Simple Advice for Writing
Getting Started & Brainstorming
Read your assignment prompt a week before you need to get started on it. Our brains like to solve problems–and, so this is a way to let ideas develop over time. Often when we do this, if we are exercising, walking, or enjoying some down time, ideas feel like they just come to us.
Read around your essay topic. Return to a main reading and reread a section of it or skim a related and interesting text.
Talk to someone about your assignment. Discuss both what you think you have to do and what you think you’re going to write about. Trying to explain your initial ideas to someone often helps us refine and develop our ideas.
Freewrite in response to a central question or prompt. Freewriting means writing without care–don’t pay attention to your writing, style, or mistakes. The goal is to just get some ideas flowing! It’s even OK to write “I don’t know what to write” until something comes to you.
Take notes whenever an idea comes to you. Sometimes ideas hit us at random times and we think we’ll remember it later; however, we recommend taking 2 minutes to jot it down somewhere–even using your phone to create a brief voice memo. You’ll be happy you did later.
Outline your essay. If you’re not sure what goes where, simply start by collecting all of the evidence and studying it.
Drafting Your Essay
Start by writing your body paragraphs. Don’t write introductions until after you’ve drafted the main body of your essay–your introduction will be both easier to write and more specific. Save conclusions until the end, too.
Focus on small chunks or sections of your paper at a time. Try to avoid sitting down and writing the entire essay in one sitting. Instead, try to focus on explaining a single point.
Keep a central prompt question at the top of your page while writing. If the prompt is more open, develop your own question to write to. Essentially, you want to locate evidence that answers that question and then make a case for how it answers that question (your argument!). Make sure the question is in the form of a question, with a question mark, instead of a sentence–this makes answering it easier.
When stuck, return to the evidence. Remember, your goal in many academic papers is to explain, analyze and synthesize evidence, often figuring out how it relates to a specific question or focus.
Build in time to revise. A first draft is only a first draft–it shouldn’t be a final paper! All writing benefits from letting it sit for a day, rereading it, and then revising it.
Share your draft with a friend or a tutor in the Cornell Writing Centers! Everyone benefits from both talking about a draft with someone (being forced to explain it) and from hearing how someone else understands what they wrote.
Focus on “higher order concerns” when you’re revising. This means you should try to focus on whether or not your points are clear, the evidence is explained and clearly relates to the focus of the essay, there is analysis that pushes beyond summarizing the evidence and that connects to the larger focus, and there is a thesis that makes an argument about how something works. Save fixing typos or mistakes until the very end, right before you’re ready to turn in the paper.
Create a reverse outline of your paper. This involves writing (I recommend on a piece of real paper with a pen or pencil) out your focus question at the top, and then for each paragraph, try to articulate in one sentence what the main point of the paragraph is. Do this for all of the main body paragraphs. Afterwards (or, as you go), you want to ask yourself: Are my paragraphs focused and making the points I intended to make? Are the points clear and understandable? Does the evidence actually support the point? And, do all of the paragraphs clearly relate back to the thesis/claim/focus of the essay?
Quick Writing Tips Appropriate for Most Academic Writing
Claims and thesis sentences should ideally emerge from studying evidence. Developing a thesis sentence can be a really challenging task, especially if you feel like you should do this before writing your paper. We recommend, instead, developing a focus question, collecting evidence that answers that question, and thinking about how that evidence answers the question–the “how” is your thesis! This is similar to an experiment: you may start with a hypothesis, but you can’t support it until you conduct the experiment and study the results.
Consider your audience. What does your audience know or not know? Often (but not always), it’s better to err on the side of being too explicit and more specific. While we see a lot of prompts that emphasize “no summary,” we find that often a little summary and extra context is useful in most writing. It can be helpful to think: would someone outside of my class understand this?
Paragraphs should be focused on making a single point, that is usually laid out in the first sentence. Often, an easy revision that dramatically strengthens a paper is to go through each paragraph and bring the very best idea into the first sentence with precision and clarity.
Use specific subjects to start sentences. While we often use “This means…” or “That implies…” while speaking, in writing these subjects can make your focus confusing to understand and follow. Moreso, rearticulating the subject of a sentence actually helps the subject evolve over the course of the paper.
Don’t be afraid to use the authors’ name as the subject of the sentence. A big shift between high school and college writing is that in college, we often write more about other peoples’ ideas. To do this well and in a way that is both clear and ethical, it is often a good idea to have the authors’ name (or an appropriate pronoun) as the subject of the sentence with a strong rhetorical verb describing what they are doing. For example, you might write: Shakespeare illustrates.. Smith synthesizes… They prove… Usually, in writing about others’ ideas, we don’t worry about the repetition of the authors’ names or pronouns like this–it’s better to give them credit in the sentence than to avoid their name for stylistic purposes.