Whatever your major, you will have to produce many written assignments over the course of your college career. If you aren’t confident in your writing skills, the prospect of completing a report or essay may fill you with dread. Perhaps you never know where to start and find a blank page to be intimidating, or maybe you have trouble piecing together an argument.
Here are the most common problems students come up against, and few tips on how to solve them:
Not understanding how to write a strong introduction and conclusion.
The problem: You may not know how to introduce a topic, or how to finish an essay or report in a compelling, concise manner.
How to overcome it:
- Don’t fall into the trap of writing a vague or overly wordy introduction. Avoid sweeping statements, unnecessary quotes, and inappropriate rhetorical questions. Instead, be clear about what you will address in the assignment. Tell the reader why the topic is important, and the key points you intend to cover.
- When writing a conclusion, ask yourself this question: “Having researched this topic, what have I decided?” Write your answer down in a few bullet points. String these points together as full sentences, and you’ll have written a conclusion.
- Leave the introduction until last. When you have written the rest of your essay, you’ll find it easier to write two to three sentences that outline the scope of your work.
- Before you submit your essay, reread the assignment question. Does your conclusion provide a definitive answer? If not, you need to rethink your conclusion, the content of your essay, or both.
Not knowing how to structure a coherent argument
The problem: Most assignments ask you to research a topic, examine overarching themes and issues, then come to a conclusion backed by evidence. If you can’t understand how to persuade the reader of your position, you will not get good grades.
How to overcome it:
- Write down your first impressions of the question. What is your gut instinct? For instance, if your assignment question is “Is nature or nurture the most important factor in a child’s development?” your first instinct may be “Nurture.”
- The next step is to use a range of sources, both primary and secondary, to discover whether you can support your answer using existing research. If your sources support your answer – great! If not, accept that you may need to adjust your approach in light of the evidence.
- Once you have found several sources in favour of your position, the next step is to find dissenting views. Whatever perspective you take, someone will have published evidence to the contrary. This is actually good news, because the whole point of an assignment is to show that you can locate reputable sources, evaluate them, then come up with your own conclusion.
- There are several potential essay structures you can use to make an argument, but the simplest is to present one side of the argument first and then the other before reaching a conclusion. The golden rules: Don’t say something without providing a citation to back it up, and give both sides a fair hearing.
The problem: Your professor may have penalized you for passing someone else’s work off as your own. This is known as plagiarism and is a serious academic offense. In some cases, it may even lead to expulsion from college. Plagiarism is sometimes deliberate, but it is often unintentional. For instance, suppose you are taking notes from a textbook and intend to use the information in your essay. However, instead of writing the points in your own words and citing the source, you mindlessly copy your notes instead.
How to overcome it:
- When researching a topic, always keep track of your sources so you can properly cite them later.
- When making notes from a source, always put the points in your own words.
- Never copy and paste text or images from any source.
- If you need to use an exact quote, put it in quotation marks and make it clear that it is an exact copy. Keep quotes to a minimum – the whole point of a written assignment is to communicate your own ideas.
- Make sure you know how to use your professor’s preferred referencing style. If you are unsure how to cite sources, ask your college librarian or study skills center for advice.
- Use an online plagiarism detector, such as Copyscape, to check your work before submitting it.
Poor research skills
The problem: You may feel daunted by the prospect of researching a topic, and feel unsure how to begin. With so many academic papers, books, and web pages available, knowing how to start can be a challenge.
How to overcome it:
- Start with the reading list for your course. Professors set assignments that relate to the syllabus in some way, so the assigned readings will point you in the direction of sources that provide general insight into the topic.
- When reading through textbooks and sources recommended by your professor, note down the recurring themes, issues, and keywords. These will help you structure searches when using scholarly databases, Google Scholar, and other similar resources.
- Learn the differences between a reliable and unreliable source. As a rule of thumb, the following sources are reliable: Peer-reviewed journals, textbooks by respected publishers, and books written by individuals with relevant experience and qualifications. Websites are OK in some circumstances, but check the credentials of the author.
If you are still confused, it’s best to ask your professor, tutor, or skills advisor for help. Do it sooner rather than later. They should be happy to give you some guidance.
You may feel somewhat embarrassed, but it’s far better to risk feeling uncomfortable and ask for assistance than it is to regret earning low grades that don’t reflect your potential. Take comfort in the fact that, with practice, your writing skills are bound to improve. One day, you may even enjoy writing essays and reports.