September 07, 2016

What you should know before you write

When you receive a writing assignment, the work you need to do before you put the first word down is just as important as the words themselves. To help you be successful in the writing process, Stephen Kuntz, Associate Director of Writing Resources at the Student Success Centre, identifies six things you should familiarize yourself with before you begin.

When tasked with a writing assignment, most of us sit down and begin writing before we ought to. There are some things we need to know before we begin writing to help make the process easier and more effective.

Know Your Discipline: Each subject area has its own vocabulary and phrases and, at times, sentence or essay structure and forms. You need to know these before you can truly begin to write in that discipline.
  • Pay attention to the course textbook or the articles you are given to read. Read the glossary of the text that contains key words and phrases.
  • Listen to the instructor: what words are repeated? What words are written on the board?
  • Know the citation format that is required - don’t guess. Look in the syllabus or ask.
Know the Assignment: The worth of the assignment should dictate how much time and effort you spend on it.
  • Know what written form is expected.  Although we tend to use the term “essay,” there are reports, abstracts, reviews, reflective pieces and many other forms of writing.
  • Read the prompt or question carefully. What is the focus and intent of the assignment?  Writing a great essay but not for that prompt can be frustrating and confusing.
Know Your Professor: Instructors are more than grading machines; they have their own attitudes and approaches to grading.
  • What are his expectations? What does she grade? Read the syllabus for hints or direct statements.
  • If they provide a rubric, look at it and take it seriously — they did when producing it. If there are no indications anywhere and no rubric is offered, ask what will be graded.
Know the Language: You don’t have to be a grammarian, but you should have a basic understanding of the grammar and syntax of English. Although correctness isn’t everything in writing, when it affects understanding, you can have problems.
  • Don’t be embarrassed that you really don’t know when to use a comma or avoid semi-colons because you are afraid of them.
  • Read a basic grammar book, take a class, ask you high school teacher — do something to get things straight. 
Know Yourself: Know your particular problems areas and weaknesses.
  • I define a weakness as something you get right sometimes and not others, where you only half understand it. Sorting such aspects out usually requires a 5 minute lesson from someone who does know, or carefully reading a section of a writing handbook that addresses that area.
  • A problem area is something that will in most cases require a greater length of time to address and usually benefits from some “expert” instruction — be it your friend who knows a comma splice from a fused sentence or attending a writing centre or class.
Know Where to Get Support: Many people can help you, but you need to know who they are and where they are.
  • The instructor, the TA, or even a classmate can all offer certain levels of help.
  • There are the on-campus supports available in the form of writing centres. Know the differences between them, who you will see when you go, how you need to set-up an appointment, and what will and will not happen when you have a session.
  • There are also non-regulated services and tutors that advertise on campus or are available online. Take care when using such “supports.” Not everyone who wants to “help you” may actually be helping you. Know what they offer and how they will tutor you, then make sure they actually teach you and not merely “correct” your paper and give it back to you. As a student, you also are under the Code of Student Behaviour which outlines the types of support you can and cannot receive.
If something is not clear, ask. Not knowing something can actually affect you and your grades. If there are things you want to know, ask us at Student Success Centre. We may not know everything either, but we can address many of your questions and point you in the appropriate direction.