Can I Conquer College Writing Skills?

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Answered by: Carol, An Expert in the Grammar and Composition - General Category
It's true. Just because you were admitted to college, that doesn't mean you have the writing know-how you need. But you do have the abilities you need, and you can conquer college writing skills.

And just to put your mind at ease, your professor won't expect you to walk through the door as an accomplished writer. She expects that she will have to teach you – that's why she's scribbling on the chalkboard at the front of the room. But she also expects that you will do the work necessary to learn college writing skills. She can only offer you the information and techniques. It's up to you to apply them.

Many college writing teachers use higher-order and lower-order writing concerns to teach and evaluate writing. If you learn what those skills are and then use them as a checklist for every paper, by the end of the semester you will have made a good deal of progress, and you will be ready to tackle writing assignments throughout your college career and into your professional life.

Lower order concerns include grammar, mechanics and spelling. That's right, grammar is a lower order concern. So is spelling, and so are mechanics – capitalization and formatting. Nevertheless, all three are important. Writing specialists refer to them as lower order concerns only because they are not global concerns, which means a few lower order concerns will not destroy a paper. But if your paper is riddled with lower order concerns, you're in trouble.

Oh, and good news about grammar – you've already internalized a lot of it, so while your professor will give the class little refreshers and offer help to individuals, she probably won't spend entire class periods grilling and drilling. If you aren't sure what your pattern of error is on lower order concerns, ask your professor, and ask for help, or see a writing tutor. Unlike grade school and high school, there is no stigma attached to seeing a tutor in college. Really. No one cares.

Higher order concerns are global. If you blow even one higher order concern, it affects the entire paper – in a bad way. Higher order concerns include thesis, focus, development, organization, support, and audience awareness. Many instructors also include logic as part of the must-have college writing skills.

A thesis is an arguable statement that you make at or near the beginning of the paper. Make it a good one. Don't argue the obvious. After that, everything that goes into the paper must in some way support the thesis. If you veer away from arguing your thesis, you have lost focus, another higher order concern. Also, through the body of the paper, each sentence must follow logically from the last one, and likewise, each paragraph should follow logically. This is organization. You've probably heard some people refer to organization as “flow.”

Development refers to fully addressing the issues, including answering counter-arguments. At first, including the main counter-arguments to your point of view may seem counter-intuitive. But if you leave them out, you have left your argument wide open to dispute, so include them, and then rebut them with facts and solid reasoning.

Reasoning, or logic, is critical to every paper. Good writers argue a thesis from facts and a preponderance of evidence -- never from emotion or preconceived but unsupported ideas and prejudices. Good research -- which is basic to college writing skills -- and the facts and evidence that you glean from it will support your thesis. Without support, your thesis fails.

Finally, audience awareness refers to both the tone you strike and your knowing and accommodating the needs of your readers. For example, if you use a lot of contractions and a bit of slang, your tone is casual, rather than formal or scholarly. If you use hot-button words and phrases that you know will raise your reader's blood pressure, your tone is impassioned, maybe unfairly.

Be wary of peppering your paper with big words in an attempt to sound formal. They may confuse readers or just plain put them to sleep. Use them sparingly and only when they are the best words for the job. Formality is better achieved by avoiding contractions and presenting a sophisticated, well-conceived argument.

There you have it. College writing skills are not as mysterious as they seem. You can conquer them, and become a better thinker for it.

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