Exactly what is ‘college writing’?
Most first-year college course listings include titles like ‘College Writing,’ ‘Freshman Writing,’ or ‘College Composition.’ No matter the word pair, schools want to be clear from the start: college writing is different than just ‘writing.’ But, how?
At the heart of almost all college writing is analysis.
Freshman writing courses: Before jumping in to what analysis is, it’s important to understand what freshman level writing courses are designed to teach. In general, they teach incoming students three things:
1- college writing is different than other writing,
2- strategies for how to write for college, and
3- the principles of the writing process.
Instructors spend weeks reviewing the stages from pre-writing to drafting to revising, and then ‘publishing (or submitting the paper to the instructor for review). All of these are important course goals. They ask the student to cultivate and streamline revising skills, which likely increases the general quality of student writing.
Analysis as ‘college writing’: Beyond sentence-level skills, instructors actually expect more. I have noticed, even in my own syllabus, a glaringly unstated assumption: instructors expect students to analyze, even when we don’t call it that. In over twenty years of tutoring and teaching writing, I have seen instructors from across disciplines ask students to ‘explain,’ ‘explore.’ ‘discuss,’ ‘explicate’ (and so on). Instructors use those words as launching points for many different types of assignments. My tip for all college writers is this: view everything you write as an analysis essay.
What is analysis? In its simplest form, analysis means to take something apart, see how it works, and put it back together.
Imagine trying to put a child’s broken toy back together. When you attempt to fix a broken toy, your mind automatically starts to analyze the situation by figuring out which parts work where. You try out possibilities, reapplying the parts that fell off and in most cases repeating the process until the toy is fixed. You know that the toy parts eventually work together to make up the whole toy, even if you don’t know how at first. And you use analysis to make that toy whole again.
Example please? Here is an example. Describe how to make a (pea)nut butter sandwich.
Notice, the word analyze does not appear in that prompt. The prompt also does not ask for a detailed list of steps needed to make a (pea)nut butter sandwich. To avoid making the essay sound like just a list of steps, the college writer needs to use analysis to decide which steps to include in the essay.
Writing as Process: Do some prewriting by writing down all of the steps for making a (pea)nut butter sandwich – all of the steps – from walking to the refrigerator to opening the jars to wiping off the utensils when the sandwich is done. Then highlight the parts of your list that seem like they could use more explanation and choose three or four that you think you can elaborate on.
Think of times when you have made a (pea)nut butter sandwich, who was with you, any specific memories that might go with it. These memories could serve as good examples to highlight how fast, how slow, how easy, how hard, how fun, how tedious it is to make a (pea)nut butter sandwich
Then decide on the organization for the paper. Do you want to organize it by the steps you selected to elaborate on? Do you want to organize it by the memories you have chosen? Maybe make a short outline of both options and decide after you see that. Then draft, and revise for sentence-level errors.
College-level writing: By breaking apart the long list of steps needed to make a (pea)nut butter sandwich into three or four main steps, you embarked on analysis. By using support from your personal examples to demonstrate your process, you made the very common activity of making a sandwich uniquely yours. And by concluding your essay with a completed sandwich, you put the essay (and the sandwich) together again.
That is analysis. And that is college-level writing.
Discover – and make the essay your own: College instructors want students to use writing as a process of discovery – to learn by writing. Analysis is also about discovery. Before your (pea)nut butter exercise, did you realize how important it was to hold the bread in a certain way when you spread the (pea)nut butter?!
Even though you will not always be invited to write on personal topics or even be allowed to use the personal pronoun ‘I’ in all of your papers, analysis is the writer’s way of making each essay his or her own. This is also part of college writing. Think of it this way: your instructors already know the course material. They created it! So, they don’t need writing that simply summarizes the topic at hand (unless they specifically ask for a summary – and even then, I would argue, you still need to analyze which parts to include in your summary). Analysis allows the writer to have some control over what to include in the essay, to determine which parts of the topic seemed important. That makes the essay uniquely yours. And that is also what makes your college education uniquely yours.
- College Writing Tips: Never List (constantgeography.com)