Part 2: Chapter 4
An important part of developing academic writing skills includes developing your own writing process. Your writing process includes all the steps you take from the time you receive a writing prompt to the time that you turn in a final draft for a grade.
One teacher who helped compile this textbook, she shall remain nameless, described her own writing process as an undergrad: reading over the assignment prompt, stuffing the prompt into her backpack, losing the prompt, asking her teacher for another prompt, complaining that her teacher was mean when she asked for a new prompt, waiting until the night before the due date, writing until far past her bedtime, getting only three hours of sleep, and turning in the assignment.
That is not an effective writing process.
Her current writing process is different, and reflects years of experience. Now she reads over the expectations of her writing situation, considers her audience, develops her tone to match her audience’s expectations, writes in multiple sittings, asks a friend or colleague to read what she has written, and then makes her writing public.
That process works for her; however, that process might not work for you. We are all different. Our brains respond differently to the task of writing. Some people like to outline, some people like to create idea maps, and some people like to write all their ideas down and organize later.
Each one of these processes is perfectly acceptable–your job as a college writer is to determine which process works best for you. What circumstances provide you with the best opportunities to write? Once you figure out what works best for you, try to repeat that pattern each time you find yourself in a situation where you must write. Then you can proudly say that you have a writing process.
The first step to developing a writing process is considering why you need to write and what you need to write. With that in mind, here is a section on analyzing assignments from the textbook Rhetoric and Composition: A Guide to College Writing.
You will likely encounter many different kinds of writing assignments in college, and it would be nearly impossible to list all of them. However, regardless of genre, one can use some basic strategies to approach these assignments constructively.
Read the assignment sheet early and thoroughly
An assignment sheet may be lengthy, but resist the temptation to skim it. Observe and interpret every detail of the text. Moreover, it is essential to focus on the keywords of the subject matter being discussed. It would be unfortunate to hand in an incomplete or misguided assignment because you did not properly read and understand the guidelines. Since you can easily overlook details on the first reading, read the assignment sheet a second time. As you are reading, highlight areas where you have questions, and also mark words you feel are particularly important. Ask yourself why your professor has given this assignment. How does it relate to what you are studying in class? Pay attention to key words, such as compare, contrast, analyze, etc. Who is your audience? Should the paper be written in a formal or informal tone? Is there documentation required? If a specific number of sources are required, how many must be books vs. online sources? What type of citation is called for: APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.? Is there a page or word count minimum/maximum? Are you required to submit a draft before the final copy? Will there be peer review?
After thoroughly reading the assignment sheet, you might not have questions right away. However, after reading it again, either before or after you try to start the assignment, you might find that you have questions. Don’t play a guessing game when it comes to tackling assignment criteria–ask the right person for help: the instructor. Discuss any and all questions with the person who assigned the work, either in person or via email. Visit him or her during office hours or stay after class. Do not wait until the last minute, as doing so puts your grade at risk. Don’t be shy about asking your professors questions. Not only will you better your understanding and the outcome of your paper, but professors tend to enjoy and benefit from student inquiry, as questions help them rethink their assignments and improve the clarity of their expectations. You are probably not the only student with a question, so be the one who is assertive and responsible enough to find answers. In the worst case scenario, when you have completed all of these steps and a professor still fails to provide you with the clarity you are looking for, discuss your questions with fellow classmates.
Tutors are helpful consultants for reviewing writing assignments both before and after you begin. If you feel somewhat confident about what you need to include in your writing assignment, bring your completed outline and/or the first draft of your paper together with your assignment sheet. Tutors can also review your final draft before its submission to your professor. Details about CNM’s ACE Tutoring Centers are located in chapter two.
Create a timeline
Set due dates for the stage of your writing process, for example when you would like to pick a topic and complete your rough draft. Procrastination rarely results in a good paper. Some school libraries offer helpful computer programs that can create an effective assignment timeline for you. This is a helpful option for new, inexperienced writers who have not yet learned the art of analyzing assignments, and who are not familiar with the amount of time that is required for the college writing process. Remember, late papers may or may not be accepted by your instructor, and even if they are, your grade will likely be reduced. Don’t sell yourself short with late submissions.
Rhetorical Situation of an Assignment
While it’s helpful to spend time analyzing an assignment, you also want to make sure to consider the rhetorical situation of any assignment you write.
Has a teacher ever told you that the writing you turned in wasn’t quite what he/she was looking for? Chances are, if this has happened to you, the problem originated in your purpose. You probably did not perform the tasks that the teacher asked for in the assignment. You can find the tasks in an assignment prompt when you pick out the strong, active verbs written in second person point of view.
Your teacher might ask you to contextualize, analyze, synthesize, or explicate in an assignment, and if you, in turn, merely summarize an assigned reading, you will miss out not only on points, but also educational objectives. Summary is often important in high school, where the purpose of writing assignments might be for the teacher to know you comprehend the material. For that reason, they may ask you to explain what happened in a story.
In college, your instructors are under the impression that you understand the material, and they would like you to deal critically with the material. For that reason, figuring out the academic purpose of an assignment is important.
Your teachers will likely introduce different purposes for your writing, and different conventions they want you to follow depending on the disciplines in which they teach. For that reason, when you receive any writing assignment prompt, you will need to analyze that assignment’s rhetorical situation. From Successful Writing, here is a section that discusses how to determine your rhetorical situation.
During the writing process, it is helpful to position yourself as a reader. Ask yourself whether you can focus easily on each point you make. One technique that effective writers use is to begin a fresh paragraph for each new idea they introduce.
Paragraphs separate ideas into logical, manageable chunks. One paragraph focuses on only one main idea and presents coherent sentences to support that one point. Because all the sentences in one paragraph support the same point, a paragraph may stand on its own. To create longer assignments and to discuss more than one point, writers group together paragraphs.
Three elements shape the content of each paragraph:
- Purpose. The reason the writer composes the paragraph.
- Tone. The attitude the writer conveys about the paragraph’s subject.
- Audience. The individual or group whom the writer intends to address
The assignment’s purpose, audience, and tone dictate what the paragraph covers and how it will support one main point. This section covers how purpose, audience, and tone affect reading and writing paragraphs
Identifying Common Academic Purposes
The purpose of a piece of writing answers the question “Why?” For example, why write a play? To entertain a packed theater. Why write instructions to the babysitter? To inform him or her of your schedule and rules. Why write a letter to your congressman? To persuade him to address your community’s needs.
In academic settings, the reasons for writing often fulfill four main purposes: to summarize, to analyze, to synthesize, and to evaluate. You will encounter these four purposes not only as you read for your classes but also as you read for work or pleasure. Because reading and writing work together, your writing skills will improve as you read.
Eventually, your instructors will ask you to complete assignments specifically designed to meet one of the four purposes. As you will see, the purpose for writing will guide you through each part of the paper, helping you make decisions about content and style. For now, identifying these purposes by reading paragraphs will prepare you to write individual paragraphs and to build longer assignments.
Here are some sample paragraphs that each fulfill one of these main purposes.
A summary shrinks a large amount of information into only the essentials. You probably summarize events, books, and movies daily. Think about the last blockbuster movie you saw or the last novel you read. Chances are, at some point in a casual conversation with a friend, coworker, or classmate, you compressed all the action in a two-hour film or in a two-hundred-page book into a brief description of the major plot movements. While in conversation, you probably described the major highlights, or the main points in just a few sentences, using your own vocabulary and manner of speaking.
Similarly, a summary paragraph condenses a long piece of writing into a smaller paragraph by extracting only the vital information. A summary uses only the writer’s own words. Like the summary’s purpose in daily conversation, the purpose of an academic summary paragraph is to maintain all the essential information from a longer document. Although shorter than the original piece of writing, a summary should still communicate all the key points and key support. In other words, summary paragraphs should be succinct and to the point.
Here is an example of a college level reading that a student will need to summarize:
According to the Monitoring the Future Study, almost two-thirds of 10th-grade students reported having tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime, and two-fifths reported having been drunk at least once (Johnston et al. 2006x). Among 12th-grade students, these rates had risen to over three-quarters who reported having tried alcohol at least once. In terms of current alcohol use, 33.2 percent of the Nation’s 10th graders and 47.0 percent of 12th graders reported having used alcohol at least once in the past 30 days; 17.6 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively, reported having had five or more drinks in a row in the past 2 weeks (sometimes called binge drinking); and 1.3 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, reported daily alcohol use (Johnston et al. 2006a).
Alcohol consumption continues to escalate after high school. In fact, eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have the highest levels of alcohol consumption and alcohol dependence of any age group. In the first 2 years after high school, lifetime prevalence of alcohol use (based on 2005 follow-up surveys from the Monitoring the Future Study) was 81.8, 30-day use prevalence was 59 percent, and binge-drinking prevalence was 36.3 percent (Johnston et al. 2006b). Of note, college students on average drink more than their non-college peers, even though they drank less during high school than those who did not go on to college (Johnston et al. 2006a,b: Schulenberg and Maggs 2002). For example, in 2005, the rate of binge drinking for college students (1 to 4 years beyond high school) was 40.1 percent, whereas the rate for their non-college age mates was 35.1 percent.
Alcohol use and problem drinking in late adolescence vary by sociodemographic characteristics. For example, the prevalence of alcohol use is higher for boys than for girls, higher for White and Hispanic adolescents than for African-American adolescents, and higher for those living in the north and north central United States than for those living in the South and West. Some of these relationships change with early adulthood, however. For example, although alcohol use in high school tends to be higher in areas with lower population density (i.e., rural areas) than in more densely populated areas, this relationship reverses during early adulthood (Johnston et al., 2006 a,b). Lower economic status (i.e., lower education level of parents) is associated with more alcohol use during the early high school years: by the end of high school, and during the transition to adulthood, this relationship changes, and youth from higher socioeconomic backgrounds consume greater amounts of alcohol.
A summary of the report should present all the main points and supporting details in brief. Read the following summary of the report written by a student:
Brown et al. inform us that by tenth grade, nearly two-thirds of students have tried alcohol at least once, and by twelfth grade this figure increases to over three-quarters of students. After high school, alcohol consumption increases further, and college-aged students have the highest levels of alcohol consumption and dependence of any age group. Alcohol use varies according to factors such as gender, race, geo-graphic location, and socioeconomic status.
Some of these trends may reverse in early adulthood. For example, adolescents of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to consume alcohol during high school years, whereas youth from higher socioeconomic status are more likely to consume alcohol in the years after high school.
Notice how the summary retains the key points made by the writers of the original report but omits most of the statistical data. Summaries need not contain all the specific facts and figures in the original document; they provide only an overview of the essential information.
An analysis separates complex materials in their different parts and studies how the parts relate to one another. The analysis of simple table salt, for example, would require a deconstruction of its parts—the elements sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl). Then, scientists would study how the two elements interact to create the compound NaCl, or sodium chloride, which is also called simple table salt.
Analysis is not limited to the sciences, of course. An analysis paragraph in academic writing fulfills the same purpose. Instead of deconstructing compounds, academic analysis paragraphs typically deconstruct documents. An analysis takes apart a primary source (an essay, a book, an article, etc.) point by point. It communicates the main points of the document by examining individual points and identifying how the points relate to one another.
Take a look at a student’s analysis of the journal report.
At the beginning of their report, Brown et al. use specific data regarding the use of alcohol by high school students and college-aged students, which is supported by several studies. Later in the report, they consider how various socioeconomic factors influence problem drinking in adolescence. The latter part of the report is far less specific and does not provide statistics or examples.
The lack of specific information in the second part of the report raises several important questions. Why are teenagers in rural high schools more likely to drink than teenagers in urban areas? Where do they obtain alcohol? How do parental attitudes influence this trend? A follow-up study could compare several high schools in rural and urban areas to consider these issues and potentially find ways to reduce teenage alcohol consumption.
Notice how the analysis does not simply repeat information from the original report, but considers how the points within the report relate to one another. By doing this, the student uncovers a discrepancy between the points that are backed up by statistics and those that require additional information. Analyzing a document involves a close examination of each of the individual parts and how they work together.
A synthesis combines two or more items to create an entirely new item. Consider the electronic musical instrument aptly named the synthesizer. It looks like a simple keyboard but displays a dashboard of switches, buttons, and levers. With the flip of a few switches, a musician may combine the distinct sounds of a piano, a flute, or a guitar—or any other combination of instruments—to create a new sound. The purpose of the synthesizer is to blend together the notes from individual instruments to form new, unique notes.
The purpose of an academic synthesis is to blend individual documents into a new document. An academic synthesis paragraph considers the main points from one or more pieces of writing and links the main points together to create a new point, one not replicated in either document.
Take a look at a student’s synthesis of several sources about underage drinking.
In their 2009 report, Brown et al. consider the rates of alcohol consumption among high school and college-aged students and various sociodemographic factors that affect these rates. However, this report is limited to assessing the rates of underage drinking, rather than considering methods of decreasing these rates. Several other studies, as well as original research among college students, provide insight into how these rates may be reduced.
One study, by Spoth, Greenberg, and Turrisi (2009) considers the impact of various types of interventions as a method for reducing alcohol consumption among minors. They conclude that although family-focused interventions for adolescents aged ten to fifteen have shown promise, there is a serious lack of interventions available for college-aged students who do not attend college. These students are among the highest risk level for alcohol abuse, a fact supported by Brown et al.
I did my own research and interviewed eight college students, four men and four women. I asked them when they first tried alcohol and what factors encouraged them to drink. All four men had tried alcohol by the age of thirteen. Three of the women had also tried alcohol by thirteen and the fourth had tried alcohol by fifteen. All eight students said that peer pressure, boredom, and the thrill of trying something illegal were motivating factors. These results support the research of Brown et al. However, they also raise an interesting point. If boredom is a motivating factor for underage drinking, maybe additional after school programs or other community measure could be introduced to dissuade teenagers from underage drinking. Based on my sources, further research is needed to show true preventative measures for teenage alcohol consumption.
Notice how the synthesis paragraphs consider each source and use information from each to create a new thesis. A good synthesis does not repeat information; the writer uses a variety of sources to create a new idea.
An evaluation judges the value of something and determines its worth. Evaluations in everyday experiences are often not only dictated by set standards but also influenced by opinion and prior knowledge. For example, at work, a supervisor may complete an employee evaluation by judging his subordinate’s performance based on the company’s goals. If the company focuses on improving communication, the supervisor will rate the employee’s customer service according to a standard scale. However, the evaluation still depends on the supervisor’s opinion and prior experience with the employee. The purpose of the evaluation is to determine how well the employee performs at his or her job.
An academic evaluation communicates your opinion, and its justifications, about a document or a topic of discussion. Evaluations are influenced by your reading of the document, your prior knowledge, and your prior experience with the topic or issue. Because an evaluation incorporates your point of view and reasons for your point of view, it typically requires more critical thinking and a combination of summary, analysis, and synthesis skills. Thus evaluation paragraphs often follow summary, analysis, and synthesis paragraphs. Read a student’s evaluation paragraph.
Throughout their report, Brown et al. provide valuable statistics that highlight the frequency of alcohol use among high school and college students. They use several reputable sources to support their points. However, the report focuses solely on the frequency of alcohol use and how it varies according to certain sociodemographic factors. Other sources, such as Spoth, Greenberg, and Turrisi’s study (2009) and the survey I conducted among college students, examine the reasons for alcohol use among young people and offer suggestions as to how to reduce the rates. Nonetheless, I think that Brown et al. offer a useful set of statistics from which to base further research into alcohol use among high school and college students.
Notice how the paragraph incorporates the student’s personal judgment within the evaluation. Evaluating a document requires prior knowledge that is often based on additional research. And if you include that outside research in your paragraph, be sure to cite it. Check out part six of this book, either MLA or APA style to help you incorporate research ethically and effectively
You may be asked to use these different modes of writing–evaluation, synthesis, analysis, and summary–for any given assignment. The trick for you to remember is to search for the purpose of an assignment. Your teacher will give you keywords–verbs–that will let you know what the purpose of an assignment is. In an assignment prompt that involves writing, look for the active verbs or tasks that your teacher would like you to perform.
- If an assignment asks you to summarize, you will know that your teacher wants to make sure you comprehend the material, and the teacher would like you to re-state a text’s main ideas in your own words
- If you see a verb like evaluate, rate, or assess, you will know that your instructor expects you to write evaluative paragraphs
- There aren’t many synonyms for synthesis in an assignment prompt. If your teacher asks you to synthesize in writing, you can expect that they would like you to use multiple sources and discuss them together, how they relate to one another, and how they relate to your ideas and claims in an essay.
- If your teacher asks you to examine, interpret, consider, or investigate in a piece of writing, chances are they would like to see you writing analytical paragraphs.
But don’t take our word for it. Each instructor is different. For that reason, if you have questions about the purpose of an assignment, raise your hand in class and ask. Chances are, someone else is thinking the same question. They might even thank you for asking the instructor to clarify his/her request because getting the purpose incorrect in a writing assignment means that you will not only miss out on a lot of points, but you will also miss out on the educational objective for that assignment.
Adapted from “Chapter 5” of A Guide to Perspective Analysis, 2012, used according to creative commons CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0.