How to Write

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WRITING IN COLLEGE
Some students make very smooth transitions from writing in high school to writing in college, and we heartily wish all of you an easy passage.  But other students are puzzled and frustrated by their experiences in writing for college classes.  Only months earlier your writing was winning praise; now your instructors are dissatisfied, saying that the writing isn't quite "there" yet, saying that the writing is "lacking something."  You haven't changed--your writing is still mechanically sound, your descriptions are accurate, you're saying smart things.  But they're still not happy.  Some of the criticism is easy to understand:  it's easy to predict that standards at college are going to be higher than in high school.  But it is not just a matter of higher standards:  Often, what your instructors are asking of you is not just something better, but something different.  If that's the case, then you won't succeed merely by being more intelligent or more skillful at doing what you did in high school.  Instead, you'll need to direct your skills and your intelligence to a new task. We should note here that a college is a big place and that you'll be asked to use writing to fulfill different tasks.  You'll find occasions where you'll succeed by summarizing a reading accurately and showing that you understand it.  There may be times when you're invited to use writing to react to a reading, speculate about it.  Far more often--like every other week--you will be asked to analyze the reading, to make a worthwhile claim about it that is not obvious (state a thesis means almost the same thing), to support your claim with good reasons, all in four or five pages [in your case 500 words] that are organized to present an argument. Not all of your instructors will be equally clear about what they expect of your paper.  Some will tell you in detail what to read, how to think about it, and how to organize your paper, but others will ask a general question just to see what you can do with it.  Some instructors will expect you to stay close to the assignment, penalizing you if you depart from it; others will encourage you to strike out on your own.  Some few instructors may want you to demonstrate only that you have read and understood a reading, but most will want you to use your understanding of the reading as a jumping-off point for an analysis and an argument. So your first step in writing an assigned paper occurs well before you begin writing:  You must know what your instructor expects. Start by assuming that, unless you see the words "Summarize or paraphrase what X says about…," your instructor is unlikely to want just a summary. Beyond this point, however, you have to become a kind of anthropologist, reading the culture of your particular class to understand what is said, what is not, and what is intended. Start by looking carefully at the words of the assignment. If it is phrased in any of these ways, one crucial part of your task has been done for you:  

• "Agree or disagree: 'Freud misunderstood the feminine mind when he wrote…'" • "Was Lear justified in castigating Cordelia when she refused to…?" • "Discuss whether Socrates adequately answered the charge that he corrupted the youth of Athens."  

For questions like these, you start (but it's only a start) by considering two opposing claims:  Freud understood the feminine mind or did not, Lear was or was not justified, Socrates did or did not answer the charges against him.  For reasons we will discuss below, you will not want the claim of your paper to be merely yes or no, he did or he didn't.  But an assignment like this can make it easier to get started because you can immediately begin to find and assess data from your readings.  You can look at passages from the reading and consider how they would support one of the claims. (Remember: this is only a start. You do not want to end up with a claim that says nothing more than "Freud did (or did not) understand the...
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