How to Ace Writing 101

by Mary Catherine Connors

Welcome to Writing 101, authors-in-training! By now I’m sure you’ve come to the alarming realization that, yes, you’ll have to (eventually) write an essay in this class. Don’t stress. The secret is, everyone’s first college papers are… well… they’re not exactly the Great American Novel.

Mine definitely weren’t. But that’s why Writing 101 is awesome—you can experiment with your evolving writer’s voice and learn from your instructor without the pressure of an upper-level course. There are also great tools out there that can help you turn in a polished essay, like our online plagiarism and grammar checker. Check it out!

Here are some tips to get your college writing career off to a smashing start:

1. Break Free of Your Paragraph Order

Here’s a little secret: you can write your paper in any! order! you! choose! It is truly the wild, wild west out here in these parts.

It’s difficult to write the introduction first when you have basically no clue what the rest of the paper will look like. By the time you finish typing, your thesis might go in a different direction than you originally intended, or you might uncover newer, better ideas as you write (aka the old ideas look less hot and more hot fire garbage after you see them on the page).

2. Pass It Around

Peer review is great for several reasons: your fellow students are already familiar with the material and what the professor is looking for in your writing. Your stream of consciousness (although vibrant, bold, and a little mysterious, I’m sure), doesn’t always clearly translate to your writing, so it’s helpful for another person to point out areas that aren’t so clear—before your instructor does the same.

3. Bow Down to the Word Count

If you’ve finally typed your last type and come to the horrible realization you’re 100 words below count, try going through your paper once more. There is a 100% chance that at least one topic in your paper is vague, awkward, or confusing. Flesh it out and you’ll have a more convincing, clearer argument in the end.

4. Stop by for a Chat

Don’t be scared to meet one-on-one with your  instructor or TA! It’s a grand time, I promise. But go after you’ve already brainstormed on the prompt. When your instructor asks what you’re thinking of writing about, it’s not helpful for you to shrug your shoulders and blurt out, “I dunno what are YOU writing about?” A little preparation can lead to a thoughtful discussion that will help you refine and streamline your ideas.

5. Learn From the Pros

Tackling an academic essay is difficult if you’ve never seen/heard/read an academic essay. But those rascals are everywhere—search online or pick up a used book on literary criticism and get reading.

Even if you have no earthly idea what the critical essay is talking about, study its structure—how does the essay begin, string its arguments into a healthy thesis, or address potential counterarguments? If you feel uncomfortable finding an essay on your own, ask your instructor for an example.


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6. Annotate as You Go

Best advice I’ve gotten from an instructor: always read with a pencil in hand. Put check marks by quotes that make you angry, happy, quizzical, or say yikes, what weirdo wrote this and why do I relate so much! Scribble down your interesting thoughts—you might need your brilliant, original ideas later when you’re researching paper topics or want to contribute to class discussion.

Need to turn your scribblings into something turn-in-able? Learn how to write an annotated bibliography here!

7. Don’t Forget Your Topic Sentences

They ain’t a joke. If you don’t want to do an entire outline but need a good handle on your paper’s overall organization, try writing all your topic sentences (the first and last sentences of each major point/paragraph) first.

Knowing where you want to start and where you want to end will make the writing process so much easier. My Instagram and eating habits were always highly disorganized in school, but my papers KNEW what they wanted out of life.

8. Write Like Yourself

It’s easy to feel insecure when you’re typing that first essay. Even if you feel tempted to beef up your vocabulary a little bit, don’t stray too far from your natural voice. Sometimes we attempt to write quite professionally and satisfactorily, and the consequential consequence is one of undue remorse and alternative versions of such previously mentioned emotion. Yeesh. By all means, develop and elevate your writer’s voice, but keep it your own and not Professor X’s of Scholarly School Y.

9. I’m Baaaa-ck!

After you get the grade, don’t be afraid to go back to office hours and discuss—even if you got an A+ (can I have your secrets please?). Your instructor will likely be able to provide you with additional insight  that didn’t exactly fit in the comment section of your paper, but which can help you a lot next time.

Get scribbling, everyone. And good luck!


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