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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.

Writing as a Process: Writing is Recursive

Writing is a process. Writers don’t just sit down and produce an essay, well-formed and ideal in every respect--we work at the stages and steps. But writing is not only a process: it’s also a measure of learning and your thinking, and so the process has to stop at various points so that your measure can be taken. Good academic writing is both a process and a product.

Writing is recursive. “Recursive” simply means that each step you take in your writing process will feed into other steps: after you’ve drafted an essay, for instance, you’ll go do a bit of verification of some of your facts—and if you discover that you’ve gotten something wrong, you’ll go back to the draft and fix it. But doing that may well require you to loop back to a different section of your essay to rewrite or to take it out altogether-and that revision, in turn, might mean that you need to rethink your organization. At some point, you know that the work is done.

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Know the Right Moves for College Writing

To be successful at college-level writing, students need to be willing to learn the new moves. Writing for the demands of college is challenging, but it can be a little easier if students understand up front that readers at the college level expect to see certain skills be demonstrated.

  • Know what a college-level essay looks like in the appropriate discipline (your professors should show you examples)
  • Keep the focus of your work narrow (don't take on too much! Given the choice, go deep rather than broad)
  • Compose and revise to create a thesis statement and topic sentences
  • Introduce your sources with a purpose
  • Show relationships between ideas
  • Use sophisticated punctuation

Know What a College Level Essay Looks Like (generally)

While professors at Stetson have specific expectations for what their students turn in, students may not always understand the depth for the expectations. Some professors will show examples of what they want; some will not. In general, while each of your professors will provide a clear assignment, students may benefit from seeing an outline of what that assignment might entail.

The key differences are several:

  • The need for a clear and directive thesis or purpose statement;
  • The expectation of substantial consideration of other viewpoints and perspectives; 
  • The use of sources to develop and explore a point made by the writer (not just to support the point itself); and
  • The need for the conclusion to do something other than summarize  

Know What a College Level Essay Looks Like (in your discipline) 

Not every assignment students get at Stetson will look like the above list. For example, writing assignments in Life Sciences prioritize a clear discussion of methods and results, often to test the work of others (in which case, using sources "to explore a point" may look very different. Ask your instructor to help you with these differences. 

Build an Argument, not an Opinion

Many students come to college thinking that “arguing” in an essay means to present a well- supported position. The definition of “argue” thus becomes a defense rather than an inquiry. In the real world, we're accustomed to "arguing" as trying to win. In college, "arguing" means to present a line of thought that takes into account different perspectives, additional evidence, and new ideas as it comes to a conclusion. In other words, a strong argument is one that incorporates both sides effectively. 

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Sophisticated thinkers and writers seek to advance and deepen the understanding via discussion; thus, at college we seek to encourage deeper discussions with the goal to have a richer and fuller understanding. To do this well, it’s important to go deeply into a subject rather than stay on the surface. While the approach of defending a position rather than exploring its layers may feel somewhat easier, there are only so many ways to learn from general subjects; we learn more, and find opportunities for growth and development more easily, when we narrow down the field of interest. As we work with an idea and consider it carefully, we continue to narrow it down, zeroing in on a particular angle or position that interests us and meets the needs of the assignment. 

Identifying a position requires several steps:

  • First, understand the subject area from which the argument must come.
  • Second, break that subject area down into topics
  • Third, focus on developing a question whose answer can be identified and defended. As the subject undergoes continual narrowing and focusing, specific questions develop; the reasoned, detailed, careful answer to those questions becomes the argument.
  • Fourth, read, research, and discuss the potential answers to the question you’re asking so that your writing is multidimensional and well supported. The Guide’s chapter on “Using Your Resources” deals with this element of the process.

Remember: A true argument requires that other perspectives be taken into account, because once you have found a focus and can easily develop an opinion or come to a position on the questions that have been created, this can provide an opportunity for a discussion, exploration of different perspectives, and dialogue about values. 

  • Opinion: statement of writer’s general attitude toward a specific subject, issue or event
  • Position: announcement of writer’s general attitude toward a specific subject, issue, or event, with explanation of reasons
  • Argument: statement that captures a spirit of debate and discussion about a specific topic, issue, or event 

Not every writing assignment students get in their courses will be an argument essay. As mentioned earlier, students here write lab reports, correspondence, proposals, brochures, arguments, applications, evaluations, analyses, and host of others.

We also ask that students consider and evaluate questions and ideas, formulate their own responses to those ideas, and then do something with those responses: argue, defend, propose, compare, and analyze are some of the things we do with our responses to ideas. Each kind of assignment has a different purpose.

Generally speaking, arguments take two kinds of shapes: one is a shape that actively argues with its reader from the start, presenting its position and systematically defending against its opposition by marshalling evidence that will defeat an opposing viewpoint. This focuses on difference. One other popular shape starts from a position of unity and common ground, and then, as each element of common ground on a position is discussed, the writer’s position becomes clearer.

Is Every Assignment an Argument?

Is Every Assignment an Argument?

Not every writing assignment students get in their courses will be an argument essay. As mentioned earlier, students here write lab reports, correspondence, proposals, brochures, arguments, applications, reflections, evaluations, analyses, and many others. 

A strong writer develops through practice in a variety of forms and audiences and purposes. That's why Stetson requires you to have four different writing-enhanced (WE) courses. The practice helps build "muscle" and a set of strategies to respond to new situations.

Students consider and evaluate questions and ideas, formulate their own responses to those ideas, and then do something with those responses. Argue, defend, propose, compare, and analyze are some of the things we do with our responses to ideas. Each kind of assignment has a different purpose.

Generally speaking, arguments take two kinds of shapes: one is a shape that actively argues with its reader from the start, presenting its position and systematically defending against its opposition by marshalling evidence that will defeat an opposing viewpoint. This focuses on difference. One other popular shape starts from position of unity and common ground, and then, as each element of common ground on a position is discussed, the writer’s position becomes clearer.

Know the Two Most Important Kinds of Sentences: Thesis and Topic Sentences

Thesis statements and topic sentences perform nearly the same function in your writing: each one makes a claim, or states a main idea, and each one serves as a central focus connecting ideas presented earlier and leads to ideas about to come. 

A classic thesis statement demonstrates three specific elements:

  • It states a main idea, which the essay will go on to explain and develop
  • It goes beyond statements of fact or announcement-type statements
  • It offers the reader some idea of the direction of the essay

Writing thesis statements worksheet - The Perfect Dress | Writing ...

Whereas a thesis statement captures the main idea of an essay and provides structure and direction, a topic sentence introduces a paragraph’s main claim or idea. When we read a well put- together paragraph, we can identify the topic sentence relatively easily: it’s the one making a claim, and the other sentences are adding support and explanation. We typically find the topic sentence of a paragraph at the starting or ending position; at the start of a paragraph, the topic sentence makes a claim or point that will then be developed and supported. At the close of the paragraph, the topic sentence brings the reader to a conclusion that's just been made. 

Introduce Your Sources With Purpose and Show Relationships between Ideas

Introduce Your Sources With Purpose

Inexperienced writers often us this particular technique:

“Prostitution in Dubai is ruining the city’s reputation” (Alexis).

While functional, this approach to using a source is so minimal as to be almost ineffective. Note, for example, that the reader has not been told who "Alexis" is, what their credentials are, where this information has come from (and whether it is credible.)

However, look at the difference between that example and the next, paying close attention to the introduction of the source as well as the mention of the origin of the source material:

Shakar Alexis, a prominent sociologist, warns in Dubai News that “Prostitution in Dubai is ruining the city’s reputation” (Alexis).

In the second example, the student has introduced the speaker using their full name, has provided the reader with some idea of the speaker’s credentials, and has given the source of the speaker’s words. Finally, in the parentheses, the student has documented the source. Note also that the student has used an effective verb, "warn," to introduce and characterize the quotation. 

Choosing your words and embedding useful information carefully provides readers with a richer, more complete experience.

Show Relationships between Ideas

Your writing should show your thinking forms a whole. That is, your thinking forms a coherent unified idea by using transitional words and phrases. These may be used between paragraphs, to show the big connections among the ideas in your writing, or between sentence, to show the train do thinking that leads you to connect one claim to the next. 

This chart provides a useful reference for students looking for just the right word to show the relationship between two paragraphs’ or two sentences’ main ideas: 

Transition words/phrases | Transition words, Transition words for ...

Understand and Use Sophisticated Punctuation

Understand and Use Sophisticated Punctuation

Sentence punctuation involves using commas, semicolons, colons, periods, parentheses, and dashes to coordinate sections of sentences (phrases and clauses) into coherent wholes.

An independent clause is one that can function on its own as a sentence: it has a subject and a verb. It looks like a complete sentence. When you put together independent clauses, you need to signal that coordination with some sort of punctuation.

Link independent clauses in four ways:

  • Comma plus conjunction: I wasn’t ready for school to start, but it started anyway
  • Semicolon: I wasn’t ready for school to start; it seemed like summer should have stretched on forever
  • Semicolon and transitional word/phrase: I wasn’t ready for school to start; however, the first day turned out to be enjoyable.
  • Colon: I wasn’t ready for school to start: time had sped past me all summer

Link items in a series with some sort of punctuation. You can use commas or semicolons depending on your intended effect:

  • Commas: We can look at the increased coral deaths, melting polar ice caps, and the gradual decline of biodiversity as evidence of climate change.
  • Semicolons: Resolving the climate problems will take increased attention from governments; stronger sanctions for violators; and a genuine realization that our species is in trouble.

Colons and dashes set off examples and explanations so that each one gets the proper attention from the reader:

  • Colons: It doesn’t get any easier than this: I can pass some of my classes just by doing the work.
  • Dashes: I can pass some of my classes just by doing the assignments—I guess that means I’d better schedule time for homework.

Use colons, dashes, and parentheses to set off the important information from the rest of the sentence:

  • Commas: Before we can tackle our serious problems, most importantly humanitarian crises in Darfur and the African continent, we have to admit that they exist.
  • Dashes: It doesn’t take much milk to make pancakes--just a cup or so will do it--but using skim milk instead of whole milk will reduce calories.
  • Parentheses: I know a lot about being a student (but I don't know much about how to get a job after this). 

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