College Writing For Dummies
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Congratulations on earning your college admission. You’ve successfully fulfilled the requirements for 12 years of school, and you’re entering a world that defies the math you’ve learned. Grade 12 isn’t followed by Grade 13. It’s followed by an opportunity to change your life and your family’s life, and it begins with your first-year writing in college.

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You can become one of almost a third of adults who earn college degrees. But capitalizing on that opportunity will require an academic commitment that exceeds your efforts in the past. Your immediate challenge requires conquering your college writing class and/or writing college essays in other classes, challenges that destroys the dreams of almost 40 percent of first-year students who never become sophomores.

What to expect in your college writing course

Your admission to college entitles you to a classroom seat — anywhere in the classroom you choose to sit. You’ll also receive a syllabus — your last reminder of assignments due throughout the semester. A syllabus is a contract between you and your professor.

On your first day of college class, you’ll recognize that you’re no longer in high school and your class size is most likely smaller than high school. Take a look around the room, and you’ll see unfamiliar people who feel equally uncomfortable. You may feel similar to how you felt the first day in first grade, but you now have your cell phone for security.

The following sections identify what practices from high school English you won’t expect to happen in college writing, including a comparison to your college writing class. You can also find information about what your professor will (and won’t) do.

College-level writing is not like your high school English class

Here are practices common to your high school English class that you’ll no longer experience in your college classroom:
  • Daily reminders: Your high school teachers saw you daily and reminded you of upcoming assignments. Your college syllabus is your one-time reminder of everything due for the semester.
  • Flexible deadlines: High school deadlines for essays, text, and projects are carved in sand. College deadlines indelibly recorded in your syllabus are changed as often as a harvest moon during leap year.
  • Grading with pity points: College grades are based exclusively on academic performance with no consideration of how well you organized the community-wide blood drive or how many times you were student of the month.
  • Five-days-a-week classes: College writing classes generally meet for 75 minutes twice a week, maybe 50 minutes three times a week. Your college study day begins after classes end.
  • Class interruptions: You won’t miss in-class announcements, calls to the office, late arrivals and early dismissals, assemblies, abbreviated schedules, and knocks on the door. Classes are the business of college, and the business is life-altering.
  • Regular testing: High school tests provide numerous opportunities to stabilize grades and raise grades over a period of time. College courses commonly include three or four graded assignments, each one covering four times the content of your high school tests.
  • Unaccountable readings: High school reading assignments frequently get lost in the wilderness and disappear from being required. College reading assignments have multiple lives, recurring in tests, writing assignments, class discussions, and final exams.
The table below compares some other areas so you can see how high school and college writing classes differ.

Differentiating High School and College Writing

High School College
Assignments Essays and research papers Essays, research papers, reaction papers, reports, reviews of literature, and media presentations
Discipline Primarily English class Across disciplines
Evidence Opinions and limited research Primary and secondary sources, surveys, and observations
Length 400 to 500 words 650 to 700 words
Revision Submitted as one daft Submission process includes multi-drafts. Drafts and feedback usually required to be submitted with portfolio
Thesis Broad thesis adaptable to multiple sources of supporting information A thesis that identifies an arguable issue related to the assigned question
You’ll never appreciate your high school teachers as much as you will when you walk into your first college class with the excitement of “Where do I start?” and walk out with the confusion of “How do I start?”

Identifying what you're responsible for

Growing up isn’t easy, and you’ve been longing for your independence since you first crossed the street alone. Congratulations, you’re a fully responsible adult with some, not nearly all, of the obligations.

You were most likely a very responsible high school student, but more than likely you had a family support system that included providing food, shelter, and some clothing. Your responsibility will be tested in college as you exercise your new independence.

Here’s a look at some of your new responsibilities as college student for all your courses, not just college writing:

  • Attend all classes. Attending class is your number one priority as a college student. Professors design classes to follow a logical sequence and academic rhythm. When you miss a class, you break the rhythm. Classes are to college what the Internet is to your social life.

Attending class also means arriving at least five minutes early and not leaving early or abusing restroom needs. You don’t want your professor to associate your name with arrival and departure times. You’re expected to remain grounded during class time.

  • Plan for your success. Start planning completion of your degree by scheduling a meeting with your academic advisor to anticipate courses your first two years of college. You may not know your major, but you should determine a general field of study such as humanities, sciences, business, communications, and so forth.
  • Familiarize yourself with campus resources. During the first week of school, search your school’s website to determine locations and contact information for resources such as health services, writing center, career planning, academic skills center, recreation center, and public safety.
  • Meet deadlines. Responsible people meet deadlines, sometimes a day early. Missing deadlines is the second easiest way to destroy your college dreams; missing classes and assignments is the first way.
  • Stay healthy. A healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, provides the stamina to meet the physical demands of classes and study. It’s sometimes described as a strong mind through a strong body.
  • Begin career planning. Almost every college campus has a career planning center. They guide you through career interest planning, resume building, and interview preparation. You will learn life-altering information such as the workplace has no spring break and you have no cut days.

Remember: College professors are nonnegotiable

You learned which teachers in high school you could manipulate for hall passes, assignment extensions, or full class discussions of your favorite music. That was high school. Save your negotiating skills for your career. Professors don’t negotiate with terrorists or students. They only negotiate with their supervisors.

Your high school teachers and college professors are as different as synchronized swimming and ballroom dancing. Therefore, you face a greater chance of drowning in a college class.

Everyone has other courses and responsibilities

High school students regularly complain to their teachers that they’re overwhelmed with work from other classes and that multiple tests fall on similar days. Say goodbye to the fantasy high school world and hello to the grown-up world where people you’re responsible to expect you to fulfill your obligations. As a first-year college student, you’re at the bottom of the food chain and responsible to everyone.

Everyday responsible adults fulfill work responsibilities with family members sick at home, transportation problems, relationship issues, financial complications, personal health concerns — and many more serious issues. That’s the standard for responsible adults.

Successful college students are adults who find a way to fulfill their responsibilities and utilize resources available when they need help. High school students shed their training wheels when they enter college. Older nontraditional students already learned to manage complex adult lifestyles that include full-time employment and full-time family responsibilities.

Debunking writing myths

When first-year-college students become seniors, they thrive on telling composition course stories, such as being assigned to read James Michener’s 868-page Alaska and write a 5,000-word reaction paper over the weekend.

The Michener assignment exemplifies a myth associated with first-year writing. Here’s a look at other myths and their realities.

Myth No. 1: My professor doesn’t like my writing style

Professors don’t evaluate first-year writing primarily on style unless your interpretation of style includes faulty sentence structure, unintended fragments, inactive and weak verbs, vague nouns, and long sentences with delayed subjects and verbs. If that last sentence sounds like your style, your professor is correct and your writing needs a new wardrobe.

As a general rule, when it comes to college essay writing and research papers, etc., professors accept any style that includes clear and somewhat concise writing. If you think a professor doesn’t like your style, talk with your professor to clarify the meaning of “writing style,” what the professor dislikes about the writing, and how you can fix it.

Myth No. 2: Writing is just too darn hard

Writing a college essay, and other writing assignments, are difficult. But some students make them more difficult by not following what research shows are best practices for successful college writing. You’ve designed a plan to fail if you start writing assignments late, neglect to analyze the assignment, skip background reading and planning, and start to take the essay seriously two days before deadline.

That approach is like typing your assignment on your phone wearing mittens. You can make writing easier by following the process of writing: prewriting, drafting, revising, and preparing for presentation.

For the details on each of the prewriting, drafting, revising, and preparing for presentation phases, check out my book College Writing For Dummies.

Writing doesn’t come easy for most people, including most professional writers. But writing isn’t an insurmountable task that only a few can master. Most people learn to write by following the practices of good writing, one of which is commitment. But it will never be as easy as skills you’re more interested in and more motivated to learn.

Myth No. 3: Only problem writers need feedback

All writers need feedback to tell them what works and what doesn’t work. Classroom instructors at all levels provide opportunities for feedback. The rejections of the classic books was feedback that told the authors their books needed revising. Feedback is to writing what ice is to learning to skate. You can’t move forward without it.

Myth No. 4: I suffer from writer's block

Picture this. You and your significant other are enjoying a romantic dinner at your favorite restaurant. You’re waiting patiently for your dinner as your server appears at your table and says: “I’m sorry we can’t serve you dinner. The chef is experiencing culinary block.”

Being blocked, or the inability to perform creativity, has been attributed exclusively to the art of writing. Electricians, teachers, chefs, pilots, and so forth don’t experience suffering from the block. Writers and creative innovators experience regular challenges that are addressed with problem solving and decision making. You can always do something to move your writing forward: read about the topic, question your organization, rethink your opening sentence, and so forth.

Writing requires completion of a series of complex processes that results in successful drafts. No student with a respectable work ethic can be blocked 360 degrees.

Myth No. 5: I can revise in ten minutes

Without feedback, writers wouldn’t know if their writing is good or bad. A rejected novel tells Stephen King his book is unsuccessful. A Pulitzer Prize tells Ernest Hemingway his writing is good, and similarly academic writers who think they can revise in ten minutes not only confuse revising with editing, but also underestimate the influence of revising on improving writing.

Here’s a quick overview how editing and revising differ:

  • Editing: A form of revising, editing is usually associated with correcting. An editing session may be completed in ten minutes, but it’s like the first step of a morning run.
  • Revising: Revising is the process where writers see the biggest improvements in their writing. It ranges from rethinking structure, organization, focus, development, and flow to correcting rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. Revising isn’t correcting writing, but clarifying the writing message. Good writers are good revisers.

Myth No. 6: Writers are born

Is anyone born with polished skills in any field? This line of thinking implies a fixed mindset; the belief that you’re either a college student or not or a confident person or not — and you can’t do anything to improve. Education and self-fulfillment result from a growth mindset, the belief that improvement results from hard work.

Writers become good when they work hard developing the skills needed to become a writer, such as information gathering, planning, organizing, drafting, and revising. First-year writing courses offer a venue to improve writing. Students who work hard at it, and get help when they need it, succeed.

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