The College Writer

Why write?

In most of the courses you take at Skidmore, you will have many chances to write. Besides assigning essays, your professors may ask you to write

  • summaries of readings
  • response papers
  • case studies
  • lab reports
  • information reports
  • responses to study questions
  • your classmates
  • responses to essay exam questions.

Professors give these writing assignments to help you understand and respond to the lectures, readings, and experiences of the course; to give you a chance to expand the boundaries of the course by doing outside research; and, most important of all, to help you grow as a critical thinker.

The term "critical" means "questioning," "active," and "inquiring." Rather than read only for information, you read actively, responding to a writer's argument, ideas, or conclusions; looking at evidence and evaluating the strength of that evidence; drawing inferences; formulating your own arguments; asking questions -- and more questions. Your writing, whatever form it takes, will show the result of this inquiring and questioning habit of mind.

What does your professor want?

At Skidmore, your professors read your written work looking for evidence of your own ideas. How are you interpreting the material you are reading and the ideas you are hearing in class? What questions are you asking about readings? How are you relating one reading to another? How are you integrating class lectures with readings, or readings with field or laboratory work? How clearly can you explain, in your own words, key concepts of the course?

It goes without saying that your professor wants your best work. Your writing should show that you've taken an assignment seriously, thought about it, and cared enough to proofread your work for typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors. For most assignments, professors expect your work to be typed (or printed on a letter quality printer) and double-spaced. College-level work

  • is written in complete, correct sentences
  • has been proofread
  • is logically organized, with transitions that link one sentence to the next and one paragraph to the next
  • responds to the assignment
  • shows evidence of intellectual effort.
This last phrase is important - and difficult. Sometimes, when course readings are complicated and lengthy, merely doing the reading assignments feels like strenuous intellectual effort. Writing, though, pushes your thinking a step further. We've all had the experience of being able to participate in class or join in a conversation by sharing our thoughts. But sitting down to write those thoughts feels different and harder. Writing involves choosing exactly the right word to express our ideas (we can't get by with "You know what I mean!"); finding a logical order for those ideas; and framing those ideas with an interesting introduction and conclusion.

A few useful terms

You'll notice that we mention "key words" in several places in this guide. When you read, it's important to understand an author's key words; and when you write, it' s important to explain your own key words to your readers. In this section, we'll define some key words about writing.

1. Thesis statement, argument, main idea, focus. All essays should have a main idea: a sentence or two that tells your reader what the essay is about. This sentence usually appears in your first paragraph or introduction. If you have trouble formulating a main idea, you may not understand the question you are being asked to write about, you may not have done enough reading or research, or you simply may not have done enough thinking.

We'll use the term "main idea' interchangeably with "argument," "focus," or "thesis statement."

A strong thesis statement

  • reflects your own critical thinking about the topic
  • conveys your own argument or point of view
  • is not self-evident or obvious (if you can add the word "obviously" to your thesis statement, you should think of ways to strengthen your idea)
  • can be supported by evidence from readings, course material, observations, data
  • allows for development of ideas, not just repetition of one idea.

2. Assertions. These are the ideas that you will present throughout your essay in support of your main idea. Usually, writers develop paragraphs by offering evidence for the assertion that serves as the topic sentence.

3. Evidence. Evidence consists of details from your sources that support your assertions. An assignment often indicates what kind of evidence (from readings, research, field trips, laboratory work) is appropriate for the paper. Your assignment may also indicate whether or not your professor expects you to do outside research to find evidence.

4. Paragraph coherence. Paragraphs are an important unit in an essay. Think of them as building blocks for the architectural structure that is your essay. Each paragraph should develop a new assertion, not merely repeat that assertion in different words. When you revise a draft, read your paragraphs to make sure they are coherent: that is, that they contain only ideas and evidence relating to the topic sentence. In some essays, you may need more than one paragraph to develop an assertion fully. This group of related paragraphs is called a paragraph cluster.

5. Transitions. These terms help the reader understand the logic of your writing by connecting one sentence to another and one paragraph to another. Common transitional terms include

  • however, nevertheless
  • on the contrary, on the other hand, although
  • similarly, likewise
  • for example, for instance
  • furthermore, consequently, moreover, therefore
  • besides, also, in addition.

Transitions are easy to establish if you pick up a key term in one sentence and reword it in the next sentence. This reference helps the reader to follow your thinking. Furthermore, by using transitions, you will avoid choppy style. (We've shown two strategies for making transitions - repeating a key term and using a transitional word - in the preceding three sentences.)

In the sections that follow, you'll find tips on generating ideas, organizing an essay, writing clearly and correctly, editing your own work, and becoming an active reader. Writing Center tutors contributed many ideas to these sections, based on their own experiences as writers and on their work with students. We hope that you'll find the Writing Center a useful resource during your career at Skidmore.