Undergraduate Student Resources

Advice for Beginning Writers: Why Take a Writing Program Course at NU?

Excellent writers enjoy a strong advantage in every field, from the arts and humanities, to the social, natural, and applied sciences. For this reason, you can expect that writing projects—essays, lab reports, and senior theses to name just a few—will constitute a significant portion of your work at Northwestern, and that the demands placed on your writing will increase as you advance in your studies.

Sometimes, however, these new writing challenges take students by surprise. Students who were praised for their work in high school or college may be startled when their work does not meet the exacting standards of their current courses.

What has changed? Not the fundamentals—good grammar, correct punctuation, and well-formed paragraphs are still the cornerstones of any well-structured document. In any course of advanced study, however, you will inevitably encounter new challenges: experts in your field who require not only that you write more than ever before, but that you write differently. Thus while you may be accustomed to writing papers in order to demonstrate your basic knowledge of a subject, your professors may have other goals—that you advance an original argument, demonstrate new strategies for presenting evidence, speculate on the ramifications of research results, or interpret a significant passage from a text.

Writing well is hard work and there is no alternative to simple practice. But there are ways to help ensure that you are getting the most out of your efforts. Below you will find some writing strategies—perspectives drawn from expert writers still working to master this difficult craft.

Revisit the fundamentals of grammar throughout your writing life.

Rereading and revising your own writing with a strong awareness of the rules and guidelines for clear expression can help you clarify your thoughts not just to others but yourself. Students wishing to brush up on some of these fundamentals may consider taking English 105: Expository Writing through the Writing Program. Students who have a strong interest in the structure of language itself may wish to explore this interesting topic in greater depth through introductory linguistics classes.

Even experienced writers find it useful to revisit William Strunk’s classic handbook on style and grammar. Students in the social, natural, and applied sciences may benefit from the advice of George Gopen and Judith Swan in their classic article, “The Science of Scientific Writing”. Students learning English as a second language may find assistance in MIT’s extensive online handbook, The Mayfield Guide to Technical Writing, while those wishing to venture further afield may enjoy the University of Chicago’s grammar resources on the web.

Organize your thinking by writing multiple drafts. Revise along the way.

Writers who put their thoughts down on paper early reap significant benefits at the end of the road. Often you may start with a simple thesis that "feels right" and then look for evidence to support your claim. On reflection, however, you may find that your thesis doesn't do justice to your insights or that your evidence doesn't support your claim the way you thought it would. Writing and revising gives you an opportunity to make adjustments to your argument and develop an argument that is more sophisticated and represents your views more accurately than one written at the last minute.

In addition to helping you align your argument and evidence with your thesis, multiple drafts will allow you to experiment with different writing styles and modes of expression, helping you pinpoint the most effective ways to make your case. You’ll find good strategies for the drafting process on Purdue’s Online Writing Resource (OWL).

Seek feedback as you draft and revise.

In some respects, it may seem counterintuitive to ask for feedback before you have finalized your argument. The best writers, however, solicit feedback from multiple sources—professors, friends, fellow students— letting their early reader help them tease out important insights or demand additional detail on points of argument that are not yet clear. Remember that you don't have to act on all feedback. It’s helpful, however—and sometimes surprising—to learn how a passage that you thought was perfectly clear can be interpreted by another reader.

On a more advanced level, learning more about how readers read can also help you master the difficult task of writing about research. Canny readers can help you learn to integrate multiple perspectives—sometime complementary, sometimes contradicting—into a coherent meditation or argument on a topic. An excellent source for feedback from trained readers is the Writing Place, located on the second floor, North Tower of the University Library (click to make an appointment).

Know the style and standards for argument and evidence appropriate to your discipline.

The term “argument” can mean different things in different contexts, encompassing modes of writing that can include formal analysis, description, classification, claims for causal relationships, as well as many other approaches. Not every approach, however, is appropriate for every field; different courses and different professors will require that you adopt one approach or combination of approaches to advance your claims. Thus it is always a good idea to begin by making sure you understand what kinds of evidence and argumentative approaches are appropriate for your subject.

No matter what your field and its preferred approach, however, it will be to your benefit to develop a flexible writing style. Throughout your career you are likely to have to adapt your customary style to meet the standards and audience expectations for different fields and subjects.

Make original arguments and take intellectual risks.

As you develop expertise in your chosen field, you should find that the writing challenges you face increase proportionately. In other words, as you train yourself to become part of the expert community, you will be invited—and sometimes required—to contribute to the scholarly conversations and questions that define your discipline. This means formulating arguments that are 1) non-obvious; 2) significant for both you and your audience; 3) at least mildly contestable; and that can plausibly be supported in the space and with the evidence available to you.

Obviously it will take you some time to learn your subject well enough to know what arguments are truly groundbreaking and what arguments are comparatively minor. Still, it’s a good idea to try to make interesting, innovative arguments about your chosen topic—and it’s a good deal more fun than making claims that can’t even keep you interested. More ideas about how to make original and interesting arguments can be found in Part I of the University of Chicago’s excellent guide “Writing in College.”

Use good writers as models and inspiration.

Writers who read widely, both within their fields and outside of them, enjoy a significant advantage when they undertake new writing challenges. Such varied reading provides them with a rich wealth of writing styles and techniques that they understand from the reader’s perspective, but can also appreciate as experienced writers.

So develop an extensive appetite for writing. Read fiction, scholarly publications, newspapers, blogs, essays—anything that captures your attention. Then think about how your favorite writers appeal to their audiences. How do they approach their topics? Are their arguments explicit or subtle? What writers do they invoke or echo? The greater your understanding of the writing community at large, the more likely you are to take your place in it.

Take advantage of available resources.

You don’t have to be holed up in an ivy-covered garret to write well. Don’t be shy: take advantage of the resources the university has to help you get started. Once you have an idea for what you will write, ask the reference librarians to help direct you to existing work on your topic. The library also offers specialists for many disciplines, such as anthropology, economics, and philosophy; consult the subject specialist librarians and the online research guides they maintain. Visit your professors’ office hours to discuss your proposed argument before you begin writing; they’ll be able to ask probing questions, point to areas you will need to flesh out in your essay, and inform you of relevant background material. Writing might seem solitary when you’re alone in front of a blank screen, but many of the best writers think of academic writing as entering into an already existing conversation.

Note: Charlotte Cubbage is the library’s subject specialist for the Writing Program.

Note on Academic Integrity

It is always a good idea to develop your knowledge of the literary world at large, and consciously modeling your own writing style on that of an admired author is an excellent way to learn about literary technique. That being said, all direct “borrowings” from fellow writers—published or unpublished—MUST be acknowledged in due form according to the standards of your field. Additional information on Northwestern’s policies regarding academic integrity—including individual school policies—may be found at Academic Integrity at Northwestern.

Links for Beginning Writers

General Writing Resources

References

Contributor: Kathleen Carmichael, Bobbie and Stanton Cook Family Writing Program. Laura Passin also contributed to this guide.