The prompt is as much a part of the assignment as the paper itself.
Navigating a prompt can seem daunting to a student, but some simple guidelines, that can be applied to most assignment descriptions, can help. An action plan, leading to the paper’s action plan, is not so daunting because it is based on common sense questions:
Did I read it? Read it-all the way through, before anything else.
What is the overall objective of this assignment? The prompt probably contains a statement to that effect. Highlight or label it.
What are the “givens,” the technical stuff? Make a list of to-dos, such as length, style, due date, etc. These become a simple checklist. Save it the for last, after the work is done. (Don’t wrap the box before the present is inside.)
Who is the audience? Who, other than the instructor, are you writing for? (This might be a real audience, or it might be a “made-up”one for the purposes of the paper. Either way, it doesn’t matter; it gives you focus, and helps you strategize.)
What is this? Highlight anything that just isn’t clear or doesn’t make sense, and ASK. (The teacher and/or the writing center are there to help.)
What materials will I need (research, texts, etc.)?
Are there any special rules or exceptions for this assignment (e.g. an author’s note, or an exception to an MLA or APA rule, etc.) If not, then forget about it.
Get all these things “sorted,” as they say in England, then, think about a tentative thesis, and finally, begin that outline. Breaking it down into bits, eliminates the scary. They’re just things to do.
Here’s some more detailed information from Purdue and UNC:
The process of transitioning from research notes to a first draft can be daunting, and the creation of outlines and mind maps eases the way for many writers. But what if your favored method of working is a direct dive into writing pages and pages of exposition until you reach the conclusion? Can stream-of-consciousness drafts result in quality essays?
The truth is, readers can easily spot an essay that hasn’t been shaped. Some telltale signs are repetitiveness, disorganization, paragraphs that don’t align with topic sentences, and a conclusion that doesn’t match the thesis statement. To a professor, these are signs of a hastily crafted, night-before-it’s-due paper; to an editor, they’re signs that an author isn’t invested in the work being done. No matter what your writing timeline is, these are impressions to avoid, and there’s a relatively pain-free fix. It’s called “the reverse outline.”
Sometimes the mention of the word “outline” has writers rolling their eyes and envisioning roman numeral exercises from elementary school, but a reverse outline is a fast and simple method for revealing the bones of your work and is a critical part of the revising and editing process. Here’s one method for reverse outlining:
Read each paragraph, and write out the main point in the left margin.
In the right margin, write down how each paragraph supports and advances the thesis.
Review the right margin notes. Is there a logical build and direction that moves the reader from your thesis to the conclusion? If not, what needs to be shifted, added, or removed?
Review the left margin notes. Are any main points repeated? Are there paragraphs where it was difficult to identify a main point? Are several main points jumbled together in the same paragraph? Are there sentences that don’t support the paragraph’s main point? What shifts might be necessary to resolve any of these issues?
Making those shifts: move paragraphs, delete sentences, and clarify connections and focus.
Note if there are sufficient signposts and transitions for the reader to follow the re-ordered argument and evidence.
Carry on with your usual editing and proofreading from here!
With a small bit of fine-tuning through the use of these reverse outline suggestions, a stream-of-consciousness draft can evolve into a logically structured essay with great flow while fully supporting the thesis and effectively guiding the reader to a logical conclusion. Not bad for avoiding the use of roman numerals! Even your elementary school teacher would be proud.
Do you want to publish your art or writing? Do you enjoy reading the work of others and talking about writing? Do your friends always ask you to help proofread their papers? Getting involved in a campus publication is a great way to get some résumé-building experience with writing, editing, design, publishing, and even marketing and event planning.
Following is a list of campus publications at St. Edward’s, with links for more information. Note that each publication has different guidelines, policies, schedules, and needs, and most are staffed by students and faculty who juggle many responsibilities. If you want to get involved, be sure to read the information on the publication’s website, if it has one, and be respectful and professional when emailing publication staff. (Here are Five Tips for Better Email.)
Arete, published annually in print, is the university’s academic journal. Submission guidelines are on the web.
Cabra is a student-run fashion magazine on the web. For contact information, see the Masthead section of the website.
Hilltop Views is the campus newspaper, which publishes in print and online. To learn how to get involved, see the Contact Us and Submission links at the bottom of the website.
J-Source: A St. Edward’s Undergraduate Research Journal is the faculty-edited journal of SOURCE (Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression), an annual event. For more information, contact Dr. Victoria Hill.
New Literati is an arts and literary journal published online and in print. See the journal’s website for contact and submission information.
What do you do when your piece of writing no longer looks like the ideas, shapely rhetoric, and graceful sentences you put into it but a pool of melting ugh on the page? Ideally, you put it away—for a few hours, a day, a weekend, a decade. But if your deadline is within the hour? Hack the system.
The system, in this case, is your brain. It is so smart that it knows how to read misspelled words and glosses over all kinds of minor obstacles to glean meaning. Also, it doesn’t spend time noticing stuff you’ve already seen; it’s after novelty. This system is great for the survival and development of our species but not so good at catching small (but potentially annoying and reputation-busting) errors in our own work.
How to Trick Your Brain into Noticing Errors
Have someone read the paper to you. No one around? Read it out loud to yourself.
Print it out. If you don’t usually do that, your brain will pay more attention.
Change the font. Make it really big. Make it ugly. If the writing looks good in Comic Sans, it’s probably pretty good writing. (Just don’t forget to change it back!)
Change the background color.
Change your environment. Usually write at the kitchen table? Take your laptop or printed copy to a coffee shop, a library, your backyard—anywhere you don’t usually work on your writing.
Tech Hacks for Proofreading
Prefer to use an app to help you proofread? Here are some strategies to try:
Use a speedreading app, like Readsy (on the web) or RushReader (for mobile). These apps use a technology called Spritz, which presents one word at a time in the same place, so your eyes don’t have to move. The purpose of these apps is to train you to read faster, but if you keep the adjustable speed on a slower setting, they’re great for proofreading, too. Here’s an example of what Readsy looks like in action:
Use a text-to-speech app to have your computer or device read the writing to you. Most devices have some sort of text-to-speech app built in: VoiceOver for Mac and iOS devices; Narrator for Windows, Talkback for Android devices.
You find the article in an online database but print it out for highlighting. You show up to class with a laptop (dead battery, no charger) and a pen (no paper). You’re reading an ebook, but your style guide is full of advice for citing print books. It’s not just you—today’s reading and writing environment is beautiful mess, a hybrid of the print and the digital.
This hybrid environment can leave all of us writers and researchers—students and professionals alike—confused about how to get started, keep track of research and organize a project, facilitate focus amid constant distractions and massive amounts of text and information, and iterate drafts. But entrepreneurial readers and writers can take advantage of this environment by developing unique combinations of strategies and methods that leverage their strengths and make sense for their projects.
With our pals in the Munday Library, we’ve developed the following big-picture sampler, with links to many resources on campus and online, of strategies that readers and writers might pull from as they develop unique processes.
Serious about developing your writing skills? In the Good Reads on Writing series, we’ll suggest some books and articles in which writers give insider tips, complain about their writing problems, and tell stories about how they got from idea or assignment to published work.
If you’re in a certain mood, you might find the title Good Prose (find it at the Austin Public Library)to be a reminder that most of the writing we do is not going to be great, and that even our best efforts might result in something that’s merely good enough. But it’s also a reminder that writing that good-enough stuff is hard work, real work. Authors Tracy Kidder, a writer, and Richard Todd, his editor for many years at the Atlantic, make no secrets of the many drafts tossed in the wastebasket during the process of crafting articles and books. Over the four decades that Todd and Kidder worked together, they’ve come up with lots of golden advice. Here are a few nuggets from the book:
There are two kinds of rewriting: tinkering with words and sentences, and actually writing the thing again.
Write a first draft as quickly as possible. Then you won’t feel so bad about yourself when you have to scrap the whole thing.
Be wary of using voices that try to nuzzle up too close to the reader.
Sometimes you must sacrifice beloved parts for the survival of the whole.
Don’t mess with chronology unless you have an extremely good reason to do so.
“Something is always wrong with a draft.”
“All prose responds to work.”
The book itself exemplifies clarity we should all strive for in writing. It’s a product of editorial synthesis, the result of collaboration between a writer and an editor who are equally relentless. Few writers have this relationship, but if you happen into one, by all means, don’t let it go.
Why can’t I use “they” as a singular pronoun? I tried to use “he or she” instead, but it’s cluttering up my writing! Are there any other options?
The short answer for students is as follows: avoid the singular “they” in formal writing unless you’re a language-change renegade, you’re working in a progressive discipline, or you know your professor is OK with it. Use plurals instead.
This is a hot topic, so we created a Slideshare to answer the question.