The Writing Assignment

Assignments vary widely, and you can use different strategies for each writing task. The main purpose of your project may be research, argument, analysis, or narrative. In each of these areas, you can learn some basic skills that will make the assignment easier. Step one is always the same: Make sure you understand the requirements of the assignment.

Research papers

A research paper is similar to other writing assignments. You should have a topic, thesis, introduction, good organization, unified and coherent paragraphs, transitions, and so on. A research paper should not consist of a series of quotations or footnoted facts loosely strung together.

Unlike other essays, a research paper depends on the use and citation of several sources of information, such as reference books, books related to your subject, relevant journal and magazine articles, speeches, and lectures. During the information‐gathering stage, spend time in the library. Check electronic databases. Learn how to locate a variety of print and electronic materials that will give you a thorough (not one‐sided) view of your topic. When you find information, take careful notes that include bibliographical information about your sources. Because practices for footnoting and preparing a bibliography vary, when you're assigned a research paper, ask your instructor to recommend a style guide.

Essays arguing a position from a single text

If your assignment is to write about a single text—for example, to take a position on an article in favor of regulating the Internet—read the text several times. Look up terms you're unsure of. Mark points that seem unclear or issues that may require research. Include outside research if allowed by the assignment. Be sure to cite material from other sources, just as you would in a research paper.

Identify the strongest and weakest arguments in the article. After analyzing the text, decide whether you agree or disagree with the author's position. When you write your paper, you should provide a fair summary of the position stated in the article, whether you're agreeing with it or not. In an argumentative essay you must support your own viewpoint and answer the opposition.

Essays analyzing a literary work

When you're asked to analyze a literary work, or one aspect of a literary work, stay close to the text. Your first job is to interpret meaning, which can take some time and several readings. Once you feel comfortable with your interpretation, take notes or mark the text to find support for your thesis. You'll use quotations from the work in your paper, so highlight those passages or lines that might be particularly effective.

Generally, when you write an essay on a nonliterary text, you focus on the content and the quality of the author's arguments. When you write about a literary text—a novel or a poem, for example—you must also pay close attention to the author's technique. In your notes, include specific words and images from the text, observations about structure (a poem's rhyme scheme, for example, or a novel's subplot), point of view, and tone. When you discuss features and techniques like these in your essay, you should relate them to a point you are making, usually about the author's theme or purpose.

Narrative, descriptive, and autobiographical essays

For some essays, you'll present your own thoughts, observations, and experiences, without reference to a text. As with essays that argue, explain, persuade, critique, inform, or analyze, you will need to gather information to develop your main ideas.

Before beginning an essay describing your Aunt Arlene for example, write down all the details you can about her, including any anecdotes that reveal her characteristics. At this point, you are gathering information, so don't worry about organizing your observations. If you haven't yet written a sentence stating a main idea, try to do so now. (For example, Although Aunt Arlene prides herself on being no trouble to anyone, she finds ways to get everyone in the family to do what she wants. Or Aunt Arlene looks like a little old lady, but she acts like a teenager.) Without a controlling theme, your essay will be a list of details with nothing to unify them or give them purpose. Eliminate information that does not relate to the central idea, which stems from the purpose of the writing.

When a college application asks for an autobiographical essay, your purpose will be to describe the traits, experiences, interests, achievements, and goals that show you're a good candidate for college admission. First, take notes about yourself, including things that emphasize your individuality. Later, you may decide not to include the no‐hit softball game you pitched when you were nine, or every fast‐food job you've ever had. But by making a complete list, you can look for patterns that will help you organize the content of the essay. When it's time to put your points in order, throw out unnecessary details, consolidate, and summarize. For example, you could mention that you held five fast‐food jobs (but not specify each employer) while attending high school and becoming class valedictorian.