Expectations for Effective Academic Writing

Effective academic writing at Hope College should be characterized by eleven key qualities, regardless of paper type (whether lab report, reader response, personal reflection, memo, term paper, research paper, analysis or critique).

Effective academic writing at Hope College should be characterized by eleven key qualities, regardless of paper type (whether lab report, reader response, personal reflection, memo, term paper, research paper, analysis or critique).

This document lists these eleven key qualities; each one is followed by a more detailed explanation. These explanations may be significantly different from one academic discipline to another, so be sure to check how your particular course is interpreting each of these key features.

Unless your professor suggests otherwise, ask yourself these key questions when preparing to write:

1. Does your paper showcase your originality and use your own voice as appropriate?
Your originality has to do with most of the elements detailed below: your writing situation, your relationship to your audience, what you have to say, how you support it, how you organize it and what words you use. Some kinds of writing will invite a strong sense of “voice” (a style that someone could recognize as yours); other kinds will ask you to sound as much as you can like any professional in your field. Any kind of academic writing should show the results of your own work in addressing the task at hand, learning something by writing and expressing what you are learning.
2. What is the situation or purpose for writing, and have you addressed it?

The “situation” described in expectation number 2 is sometimes called “the rhetorical situation.” It encompasses the objectives and goals for the writing assignment (What content or skills are you supposed to learn as you work through this project?); it also requires an understanding of the prompt itself (What type of paper is expected? What type of content is your professor looking for?).

The rhetorical situation also includes the “question” that your paper seeks to answer. Sometimes, this question is an explicit research question; other times, it is merely implied. Consider the intent of your paper rather than simply the requirements of the assignment. What response am I hoping to get? What is this kind of assignment trying to accomplish, both for me as a writer and for my audience? Once you have the basic purpose of the paper in mind, you will be more likely to meet the needs of the rhetorical situation if you write down some notes about what the paper calls for — which might include specific types of content, evidence or details.

3. Is your audience for the paper an actual audience (such as your professor or classmates), an implied audience (such as educated people concerned with your subject who are not in your class) or both?

Understanding the needs of your audience (Who will be reading your paper?) is closely tied to the writing situation for the specific paper. To make sure you are meeting your audience’s needs, think very carefully about the audience. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will read your paper?
  • Does your audience expect a particular diction level or “tone”? Different tones might include academic, conversational, formal or maybe even a serious-yet-conversational tone, such as the one this discussion is using (notice the use of contractions and second-person pronouns throughout these explanations).
  • What sorts of evidence will your reader value and appreciate?
  • What details has your professor asked you to include in the paper (this ties back to the rhetorical situation)?
  • Are you writing only for your professor?
  • Should a community of peers knowledgeable in the subject be able to understand your paper without the course as background?
  • What objections or counterarguments might your audience have? How can you address or refute them (could it have something to do with your use of appropriate evidence)?
4. Does your paper put forth an interesting, unique thesis statement (sometimes as an answer to a thought-provoking question)?

Instead of just having a topic, think of your paper as a way for you to answer a burning question you have about the topic. After asking this thought-provoking question (you may want to talk with your professor about what makes a good question), you should use the paper to actually answer the question. Remember, too, that the question should be neutral — it doesn’t automatically presuppose a particular answer. 

Thus, the question is not your thesis; rather, your thesis is the informed answer you put forth in your paper (after considering lots of evidence). The thesis should be the guiding point of your paper. It should be interesting (to you and to readers) and should generate some energy. You should not have more than one thesis; all of the ideas in your paper should be coordinated around a single focus.

5. Have you used appropriate, contextualized evidence, as well as considering alternative views or counter arguments?

Using evidence in a paper isn’t that much different from sharing information, pictures and hilarious memes online. When you share this stuff with friends and followers, you usually use a link to show them where you found that interesting, inspiring quote or statistic (think about the share features on Facebook and Tumblr or the retweet function on Twitter). Readers are curious, and they’re more inclined to listen to you when you show them where your information came from.

Every paper needs evidence. What type of evidence will you use? This will depend on what you are trying to say. If you are writing a narrative essay, consider incorporating personal examples from your life (even stories about a “friend of a friend,” or a wholly hypothetical example, can work here). For lab reports, did you include all details about the experiment? Consider including specific measurements. If you’re writing about a topic to demonstrate knowledge of your course content, consider including direct quotations or paraphrases from your textbooks or related readings you’ve done (in that course or in another course). Don’t forget to cite anything that you quote or paraphrase!

When you incorporate evidence, too, make sure it is contextually correct; in other words, make sure you haven’t taken an author’s words out of context. Did you understand what the text was about? Have you accurately conveyed the author’s point of view or her evidence? Did you use correct, factual information? Have you integrated quotations into your own writing with transitions that set them up and comments that explain how they fit your argument?

Part of your evidence needs to demonstrate your awareness of the opposition. Did you mention opposing voices, present alternative ideas and evidence, or help your readers understand that you know other perspectives are a part of this particular conversation? How has your use of evidence accounted for these other (sometimes hostile) voices?

Again, when you use evidence, you need to show your readers where you found that evidence. Please see expectation number 8, which focuses on discipline-specific citation methods.

6. Does your paper have a logical organizational structure?

You may have used the term “flow” in the past, but a logical organization or progression is more than flow — it helps readers move through a paper. Think about your paper as a way to connect the dots for readers. You can’t assume readers just “get” why one of your body paragraphs supports or relates to your thesis. Using clear explanations of evidence and transitions from one piece of evidence to another or from paragraph to paragraph will create a logical progression.

Remember, your paper is a journey; that journey has to proceed logically for readers. The logical progression supports the paper’s focus. No one wants to take a four-mile walk to get to the store when there is a one-mile route. Think of your paper the same way. The focused, one-mile walk requires thinking through your route ahead of time, allowing you to proceed in a logical fashion.  The four-mile walk takes a lot more time and energy because you spend a good deal of time wandering around without a clear sense of your goal.  Meandering through the woods can be fun, but your reader may not have the time and energy to take that kind of walk!

7. Are your body paragraphs focused, and do they support your thesis?

Each paragraph should explain just one idea. Some people find it easier to craft successful paragraphs using the PIE method (PIE is an acronym for Point, Illustrations, Explanation). In this approach, you begin with a point (also called a topic sentence) that usually supports your paper’s overall thesis. Then, you include illustrations (details such as examples, hypotheticals, quotations, statistics or process discussions). Finally, include an explanation: How do your illustrations help you support and make your original point?

Having focused paragraphs will help you craft a more logical organization by helping readers see how one paragraph connects to another and how they all work together to support your thesis more fully. (For other methods of constructing a powerful paragraph, see the Purdue OWL’s section on paragraphing.)

Each of your paper’s main body paragraphs will have a main idea or point, but that point also needs to be related to the overarching thesis you present to readers. If a body paragraph doesn’t help support, demonstrate or explain your thesis, it probably shouldn’t be in your paper. Asking for help at this point is often a good idea. Sometimes, when we write, we get so caught up in our own thoughts that we don’t see when a paragraph isn’t meeting the needs of the paper — it sounds interesting and thoughtful, so it can be difficult to notice that it isn’t actually supporting the thesis. Sometimes, the writer can see how it supports the thesis, but that doesn’t always mean the reader will understand how it supports the thesis. When that happens we need to give our paragraphs more focus, in order to help readers understand how the paragraph fits into the paper and supports the thesis.

8. Have you used appropriate, discipline-specific format and citation methods?
Different academic disciplines use different methods and formats for structuring the paper, dividing it into sections and providing information about the sources that were used to write the paper. Follow the instructions given in each course for what format and citation method (also called “citation style” or “style sheet”) to use. Remember, using the appropriate format and citation method for your discipline will also make you look more credible in your professor’s eyes. A paper will make a better impression if it is formatted as the discipline expects, and if it uses discipline-specific citation styles.
9. Have you gone through several stages of the writing process, including revising and editing?

Often, we find ourselves revising and editing — even proofreading — as we write. It’s a good idea, though, to understand what makes each of these stages of your process different; this in turn allows you to allocate enough time and energy to each stage.

Revising refers to shifting things around, changing your organizational structure, or adding in details to better support your points (your instructor might refer to these issues as “higher-order concerns”). Sometimes, revision is a matter of making sure your paper is providing a clear thesis. Revising is all about the overarching pieces of your paper; therefore, you should plan to think broadly about how your paper works when you revise. You might also hear your professor talk about drafting or a first/early draft, a middle/second draft, or a final/late draft. Your professor is asking you to think about bringing your paper through various stages, each of which will include revision of the broader aspects of your paper.

As you revise, pay particular attention to the beginning of the paper; your ideas may have developed over the process of writing, so you might need to refine or revise your original thesis in order to spark interest among your readers and provide them with some guidance and direction. You might now be able to provide a better overview of how the paper is organized — and this may send you back to work on the organization of the rest of the paper.

Only after this broader revision process do you need to begin to edit. When editing, you should think about your paper on a more “micro” level, including the structure of individual sentences. Every sentence can be rewritten in a great many different ways. Do you have a sentence in your paper that just feels a little off? What other ways could you write it? Do you need that semicolon? What about that long sentence — is it actually a run-on? Is there a better way to write it? It’s a good idea to edit after revising, because it saves time. If you spend 15 minutes editing one sentence to get it just right, and then discover (as you revise) that you don’t even need that sentence, you’ve just wasted 15 minutes.

These ideas are complex, so you might want to check out the Purdue OWL’s subsections under Academic Writing: the Adding Emphasis and Sentence Variety subsections are particularly useful.

10. Have you received feedback from a competent reader (such as a more experienced student or a writing assistant at the Klooster Center)?

We’ve all been tempted to ask our roommate, teammate, or study buddy to read over our papers for us, and that can be very useful. But this kind of “quick look” is useful mainly in the very late stages of writing, such as editing and proofreading. It’s often more important to ask for feedback when you’re still in the revision stage — and at this stage, you also need someone who can provide strong feedback, and isn’t afraid to make significant suggestions.

Some professors are willing to give feedback on drafts. If your professor offers to give feedback on your drafts, take her or him up on that offer. After all, no one knows the writing situation better than your professor. If you don’t like the idea of taking it to your professor, consider taking it to an advisor, a mentor or a Writing Assistant at the Klooster Center. All of these people are readers who are trained to help you become a better writer while meeting the needs of your assignments.

11. Is your paper as error-free as possible?

The last stage of your writing process should be proofreading. This is when you review your paper (either front to back or back to front) and focus on surface-level errors (a missed period, a misspelled word). You should run your computer’s spell check, but you should also print out the document and read it carefully. You may find it helpful to read the paper out loud to catch any other surface-level errors, such as an incomplete or awkward sentence (more obvious when reading out loud), as well as words that are misspelled but which your spell-checker won’t catch because the misspelling is also a word (from instead of form, or were instead of where).

Having an error-free paper largely rests on proofreading, but it also means looking at requirements such as formatting (attending, of course, to the specific requirements of your class or discipline in that regard — see expectation number 8). For example, did you write out the header properly? Are your page numbers where your professor expects them to be? Did you incorrectly use there instead of their? Did you hit that space bar accidentally before a period? Did you remember to include all of your in-text citations?

Remember, your professors have been in school for many years and have become accustomed to reading material that is relatively error-free. They are understandably annoyed when your paper is littered with errors that you didn’t bother to correct, even though you might know they are errors. 

Making your paper as error-free as possible might be a more involved process than you think, so check out the Purdue OWL’s section on Proofreading.