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It’s the first English class of your college career. You’ve got this down though. You walk into class, ready to take on any paper they throw at you. After all, you’ve had so much practice writing essays in high school. Intro, meat in the middle, conclusion. You inwardly scoff at the fact that you are even reviewing what a thesis statement is, let alone a few of your fellow classmates have trouble defining it.

The first essay assignment comes around and you breeze through it. This is sure to be an easy A class.

Your paper comes back… bleeding red ink.

Papers covered in red ink are initially a stab to the pride, but if taken in stride they can actually help you personally improve your writing skills, a necessity for the next four years.

College level writing classes may seem a ridiculous requirement at first glance, but they are necessary for a reason.

For one, they are there to help get rid of bad writing habits developed during high school. Here are some tips to help you through the college writing classes:

1. Defining your thesis.

Coming up with the thesis? This is probably one of the most difficult things for most students, leaving many staring at a blank computer screen for hours. A thesis is NOT a summary. Think about something you would like to analyze in the novel and that you can back up with literary evidence. However, do not use obvious analyzations you can find on SparkNotes. Do not use over generalizations such as “In this world, people experience pain, just like X character in this novel…” Professors do not like to see this. (It’s also a bit presumptuous to try and sum up the way of the universe in one or two sentences)

2. Go see the professor or GSI personally.

They are not enemies, but people who are there to personally help improve your writing. If you have an upcoming paper, visit the professor or GSI during his office hours and discuss your possible ideas. Go over returned rough drafts together. Talking personally works a lot better than just reading comments they wrote in the margins of your rough draft.

3. Do not forget your thesis statement.

Do all the points in your body paragraph relate back to the point you are trying to make in your thesis? Everyone has their own ways of writing their papers, but what I do is write down my thesis statement on a sticky note and stick it at the top of my computer screen. I look up at it periodically to remind myself of my thesis and to make sure that I am staying on topic.

4. Hanging quotes and anecdotes are a no-no.

Do not just pull a quote from a book and throw it into your paper by itself. Does it really help to prove your thesis statement? Give context, but do not give a whole-book-summary that can be a paragraph in itself. If a paragraph extends over a page, consider if everything in it is really necessary. Offer analyzation of the quote and how that contributes to your thesis statement. My general rule is to write at least two sentences that analyze the quote and relate it back to my thesis statement. Afterwards, check the analyzation for the following:

a) Do you really offer an analyzation that is an original idea, and

b) not just a reiteration of the quote, and

c) were you able to tie it back to your thesis?

5. Cut out the fluff.

Do not throw in unnecessary summarization. Or statements that have no real analyzation or do nothing to contribute to the point you are trying to prove in your paper. Professors and GSIs see right through fluff, a high school writing habit to fill that 5-page minimum, that they want to rid their students of. Try to be as concise as possible with what you are trying to say. Can what you said in three sentences actually be cut down to just one sentence?

6. The introduction and conclusion are actually important.

The introduction leads the reader into the paper. Like a first impression, they judge from there if this will be an interesting paper or not, and if they really would like to continue reading. Be careful of over generalizations here too. Even now, conclusions are still the hardest for me to write. Restate your thesis, offer a bit of summary of your paper, and perhaps a slightly broader or bigger idea, but do not offer totally new ideas that could be put in as a body paragraph. You want to end your paper strongly.

7. Do not procrastinate.

Writing papers the night before makes it difficult to gather the thesis, ideas and evidence and tie them all together well. Give yourself a few days to write your paper. Give yourself time to:

a) Write out all your possible thesis ideas

b) Find quotes and literary evidence

c) Come up with a rough outline

d) And finally, enough time so that you can leave your paper for a day. Then go back to it the following day. This allows you to clear your head and look at your paper from a fresh perspective. Going at a paper for so many hours straight can make you get too focused on tiny details, lose perspective, or just not consider other possible viewpoints. After taking a day’s break, look over your paper as whole and try to think about it as a reader who has no idea what your thesis is about and who may or may not have a different point of view. Consider opposing ideas to your thesis and how you would approach arguing your point against them in your paper.

These are just a few personal tips I have to offer, and perhaps they might not be for everyone, but some of these have really helped me improve my writing.

I think the foremost (but hardest) thing to do is to get over one’s pride. Accept that writing is different at this level and you need to relearn it the college way, and that you have to unlearn some habits as well. Professors and GSIs are not there to discourage students by telling them, “You don’t know how to write,” but there to teach their students how to write.

College writing can be quite different from high school writing. When I was in high school, essays often felt like, “This is a writing prompt, fill it with five pages of words.” Professors are looking to see your original ideas, your thought process, and that you really are thinking for yourself. After all, isn’t one big aspect of college finding your own voice?

Check out the video below for helpful tips on how to write a thesis.
How to Write a Thesis

Any other tips on college writing classes? Let us know in the comments below!


Photo courtesy of vancouverfilmschool via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).