College Writing For Dummies book cover

College Writing For Dummies


Transform your next college essay into an A+ masterpiece

Taking a 100-level English composition course? Just doing your best to get ready for the rigors of college-level writing? Then it’s probably time you picked up College Writing For Dummies, the single greatest roadmap to writing high-quality essays, reports, and more!

This book is the ideal companion for any introductory college writing course and tracks the curriculum of a typical English Composition, College Writing, English 101, or Writing & Rhetoric course. You’ll learn composition techniques, style, language, and grammar tips, and discover how to plan, write, and revise your material. You’ll also get:

  • Ten can’t-miss resources for improving your college writing
  • Strategies for revising and repairing inadequate essays on your own
  • Techniques to help non-native English speakers master the challenging world of English essay writing

Full of real-world examples, lessons in essay structure, grammar, and everything in between, this book is a must-read for every incoming college freshman looking for a head start in one of the most important skills you’ll need over the next few years. Grab a copy of College Writing For Dummies today.

Transform your next college essay into an A+ masterpiece

Taking a 100-level English composition course? Just doing your best to get ready for the rigors of college-level writing? Then it’s probably time you picked up College Writing For Dummies, the single greatest roadmap to writing high-quality essays, reports, and more!

This book is the ideal companion for any introductory college writing course and tracks the curriculum of a typical English Composition, College Writing, English 101, or Writing & Rhetoric course. You’ll learn composition techniques, style, language, and grammar tips, and discover how to

plan, write, and revise your material. You’ll also get:
  • Ten can’t-miss resources for improving your college writing
  • Strategies for revising and repairing inadequate essays on your own
  • Techniques to help non-native English speakers master the challenging world of English essay writing

Full of real-world examples, lessons in essay structure, grammar, and everything in between, this book is a must-read for every incoming college freshman looking for a head start in one of the most important skills you’ll need over the next few years. Grab a copy of College Writing For Dummies today.

College Writing For Dummies Cheat Sheet

College students have style, and it shows with their aggressiveness for good grades, attire in the classroom, and energy on campus. This Cheat Sheet offers you help with your style when writing your college essay during your first year in college.

Articles From The Book

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Writing Articles

How to Start a College Essay

The essay is to college writing what books are to educated people, what professors are to college teaching, and what wireless is to technology — they’re inseparable. The essay has been a major part of students’ academic life for more than 15 centuries. With such a storied history, the essay requirement isn’t likely to disappear before you graduate, which is why it's important to know how to start an essay.

Don't have time to read the entire article? Jump to the quick read summary.

News flash. Your professor, a human being afflicted with a lifetime addiction to reading, determines your essay grade. As much as you’ve been told about the importance of writing for your audience, your professors are the one member of your audience you need to please. And because professors are sophisticated readers, they value writing that contains a skillfully created opening and closing. Engaging openings and closings, the intersection of academic and professional writing, offer you the opportunity to impress your professor and stand out among your peers. When you undervalue the importance of an enticing opening and closing, you’re leaving points on the page. Here I focus on what you need to know about writing openings, including the first few sentences and the title.

To learn how to write an excellent closing to your essay, and about all other aspects of college writing, check out my book College Writing For Dummies.

Standing out

Let the gains begin. As a professor who read and graded tens of thousands of essays and research papers, I’m thrilled to see a thoughtful opening that interests me as a consumer of content. My grading experience tells me to anticipate an excellent grade and read the remainder of the essay to justify that grade. When you're thinking about how to start off an essay, remember that the purpose of your opening includes the following:
  • Engage your reader in the topic and establish the organizational structure of your essay.
  • Convince your reader of the importance of your topic and raise reader questions about the topic.
  • Clarify your position on the topic question, using language from the assignment sheet.
  • Highlight your overall essay plan.
  • Demonstrate your command of language.
The opening transports your reader from the symbolic representation of your topic to the specific promise of your thesis — the last sentence in your opening. The structure of the opening progresses from general to specific information, from the abstract hook to the concrete thesis. Your investment in a strong opening yields high returns on your essay grade.

As you're thinking about how to start your essay introduction, avoid experimenting with a delayed thesis, such as positioning the thesis in the closing. Avoid this until you regularly write A-graded college essays.

When you read leisurely, focus on openings and closings that attract your attention. If you want to be nerdy about it, ask Siri to file them. And when you’re ready to write your openings and closings, consider re-engineering a favorite one you saved. While your opening provides background to place your topic within context, college essays usually require a background paragraph following the opening paragraph. Be sure all background content is related to the thesis, not merely to the topic.

Including an anecdote

Among the solid ways to start an essay is a go-to opening taught by many professors: the anecdote. It's brief personal experience story. You can use anecdotes in a wide variety of ways, such as:
  • Connect a different personal experience to each essay you’re assigned.
  • Exercise your poetic license by writing an anecdote about an experience that happened to someone else.
  • Write a fictional anecdote that appears believable if you’re feeling especially creative.
  • Use one as a piece of evidence in the essay body. The more you use them, the better your skills at developing them.
  • Use one as a style tool. Anecdotes are the gift that keep giving.
Following, I focus on what to include when writing anecdotes and how you can capture your reader’s attention.

What to include in an anecdote

Anecdotes are scenes, not narratives with a beginning, middle, and ending. They range between five and six sentences within essays between 600 to 650 words. They aren’t the recount of an experience from beginning to end. Strategies for writing anecdotes include the following:
  • Name relevant people, places, and events.
  • Identify relevant time references.
  • Consider a twist or surprise ending.
  • Add brief dialogue when appropriate.
  • Brainstorm your anecdote similar to how you brainstorm your essay.
  • Reference conclusions from your anecdote that apply to your essay’s thesis.
Anecdotes are successful only when the experience connects with the essay topic. For example, an anecdote that tells a story about never quitting in athletics can be applied to an essay about never quitting in a challenging course.

Grabbing your reader’s attention

Similar to opening an essay, begin an anecdote with an attention-attracting first sentence. Following, are examples of language for beginning your anecdote and setting the scene:
  • When I visited Alaska, I experienced the highlight of my travel experience — walking on a glacier.
  • I will never forget the desperation on animals' faces when I volunteered at the center for abused animals.
  • Some of the most memorable lessons I learned in middle school occurred outside the classroom on camping trips.
  • I hide emotions well, but holding tears failed me when I recognized the name on the post.
Consider this opening anecdote: I boarded the helicopter from the heliport in Juneau, Alaska — aware that one crashed in recent weeks — anticipating the experience of flying above an ice field, landing on the Mendenhall Glacier, and walking across frozen tundra, thousands of years old. I walked to the edge of crevasses, looking down hundreds of feet at the flow of blue glacier water. I witnessed the excitement of one of nature’s unique performances. But on the helicopter flight back to Juneau, nature offered one additional surprise that changed my comfort level with nature’s majesty.

Using additional openings strategies

When you're thinking about how to start an introduction for an essay, consider these other opening strategies:
  • Series of questions: Many professors consider a one question opening a cliché strategy common to high school writing. But a series of questions raises the curiosity level and raises even more questions. Here’s a sample from my column reviewing Choke by Sian Beilock (Delco News Network): What’s the cause of high-performing students underperforming on a high-stakes standardized test such as the SAT and GRE (Graduate Record Examination)? What’s the cause of a professional athlete underperforming on a game-winning play or a pressure putt? Do underperforming students and athletes share common characteristics for their “choke”?
  • What if? picture this: Another opening is the hypothetical “What if?” which raises questions and curiosities. Here’s a sample on a topic that interests you: What if colleges accepted more responsibility for ensuring graduation for the students they accept? What if their accountability included partial refunds of tuition and student loans for students who drop out? What if colleges fulfilled the promises to students and their parents made during freshmen orientation?

In addition to the previous opening strategies, openings also include the importance of the topic, the approach to the assignment, your position on the topic, and the thesis.

Steer clear of these types of openings

Here’s a look at openings as unappealing as a broken popsicle:
  • Previewing your intentions for the essay, such as what you plan to cover
  • A dictionary or encyclopedia definition of the topic
  • Restating the topic
  • Presenting an overview of the topic
  • An all-encompassing phrase such as: “Since the dawn of time …”
  • Quotations that suddenly appear in text without context or follow up
When I read these openings as a professor, I thought no effort, no thought, and no good.

Focusing on the first sentences

Are you surprised to hear that some professors will stereotype you as a student? Your professor’s assessment of your grade begins the first day of class with behaviors such as:
  • Arriving early and introducing yourself
  • Sitting in the front row and assuming an academic position
  • Actively participating in class discussions and taking notes
  • Saying thank you on the way out of class
Your professor will also stereotype you by a strong opening of your essay, especially the first sentence. Unlike professional writers, inexperienced writers rarely prioritize first sentences and openings. Professional writers quickly learn that their most important sentence is the first because editors frequently buy or reject a piece of writing based on the reader connection of the first sentence. A lackluster title, first sentence, and opening won’t cost you money as a first-year student, but it can cost you a scoring opportunity. Here’s a look at a few first-sentence strategies that will engage your reader, impress your professor, and score the grade (you can easily develop these first-sentence strategies into opening strategies):
  • Surprise information: Readers enjoy a surprise. When the first-sentence surprise raises curiosity and questions, you have the ingredients for an engaging opening. Here’s a sample: Sleep researchers studying mice observed that the brain’s synapses, message connectors, surprisingly decrease about 20 percent after a few hours’ sleep. But they also discovered that the reduction makes you smarter. The second sentence (But they also …) shows a sentence that transitions into the thesis. Chapter 6 details more information about thesis statements.
  • Expert quotations: Opening an essay with a quotation by an expert interests the most sophisticated readers, including your professor. Here’s an example: “Progress is made by trial and failure, the failures are generally a hundred times more numerous than the successes; yet they are usually left unchronicled,” said renowned chemist William Ramsey (1852–1916). Ramsey was referencing science, but his advice applies beyond science and into everyday life, including writing. The second sentence (Ramsey was referencing …) also shows a sentence that transitions into the thesis.
  • Essential content connection: What is the most emotional part of your essay? For example, if your essay’s about the college dropout rate, play the emotional card by opening with a sentence describing what a college degree means to you and your family. Here’s a sample: I dreamed of my college graduation since my first day of school, but I didn’t dream of its financial and emotional toll on my family.

When your first sentence connects with your readers, you’re set up to deliver your second sentence and the remainder of your opening. Midway through your opening, your professor formulates a projection of your grade. Capitalize on the opportunity to impress your professor with a high-interest opening, and remember that good openings generate good grades.

Quick Read Summary

  • The essay is an essential component of college writing, much like books are to educated individuals and professors are to teaching. It has been a vital part of academia for over 15 centuries, and it's crucial to understand how to start an essay effectively.

  • Your professor, as a dedicated reader, plays a pivotal role in determining your essay's grade. They appreciate well-crafted openings and closings, which set your work apart. Neglecting the importance of a compelling start means missing out on valuable points.

  • An engaging opening serves multiple purposes: it draws in the reader, establishes the essay's structure, emphasizes the topic's significance, and clarifies your position while highlighting your overall essay plan. The opening guides the reader from the general topic to the specific thesis, a progression from the abstract to the concrete. Avoid experimenting with a delayed thesis placement until you're consistently writing high-quality essays.

  • An effective strategy for essay openings is the use of anecdotes, brief personal stories that connect to the topic. Anecdotes should be concise, involving relevant people, places, events, time references, and possibly a twist or surprise ending. They should tie back to the essay's thesis.

  • To captivate your reader, start with an attention-grabbing first sentence, such as an intriguing experience or a thought-provoking question. Other opening strategies include posing a series of questions or exploring hypothetical scenarios related to your topic.

  • Avoid unappealing openings, such as previews, dictionary definitions, restating the topic, or vague phrases like "Since the dawn of time." Professors often perceive these as lacking effort and thought.

  • In the academic world, first impressions matter. Your professor forms an initial impression of your work based on the essay's opening, particularly the first sentence. To engage your reader and secure a good grade, consider strategies like surprising information, expert quotations, or connecting with essential emotional content.

In summary, mastering the art of essay openings is crucial for academic success. Impress your professor with a well-crafted start, as it can significantly impact your grade.

Hungry for more? Go back and read the article or check out the book.

Writing Articles

How to Succeed in Your College Writing Assignments

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. 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

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.