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Guide to Writing at Stetson University

This guide is designed for students and faculty to use as a resource for what “good college writing” looks like—and how students can achieve it—and how faculty can encourage it.

What is Good Writing?

What is Good Writing?

There are some rules about what makes good writing. Some students think of “rules” as the kind of thing that tells them when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon. These rules, however, are more like guiding principles. (Commas can come later.) Any effective writing task has to take into account a number of factors. The more you know, the better you can meet the expectations. 

  • Know your audience. Different readers need different things. Is the assignment directed at a newspaper as an editorial or opinion piece? Are you  writing to the University president? Are you hoping to persuade someone to fund your research project? Are you reporting the results of an experiment? 

  • Know your purpose. Is the intent to report, persuade, inform, disagree, summarize, or something else? 
  • Know your forum…and be able to identify its conventions. Every genre and forum has a set of conventions to adhere to. Scientific writing tends to avoid using "I," but some reflective writing tasks require it. A Blackboard discussion post has a different set of expectations than a blog post, which is also different from a peer review report. 
  • Know your topic, and be willing to learn even more about it.  Generally speaking, you'll know more about your topic than you actually put in the writing assignment. but since you'll need to be able to make choices about what to include, you'll need to learn as much as you can...and then some more. That way you can make smart choices. 
  • Know what kinds of evidence and appeals are possible…and how to choose which kinds are appropriate. For example, personal examples are fairly rare in the University, whereas examples from data and peer reviewed articles are more objective and thus more widely accepted. Quantitative examples are always almost helpful. Make sure your examples can speak to your audience, your purpose, and your forum. 
  • Let your organization grow organically from the interaction of what you know about your audience, your purpose, your forum, and your topic. Many writing assignments have specific expectations for format, order, and arrangement; if those aren't provided by the instructor, then start with the primary purpose and keep going from there. 

Good writing, regardless of the course or the discipline within which it is taught, shows the following characteristics: 

  • Clarity of expression

  • Coherence (not just comprehensible—coherence in the sense that all the parts of the written piece form a single unit)
  • Response appropriate to question asked (i.e, an accurate reading of the essay question and a complete response to all parts of that question)
  • Synthesis of ideas (whether from reading or class discussion)
  • Focus and concision (i.e., narrow topic within a greater subject; ability to develop an idea without having to broaden the topic, staying on track with a topic or argument)
  • Relevance (the “so what” element)
  • Evidence of critical thinking
  • Independent thought, thought that moves beyond summarizing a reading or a discussion, thought that contributes to an academic conversation

When we say we want students to think critically, we mean to think analytically. Students often come to us thinking that criticism is something you do to people or ideas or things you don’t like. On the contrary, we mean for you to take apart an idea or a plan, assess its individual parts, ask questions designed to give you a fuller understanding of the topic at hand, challenge assumptions they might hold, and then—and only then—to come to conclusions. To think critically is to be aware of all the factors that play into our understanding of what goes on around us.

The ability to think critically involves being able to ask questions about causes and outcomes, histories and patterns, experiments and innovations. Most importantly, the ability to think critically involves not making any judgments without first establishing a good understanding of the idea, proposal, or issue in question.

Each field of study has its own set of assumptions, things it finds important, traits it values, behaviors it expects, and so forth. Each course students take here will help develop critical thinking, and each student’s skill at assessing a given situation will be shown in the way she writes, speaks, and interacts. The connections are unmistakable, and the way we teach is to help students see those connections and show them to us. Those skills will transfer out into other courses, other contexts, and the world at large.

Have a question? Ask a librarian! Email libref@stetson.edu. Call or text 386-747-9028.