I returned papers to students yesterday and decided to give them some writing tips.

No reflection on the papers: this is a high-level class with rugged and engaged students, and the papers were pretty darn good. Truth is no one is a good editor of her own work and needs a keen eye to review the final draft.

Some time ago I began writing down the issues I see with writing that recur in every class. I even created a survey and asked friends who teach writing to tell me their pet peeves. The materials are now collected, and as I began writing tips for students, before I knew it I’d finished 30 pages.

Clearly this wasn’t something I could just hand out to students. They’d be overwhelmed.

I figured a better approach would be a type of book that a student could pick up at a university bookstore in the “How To” section or tucked in with “College Success” books. I set the book aside to let it brew: one of the things a good writer needs to do is—if you have time—get away from your writing for a time because it always looks different when you return.

I decided to extract some central points and gave students 3 pages (rather than 30) of single-spaced advice. Here are some of the highlights.

Complaints from college professors fall into three areas: grammar, structure and proofing. They say: students don’t know punctuation, grammar and spelling (computer spell-checks don’t catch everything). Students don’t write complete sentences.

Students don’t know how to frame their papers and don’t follow sound structure. Here’s what the faculty said students need to: Organize the paper around the topic or theme; Use each paragraph as the structure to build your argument; Connect your paragraphs; Write in an active voice.

None of this is new. But it’s good to hear from folks who teach day in and day out. They also said students need to spend more time proofing and revising. One professor suggested: “Revise! Revise! Revise!” Another said that “The more you revise, the stronger your paper.”

I added the following tips to help strengthen papers:
• Clarity. Often students will make a statement and then move to another item without explaining what you meant by the first statement.
• Examples. Illustrate your main points with clear examples from the readings or one of your own that shows deep thinking.
• Transitions. When you move from one thought to the next, make sure you segue smoothly.
• Quotes. Professors encourage you to bring quotes into your paper to illustrate what you’re saying and to show that you’ve read the material, so use quotes, and make sure you explain what they mean. Often you don’t show the grader that you understand the quote. If you don’t interpret the quote, then it looks like the quote is just floating.
• An ending. You need to wrap up your paper and give it a resounding end. Most of the term papers I read end abruptly.
• A beginning. Readers want to know what they’re getting into when they start reading your work. So tell them. But I often wait until the paper is finished, review it, and then I go back and re-write the beginning. Once I know what I actually said, it’s much easier to write a few paragraphs about what I’ve already written.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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2 Responses to Writing

  1. Nate Hanson says:

    Great read, Dr. Coleman. Do you remember me from PSU?

    I’d love to read the 3-page document. I hope you’re doing well.



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