44 Writing Strategies

April Ring


What you’ll learn to do: explain the purpose of college writing and techniques for successful college writing

Two open journals on a table

It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

—Jack Kerouac, author

By the end of this section, you will be able to describe the purpose of writing assignments and what an instructor might expect to see from your writing. You will be able to identify how to approach common types of college writing tasks. You will identify writing-process steps for the development of academic writing, including revision and proofreading. In addition, you will identify strategies for ethical use of sources in writing.

Why Writing Skills Matter

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the purpose of writing assignments and what an instructor might expect to see from your writing

Obviously you can write. And in the age of social media and smartphones, you may be writing all the time—perhaps more often than speaking. Many students today are awash in text like no other generation before.

So why spend yet more time and attention on writing skills? Research shows that deliberate practice makes all the difference in how one performs. Revisiting the craft of writing—especially early in college—will improve your writing much more than simply producing page after page in the same old way. Becoming an excellent communicator will save you a lot of time and hassle in your studies, advance your career, and promote better relationships and a higher quality of life off the job. Honing your writing is a good use of your time.

Consider this: a recent survey of employers conducted on the behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that seventy-eight percent of hiring managers rated the ability to communicate effectively in writing as very important when evaluating the importance of job skills for recent college graduates.[1]

The ability to communicate effectively orally was the single-most favored skill in this survey. In addition, several of the other valued skills are grounded in written communication: “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” (eighty-four percent of hiring managers rated this skill to be “very important”), “the ability to analyze and solve complex problems” (seventy-five percent); and “the ability to find, organize, and evaluate information from many sources” (seventy-nine percent). This emphasis on communication probably reflects the changing reality of work in the professions.

If you want to be a professional who interacts frequently with others, you have to be someone who can anticipate and solve complex problems and coordinate your work with others,[2] all of which depend on effective communication.

The payoff from improving your writing comes much sooner than graduation. Suppose you complete about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelor’s degree, and—averaging across writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses—you produce about 2,500 words of formal writing per class. Even with that low estimate, you’ll write 100,000 words during your college career. When you add up all those words, that’s roughly equivalent to a 330-page book! You’re going to do a lot of writing as a student.

Spending a few hours sharpening your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to write. All your professors care about good writing.

It’s Different from High School

Because most professors have different expectations, it can be tricky knowing what exactly they’re looking for. Pay attention to the comments they leave on your paper, and make sure to use these as a reference for your next assignment. I try to pay attention and adapt to the professor’s style and preferences. —Aly Button, SUNY student

By the end of high school, you probably mastered many of the key conventions of standard, written English, such as paragraphing, sentence-level mechanics, and the use of thesis statements. The essay portion of the SAT measures important skills such as organizing evidence within paragraphs that relate to a clear, consistent thesis, and choosing words and sentence structures to effectively convey your meaning. These practices are foundational, and your teachers have given you a wonderful gift in helping you master them. However, college writing assignments require you to apply those skills to new intellectual challenges. Professors assign papers because they want you to think rigorously and deeply about important questions in their fields.

To your instructors, writing is for working out complex ideas, not just explaining them. A paper that would earn a top score on the SAT might only get a C or D in a college class if it doesn’t show original and ambitious thinking. Professors look at you as independent junior scholars and expect you to write as someone who has a genuine, driving interest in tackling a complex question. They envision you approaching an assignment without a preexisting thesis. They expect you to look deep into the evidence, consider several alternative explanations, and work out an original, insightful argument that you actually care about. 

What to Do with Essay Assignments

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify how to approach common types of college writing assignments

Writing assignments can be as varied as the instructors who assign them. Some assignments are explicit about what exactly you’ll need to do, in what order, and how it will be graded. Some assignments are very open-ended, leaving you to determine the best path toward answering the project. Most fall somewhere in the middle, containing details about some aspects but leaving other assumptions unstated. It’s important to remember that your first resource for getting clarification about an assignment is your instructor—he or she will be very willing to talk out ideas with you to be sure you’re prepared at each step to do well with the writing.

Most writing in college will be a direct response to class materials—an assigned reading, a discussion in class, an experiment in a lab. Generally speaking, these writing tasks can be divided into three broad categories.

Summary Assignments

Being asked to summarize a source is a common task in many types of writing. It can also seem like a straightforward task: simply restate, in shorter form, what the source says. A lot of advanced skills are hidden in this seemingly simple assignment, however.

An effective summary does the following:

  • reflects your accurate understanding of a source’s thesis or purpose
  • differentiates between major and minor ideas in a source
  • demonstrates your ability to identify key phrases to quote
  • demonstrates your ability to effectively paraphrase most of the source’s ideas
  • captures the tone, style, and distinguishing features of a source
  • does not reflect your personal opinion about the source

That last point is often the most challenging: we are opinionated creatures by nature, and it can be very difficult to keep our opinions from creeping into a summary, which is meant to be completely neutral.

In college-level writing, assignments that are only summary are rare. That said, many types of writing tasks contain at least some element of summary, from a biology report that explains what happened during a chemical process, to an analysis essay requiring  you to explain several prominent positions on gun control as a component of comparing them against one another.

Defined-Topic Assignments

Many writing tasks will ask you to address a particular topic or a narrow set of topic options. Even with the topic identified, however, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what aspects of the writing will be most important when it comes to grading.

Defined-topic writing assignments are used primarily to identify your familiarity with the subject matter. You must shape and focus that discussion or analysis so that it supports a claim that you discovered and formulated. Although the topic may be defined, you can’t just grind out four or five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis. It may seem strange, but even when you’re asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you’re still being asked to make an argument.

Often, the handout or other written text explaining the assignment—what professors call the writing prompt. Sometimes, though—especially when you are new to a field—you will encounter the baffling situation in which you comprehend every single sentence in the prompt but still have absolutely no idea how to approach the assignment. No one is doing anything wrong in a situation like that. It just means that further discussion of the assignment is required. Below are some tips:

  1. Focus on the verbs. Look for verbs like compare, explain, justify, reflect, or the all-purpose analyze. You’re not just producing a paper as an artifact; you’re conveying, in written communication, some intellectual work you have done. So the question is, what kind of thinking are you supposed to do to deepen your learning?
  2. Put the assignment in context. Many professors think in terms of assignment sequences. For example, a social science professor may ask you to write about a controversial issue three times: first, they will ask you to argue for one side of the debate and then they will ask you to argue for another. Finally, you’ll be asked for a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective by incorporating text produced in the first two assignments. A sequence like that is designed to help you think through a complex issue. If the assignment isn’t part of a sequence, think about where it falls in the span of the course (early, midterm, or toward the end), and how it relates to readings and other assignments. For example, if you see that a paper comes at the end of a three-week unit on the role of the Internet in organizational behavior, then your professor likely wants you to synthesize that material in your own way.
  3. Try a free-write. A free-write is when you just write, without stopping, for a set period of time. The “free” part is what you write—it can be whatever comes to mind. Professional writers use free-writing to get started on a challenging writing task or to overcome writer’s block or a powerful urge to procrastinate. The idea is that if you just make yourself write, you can’t help but produce some kind of useful nugget. Thus, even if the first eight sentences of your free-write are all variations on “I don’t understand this” or “I’d really rather be doing something else,” eventually you’ll write something like “I guess the main point of this is . . . ,” and you’re off and running.
  4. Ask for clarification. Even the most carefully crafted assignments may need some verbal clarification, especially if you’re new to a course or field. Try to convey to your instructor that you want to learn and you’re ready to work, and not just looking for advice on how to get an A.

Try It


Undefined-Topic Assignments

Another writing assignment you’ll potentially encounter is one in which the topic may be only broadly identified (“water conservation” in an ecology course, for instance, or “the Dust Bowl” in a U.S. history course), or even completely open (“compose an argumentative research essay on a subject of your choice”).

Where defined-topic essays demonstrate your knowledge of the content, undefined-topic assignments are used to demonstrate your skills—your ability to perform academic research, to synthesize ideas, and to apply the various stages of the writing process.

The first hurdle with this type of task is to find a focus that interests you. Don’t just pick something you feel will be easy to write about—that almost always turns out to be a false assumption. Instead, you’ll get the most value out of, and find it easier to work on, a topic that intrigues you personally in some way.

The same getting-started ideas described for defined-topic assignments will help with these kinds of projects, too. You can also try talking with your instructor or a writing tutor at your college’s writing center to help brainstorm ideas and make sure you’re on track. You want to feel confident that you’ve got a clear idea of what it means to be successful in the writing and that you’re not wasting time working in a direction that won’t be fruitful.

The Writing Process

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify writing-process steps for the development of academic writing, including revision and proofreading

The following video provides an excellent overview of research essays, one of the most common kinds of writing assignments you’ll encounter in college.


You can view the transcript for “Writing” here.

No writer, not even a professional, composes a perfect draft in her first attempt. Every writer fumbles and has to work through a series of steps to arrive at a high-quality finished project.

You may have encountered these steps as assignments in classes—draft a thesis statement, complete an outline, turn in a rough draft, participate in a peer review, and turn in a final draft. The further you get into higher education, the less often these steps will be completed as part of class.

That’s not to say that you won’t still need to follow these steps on your own time. It helps to recognize that these steps, commonly referred to as the writing process, aren’t rigid and prescribed. Instead, it can be liberating to see them as flexible, allowing you to adapt them to your own personal habits, preferences, and the topic at hand. You will probably find that your process changes, depending on the type of writing you’re doing and your comfort level with the subject matter.

Consider the following flowchart of the writing process:Flowchart illustrated with cartoon figures. Title: Research Paper Writing. First step: Come up with a topic/question. What do you want to answer with your paper? Next, Do your research. Learn research strategies from the UBC Learning Commons Library Research Toolkit. Next, Develop a thesis/outline. Come up with a "working" thesis, an argument that might change but will help you direct your paper. Next, write a draft. Try to set a word count that you want to achieve each day and stick to it! Next, Edit/review. Read your paper out loud to catch mistakes and check to see if your paper makes sense. At the bottom is a logo for University of British Columbia, a place of mind, and learningcommons.ubc.ca@UBCLearn.

The flowchart is a helpful visualization of the steps involved, outside of the classroom, toward completing an essay. Keep in mind that it isn’t always a linear process, though. It’s okay to loop back to earlier steps again if needed. For instance, after completing a draft, you may realize that a significant aspect of the topic is missing, which sends you back to researching. Or the process of research may lead you to an unexpected subtopic, which shifts your focus and leads you to revise your thesis. Embrace the circular path that writing often takes!

Revision and Proofreading

These last two stages of the writing process are often confused with each other, but they mean very different things, and serve very different purposes.

Revision is literally “re-seeing.” It asks a writer to step away from a piece of work for a significant amount of time and return later to see it with new eyes. This is why the process of producing multiple drafts of an essay is so important. It allows some space in between, to let thoughts mature, connections to arise, and gaps in content or an argument to appear. It’s also difficult to do, especially given that most college students face tight timelines to get big writing projects done. Still, there are some tricks to help you re-see a piece of writing when you’re short on time, such as reading a paper backward, sentence by sentence, and reading your work aloud. Both are ways of reconceptualizing your own writing so you approach it from a fresh perspective. Whenever possible, though, build in at least a day or two to set a draft aside before returning to work on the final version.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is the very last step taken before turning in a project. This is the point where spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting all take center stage.

Learn these rules, and if you hate them, learn to love them. In college, writing stops being about “how well did you understand fill-in-the-blank” and becomes “how professionally and strongly do you argue your point.” Professionalism, I have found, is the key to the real world, and college is, in part, preparing you for it. If you do not learn how to write in a way that projects professionalism (i.e., these rules), then expect to get, at best, Cs on your papers. —Kaethe Leonard, SUNY student

A person can be the best writer in the world and still be a terrible proofreader. It’s okay not to memorize every rule out there, but know where to turn for help. Utilizing the grammar-check feature of your word processor is a good start, but it won’t solve every issue (and may even cause a few itself).

Your campus tutoring or writing center is a good place to turn for support and help. They may not proofread your paper for you, but they will offer you strategies for how to spot issues that are a pattern in your writing.

Finding a trusted person to help you edit is perfectly ethical, as long as that person offers you advice and doesn’t actually do any of the writing for you. Professional writers rely on outside readers for both the revision and editing process, and it’s a good practice for you to do so, too.

Using Sources

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify strategies for ethical use of sources in writing

College courses offer a few opportunities for writing that won’t require using outside resources. Creative writing classes, applied lab classes, or field research classes will value what you create entirely from your own mind or from the work completed for the class. For most college writing, however, you will need to consult at least one outside source, and possibly more.

The following video provides a helpful overview of the ways in which sources are used most effectively and responsibly in academic writing.


You can view the transcript for “Using Sources” here.

Note that this video models MLA-style citations. MLA is one of several different styles you might be asked to practice within your classes. Your instructors should make it clear which of the major styles they expect you to use in their courses: MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), Chicago, or another.

Regardless of the style, the same principles are true any time a source is used: give credit to the source when it is used in the writing itself, as well as in a bibliography (or Works Cited page or References page) at the end.

Link to Learning: MLA and APA Citations

There are many resources available for learning to write MLA and APA formatted citations. Learn more about MLA formatting here and APA formatting here.

Using Sources Creatively

When writing papers that require the use of outside source material, it is often tempting to cite only direct quotations from your sources. If, however, this is the only method of citation you choose, your paper will become nothing more than a series of quotations linked together by a few connecting words. Your paper will seem to be a collection of others’ thoughts and will contain little thinking on your part.

To avoid falling into this trap, follow a few simple pointers:

  • Avoid using long quotations merely as space-fillers. While this option is attractive when faced with a ten-page paper, the overuse of long quotations gives the reader the impression you cannot think for yourself.
  • Don’t use only direct quotations. Try using paraphrases in addition to your direct quotations. To the reader, the effective use of paraphrases indicates that you took the time to think about the meaning behind the quote’s words. (For further assistance see Lumen’s materials on “Using Paraphrases.”)
  • When introducing direct quotations, try to use a variety of verbs in your signal phrases. Don’t always rely on stock verbs such as “states” or “says.” Think for a little while about the purpose of your quotation and then choose a context-appropriate verb.


Quoting is when one uses the EXACT wording of the source material. Direct quotations should be used sparingly, and should be used to strengthen your own arguments and ideas.

When should a quote be used? Quotes should be used infrequently and only with good reason! Some valid reasons for quoting include

  • when not using the author’s exact wording would change the original meaning.
  • to lend authority to the point you are trying to make.
  • when the language of the quote is significant.

Quotations should always be introduced and incorporated into your argument rather than dropped into your paper without context. Consider this first BAD example:

There are many positive effects for advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options” (Wechsler).

This quote is a potentially good piece of information to support a research writer’s claim, but the researcher hasn’t done any of the necessary work to explain where this quote comes from or to explain why it is important for supporting her point. Rather, she has simply dropped in the quote, leaving the interpretation of its significance up to the reader. Now consider this revised GOOD example of how this quote might be better introduced into the essay:

In her Pharmaceutical Executive article available through the Wilson Select Internet database, Jill Wechsler writes about one of the positive effects of advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options.”

In this revision, it’s much more clear what point the writer is trying to make with this evidence and where this evidence comes from.

Also, when using direct quotations, try qualifying them in a novel or interesting manner. Depending on the system of documentation you’re using, the signal phrases don’t always have to introduce the quotation.

For example, instead of saying:

“None of them knew the color of the sky” is the opening line of Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” (339). This implies the idea that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Wolford 18).

Try saying:

“None of them knew the color of the sky,” the opening line of Stephen Crane’s, “The Open Boat,” implies that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Crane 339; Wolford 18).

The combination of these two sentences into one is something different. It shows thought on the writer’s part in how to combine direct quotations in an interesting way.


Paraphrasing is when you create your own wording of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else without directly quoting. Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing; however, summaries only include the essential ideas of a work, while paraphrasing includes more details. Since your paper should only use direct quotations sparingly, you’ll probably be paraphrasing frequently. Just remember that you still need to express plenty of your own ideas. Use paraphrasing to support those ideas, and be mindful that you still need to cite paraphrased portions of your paper.

How to Construct a Summary

Summarizing involves condensing the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview. A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it is still necessary to use a citation to give credit to the original author.

  • Decide what part of the source is most relevant to your argument.
  • Pick out the most important sentences in that part of the source. In most cases, you’ll focus on the main points.
  • Paraphrase those sentences. If they include any important or memorable phrases, quote those in your paraphrases. List the paraphrased sentences in the order they occur in the original.
  • Add any other information that readers might need to understand how your paraphrased sentences connect to one another.
  • Revise the list so that it reads not like a list but like a paragraph.

How to Mix Quotation with Summary

A long summary can make readers feel that you and they are too distant from an important source. So when you write a summary as long as half a page, look for memorable phrases that you can quote within your summary.

Colomb and Williams emphasize that drafting is “an act of discovery” that can fuel a writer’s creative thinking. They acknowledge that some writers have to draft carefully and stick closely to their outlines, but they advise writers to draft as freely and as openly as they can. They encourage even slow and careful drafters to be open to new ideas and surprises and not to be limited by what they do before drafting. They still stress the value of steady work that follows a plan: for example, writing a little bit every day rather than all at once “in a fit of desperate inspiration.” But they show writers how to make the best of a plan while hoping that you will “discover what your storyboard has missed.”[3]

When you add a few quotations to your summary, you seem like a more lively writer. You give readers an idea of your source without quoting so much that your paper seems like a cut-and-paste job. If you have pages that are mostly summary and paraphrase, add a few notable quotations that will liven up your writing.

Providing Context for Your Sources

Whether you use a direct quotation, a summary, or a paraphrase, it is important to distinguish the original source from your ideas, and to explain how the cited source fits into your argument. You can think of the context for your quote, paraphrase, or summary as a sandwich with multiple parts. You’ll want to transition into and introduce the source, use a signal phrase to actually move into the material from the source, provide a citation that can be easily connected to the full citation material in your bibliography or works cited list, and explain how this material fits into your argument. Many writing textbooks refer to this sandwich as a quotation sandwich, but it can and should also be used to integrate paraphrases and summaries. All material from sources that you use in your own work must be integrated in this way or you risk readers becoming confused about its importance and purpose.

picture showing pieces stacked like a sandwich. The pieces, from top to bottom, read: transition and introduction, signal phrase, quotation/paraphrase/summary, citation, explanation of the material's relevance to your argument.

Writing Support at FSW

Students looking for help with writing assignments at FSW should reach out to the Academic Support Center. There is a center on each campus where students can walk in for writing support. Support is also available online through the writing center’s virtual services and through tutor.com. Students should access tutor.com through the link in their Canvas course to ensure they receive the benefits available to FSW students.


assignment prompt: instructional material provided by the teacher explaining the purpose of the assignment, required parameters, and criteria for evaluation

deliberate practice: repeated, close focus on improving a skill

proofreading: a final step that involves checking one’s spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, and other technical details

revision: to revisit a draft for the purpose of gaining a fresh perspective and thus improving the next draft

signal phrase: a verb phrase that tells your reader you are about to summarize, paraphrase, or directly quote a source that is both correctly cited and listed in your bibliography

summary: a writing task that asks the student to restate in shorter form what the source says

undefined-topic assignment: a writing task based on a broadly identified topic that the student is expected to pull into focus

writing process: the steps one follows when completing a writing assignment, which may include drafting a thesis statement, completing an outline, turning in a rough draft, and participating in a peer review

  1. "Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work." Hart Research Associates, July 2018, https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2018EmployerResearchReport.pdf. Accessed 1 March. 2021.
  2. "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success." Hart Research Associateshttp://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
  3. Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff, 7th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 83–7.


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Writing Strategies Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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