When You Don’t Understand Your Assignment

Catherine Prendergast:

Back to school reading!

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

A colleague of mine directs a writing center offering tutorial help to students of a large university. One year, he surveyed his clientele to find out how soon before a paper was due they had sought the center’s help. Did students most frequently come in two weeks before a paper was due? One week? Four days? In fact, the most frequent answer was none of the above. The most frequent answer students gave for when they sought help was two days before the paper was due. The second most frequent answer was—wait for it—the day before the paper was due. My colleague was disconsolate. He knew that 24 hours was not enough time to help students who were writing the wrong paper because they had misunderstood their assignment.

When is the best time to begin your writing assignment? Is it somewhere between three days and a week and a half…

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You Don’t Need to Make Your Paper Longer

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

At about this point in the academic semester, you may be staring at the page limit on your assignment sheet and wondering how to make your paper longer. Perhaps you’ve written six pages, and the assignment asks for 8-10. And you really have nothing left to say. Forget about the page length. It’s not your biggest problem. You don’t need to make your paper longer. You just need to make it better.

First, let me say that instructors know absolutely every hack there is for making a paper appear to be longer than it actually is. They’ve memorized the chunky fonts. They recognize the difference between 1-inch margins and 1.25-inch margins at a glance. True double-space does not look the same as double-space-and-a-half. They are on the look out for big chunky quotes. To circumvent such attempts at filler, many instructors request specific word counts instead of specific page lengths…

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Want to Write a Good Research Paper? Start with a Good Question

Catherine Prendergast:

Second top post of all time, Reblogged:

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

Much of what experienced researchers learn is how to narrow down their questions to something they can study. Sure, we might be motivated by the big questions: “How can we cure cancer?” or “How did the universe begin—really?” Research that is doable, however, begins much more modestly. Half the battle in starting a research paper is recognizing an undoable question, and then deciding not to pursue it.

As with much of what I know about writing, I learned this when I wasn’t writing. On my 40th birthday I followed the advice of all magazines targeted to women over 40 (which, like a typical overachiever, I’d started reading at age 39) and decided to take up a new sport, something that would give my dwindling years new meaning, stall the ravages of time on my weakening frame, and make me feel “empowered.”  I was torn between surfing and tennis.  Looking…

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Can I Use “I” in my College Paper?

Catherine Prendergast:

Reblogging answer to one of the biggest question students have about writing:

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

The short answer: Yes.
But please keep reading.

“Can I use ‘I’ in my paper” is probably the number one question I hear students ask their college composition instructors. And the response they receive is always a version of the one I’ve given above. Yes. Yes, you can refer to yourself as “I” to demonstrate your authorship of your college paper. The first year composition classroom that would tell you “no,” is not one I would want to be in. A “no” would have to ignore overwhelming evidence that published academic writers use “I” constantly. They do so in virtually all fields to explain their methods, lay bare their prejudices, avow their doubts, and identify their arguments as theirs.

However, using “I” or not using “I” will make little difference in your grade. Mastering college writing isn’t a matter of memorizing and implementing a list of do’s and don’ts. If…

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How to Write your Paper’s Introduction: Get to the Point and Keep Going

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

You may have heard that when you’re writing an introduction for a paper, you must start with the general and go to the specific. In reality, the best introductions start specific. After that, they get even more specific.

Just how specific? Imagine, for a moment, that you have heart failure, and that you will die in a matter of days unless surgery to replace a faulty valve in your aorta succeeds. Your surgeon has just come into your room to explain the procedure. How would you want your surgeon to start this explanation? With a description of heart surgery techniques throughout the ages? With a chipper anecdote about the first time she saw a real human heart in medical school and almost puked? How about a line from a Shakespeare sonnet about the heart? Likely you would want your surgeon to explain what she’s going to do when she takes…

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How to Write a Strong Thesis Statement

Originally posted on First Year Comp:

There is only one way to write a strong thesis: Write a strong paper.

Strong words in a thesis do not make it strong. A thesis that is controversial is not necessarily strong. No one can tell you your thesis is strong just by reading it unless they have read the rest of the paper because no thesis is inherently “strong.”

Consider the following thesis:

The expansion of nuclear power in the United States would solve our energy crisis.

Is that a strong statement? Yes. It makes an assertion that is hotly contested. It takes a stand. It looks into the future and does not flinch. However, is it a strong thesis statement? I have no idea. If the rest of the paper can convince me that it is accurate, then it is. If not, it is just an unsupported claim. A thesis is only effective when supported by the…

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Instructor Pet Peeves

We all have pet peeves—those tiny vexations to which we are peculiarly sensitive.  Maybe for you it’s people who take up two parking spaces. Maybe it’s loud gum smacking. But think for a minute about those pet peeves you have about language. Maybe you hate it when people use “impact” as a verb. Maybe you don’t like contractions (sorry). Go ahead and make a list of your language pet peeves. It feels soooo good to write them all down. Then review your list. Then realize that everyone you know has a list that’s just as long, but completely different.

Your instructor is no exception.

Every instructor has either a written or mental list of things they hate to see in student papers.  And every instructor’s list is different. Think of instructors as if they were Starbucks customers: Each one likes their coffee—and their student papers—a specific way.  One instructor might be a Grande-Decaf-Chai-Latte. Another one might be a Venti-Iced-Soy-Cappucino. One instructor might be a Passive Voice-Generalizations-Split Infinitives, while another might be a Colloquialisms-Rhetorical Questions-Wikipedia. So how do you know which is which?

Instructors kind enough to publish their preferences in their syllabi and assignments are giving you fair warning. If they announce a pet peeve ahead of time, however, they may be more likely to grade your paper down for ignoring it. Often, though, you only find out what your instructor’s pet peeves are when your paper is handed back to you with corrections. To avoid losing points on pet peeves, imagine that you are the Starbucks barista, and your instructor has just approached the counter with assignment in hand. But rather than ask them, “What can I get started for you today?” ask them if there’s anything in particular they do not like to see in student papers.

If you want to be extra careful, seize the initiative by studying style manuals describing common pet peeves.  Chances are your instructor may be sent up the wall by at least one of the following:

Colloquialisms (slang)

Split infinitives (“to boldly go”)

Adverbs (“boldly”)

Sentence Run-ons

Sentence Fragments



Hyper-nominalization (“utilization” instead of “use”)

Homophone Screw-ups (Their, there, they’re; its and it’s; to and too; your, you’re)

Nouns as Verbs (“impact”)

Passive Voice

Citing the Dictionary

Citing Wikipedia

Stereotypes (“Women prefer…”)

Generalizations (“In society…”)

“In conclusion…”

Starting Sentences with a Preposition

Ending Sentences with a Preposition

One Word Sentences


Exclamation Points

Rhetorical Questions

British Spellings (if in America)

American Spellings (if in Britain)

Use of “I,” “you,” or “one”

“To be” Verbs

“Since” used as “Because”

“While” used as “Although”

No Page Numbers

Serifed Fonts

Sans Serifed Fonts

Paperclips instead of Staples

Staples instead of Paperclips

As the last few pet peeves indicate, one instructor’s pet peeve can be another instructor’s requirement. It will not help you to remind your instructor of this fact. Pet peeves are not about correct or incorrect, (though, really, get those homophones and sentence boundaries down). They are matters of preference and, as such, are not subject to outside arbitration.  Seem unfair? Yeah, it probably is. But before you judge, the next time you’re in a Starbucks, force yourself to walk to the counter and order just “coffee.” We all have pet peeves.


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