sometimes those essays have specialized sections, such as a brief summary or abstract near the beginning.  In introductory science courses, you may learn to write lab reports in science's "IMRaD" style: "Introduction," "Methods/Materials," "Results," "and" "Discussion."  If you take a psychology, social sciences, or nursing course, you may learn the write a "case study" using the sections "Introduction," "Client/Patient," "Problem," and "Plan/Treatment."   Journalism and creative writing have their 5 W's for reporting details ("who," "what," "where," "when," and "why/how").  Business and professional writing have a specific proposal pattern ("Problem," "Solution," "Plan," and "Results").  If you take a literature or arts appreciation course, you'll learn how to analyze the works of art according to the discipline's step-by-step methods.

At first, thinking about this may seem a little overwhelming.  However, there are some basic patterns to all of it.  One basic pattern is that you start with a problem and then, step by step--and in different ways in different disciplines--you solve the problem.  Another basic pattern comes from speech lessons: tell your audience what you will say, say it, and then tell them what you said.  In a paper, this means you start with an introductory paragraph stating what you will say, then in the body of the paper you say it, and in the end you have a concluding paragraph stating what you have said.  Yet another common pattern is good, clear paragraphing: paragraphs that have a good transition at the beginning, end, or both, good introductory and concluding sentences (similar to a very brief intro and conclusion), and clear, step-by-step details in the middle or body section of the paragraph. 

You learn all of these by a mix of reading textbooks, asking questions of your instructors, listening carefully to their instructions about writing, and--most important--practicing as much as possible.  Learning to write well is like learning to ride a bicycle: once you learn the basics in person, by trying them, you can fly (or at least move forward well), and you never really forget these basics.

The important point, though, is that there are, in fact, a variety of ways of writing in college.  If you have an introductory writing course, it will help you learn the most general pattern--thesis writing and/or analysis, along with research skills.  If you don't have an introductory writing course, then you must be especially forward enough to ask your instructors questions about what they want in writing assignments, and/or you need to seek out written lessons (like this textbook and others online or in print) on your own.


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Key 3: Thorough, Logical Research

[Note: Much of this "Key 3" material is repeated and expanded in the chapter in this textbook called "What Is 'Research'?"]

A third key is to learn how to perform good research.  What is good research?  Here is a three-part definition: what it is, what it is not, and what some examples are of good research.

First, good research is thorough and logical.  It starts with a hypothesis--an initial idea or argument--and proceeds to prove or disprove it.  It does so logically and fairly in a balanced, consistent manner.  It considers opposing viewpoints and accounts for those logically and fairly.  It also should be easily verifiable to others if they were to simply repeat what you have done and said, and the resulting report (whether in writing or not) should make your point so clearly that others usually will not need to repeat it to verify it.  Additionally, good research often requires peer-reviewed sources (usually this means essays checked by two or more experts in the author's field of work) , primary sources (meaning the author was there, him or herself), or both.  Finally, good research means taking the time to do these activities correctly, to think about them in each step, and to re-examine and revise the first draft of the results.

What is good research not?  It is not a quick looking up of sources the night before a report is due.  The research usually can not be limited to just the web.  It usually cannot include Wikipedia and most other online general dictionaries and encyclopedias (though these sometimes may be used to generate initial ideas and directions) because those who write the articles for them may not be recognized experts in the fields of work the articles discuss.  Good research also usually does not use famous quotations or scriptural passages as proofs (with a very few exceptions).  Good research is not accepting just any web site, but rather only using certain ones of high academic or professional quality and integrity.  Good research also is not always, or exclusively, research of or resulting in writing: it can also mean a well done lab experiment, one or a series of interviews, or a group of close and logical observations, and the result can be a paper, poster presentation, a visual and speech presentation, or a demonstration of an experiment or result.

One fine example of research is Dr. Martin Luther King's April 16, 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Though it is not as rhetorically powerful as his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., it is written for an audience of his academic peers--other ministers in Birmingham--who were well educated.  Though King did not provide a bibliography--the letter had a more informal style--still throughout it he gave strongly persuasive quotations from famous world thinkers throughout history, including founders of U.S. democracy.  As he wrote, he cited the author and their books for his quotations.  As a research paper in the liberal arts, it is brilliant. 

Another example of research is by Francis Crick and James B. Watson, the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA.  Their April 25, 1953 article in Nature was significant enough to eventually earn them a Nobel Prize ("A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid").  They wrote their article very logically and thoroughly in typical dry scientific prose using an understated tone, given the importance of it.  They referred to a number of research studies that were published before their work and on which their own work was built.  After they wrote their essay, the issue was so important and so creatively addressed that it took a number of years for all of their work to be validated.  But the truth of it was based on absolutely thorough, careful research. 

An example of a local research study is one done by the honor society at Inver Hills College near St. Paul, Minnesota.  The students chose to complete a project about recycling and beverages.  The students interviewed several dozen other students--through a purposely-randomized selection process using a questionnaire showing no bias--about what kinds of beverage recycling processes the students would actively use.  The club members discovered that having recyclable coffee cups and water bottles would be popular and, through additional research, would save a large amount plastic, so the students then spoke to the college's administration and its food service to develop new programs.  Now the food service sells recyclable coffee cups, students get discounts on their coffee when they use these cups, and students also may inexpensive recyclable water bottles at cost and use them at special clean-water dispensers throughout the campus.

Conclusion: What Do You Gain from College Writing?

If you pay attention to college writing, you will literally expand your brain.  During learning, brain cells grow like vines, reach out to other brain cells, and intermix with them like the tips of leaves from different branches brushing against each other.  When these "leaves" are close enough to brush each other, the brain cells interchange chemical messengers.

This means the more you actually practice something (as opposed to merely reading and remembering it), the more your brain cells grow and--more importantly--the more connections they make with other branches of your brain.  This additional growth means not only stronger, better learning.  It also means you will be able to use and reuse what you've learned in a wider variety and frequency of situations now and in your future.

Like other activities you actually practice, writing practice makes you better at what writing does.  And what it does is build thinking tools--the intellectual skills and creativity that you bring not just to college work, but to your life, your relationships, and your future professions.  College writing--like other activities such as college talking and discussion and college-level practice in a future profession--provides some of the best learning you will achieve in college.  However, it can do so only if you practice it and help it grow within you.


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21. What is "College Writing"

22. Levels of College Writer

23. Resources & Readings



 Related Links in

Perfect Papers?

12. Types of Papers

20. Writing in Disciplines

Updated 1 Nov. 2013

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1st through 5th Editions:: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012.
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted.
Permission is hereby granted for nonprofit educational copying and use without a written request.
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Click here to contact the author: Richard Jewell.  Questions and suggestions are welcome.