The Top Five Student Writing Problems

1. I canít get the paper started.

Start by asking yourself questions and writing down the answers. What is the assignment, specifically? What is the main subject of the assignment? What is strange or unusual about it? Is there something about it worth finding out and explaining? Think with your pen--write everything down, no matter how foolish or irrelevant, and ideas will come to you. If not, re-read the book or books on the topic.

2. The topic has already been done so many times, thereís nothing left to say.

If thatís really the case (it rarely is), think about the consequences of the conclusions others have made about the topic. Is there anything they omitted? Is there any direction or possibility left unexplored? Do past approaches follow a pattern which can be either examined in your paper or broken by a different perspective?

3. I know what I want to say, but I canít get it organized.

Think about your thesis, then write an outline of what youíve got so far. Does your outline show any unnecessary digressions or places where paragraphs might be rearranged? If you started from an outline, compare the old one with the new one (the outline of what youíve actually written). Did you really follow what you had planned? Try different arrangements and write lists of steps toward proving your thesis.

4. I wrote it, but itís too long (or too short).

Getting the length right is part of being a good writeróask any professional writer whether he or she has the option of running on for pages or stopping short of what the editor wanted. Look at your paper again. If itís too long, cut out every unnecessary word, sentence, and paragraph, and look for anything not absolutely essential to proving the thesis. Intensifiers, adverbs, and adjectives are the most likely candidates for cutting. If you have a paper more than five pages too long, you werenít paying attention when you started planningónarrow your topic. It itís too short, look for places to add new material to help confirm your thesis. Do not pad the paper or fiddle with fonts and line spacing. Every professor knows these tricks and will be annoyed.

5. I donít know what Professor X. wantsóevery time I write a paper for this class, I get a bad grade and nasty comments.

Somebody has an ego problemóprobably you. The nasty comments are a message from a trained professional about how to improve your work, not a deliberate insult to your genius. Put aside your hurt feelings and look for patterns in the comments. Are you doing something wrong repeatedly? If itís a grammar problem, fix it. If itís larger than that, the professor probably told you what it was. Read the final comments carefully and take them to heart. If you still donít understand, bring your essay to the professor during office hours and ask for clarification politely, or ask another professor you respect. However, if either professor gets the impression that youíre lobbying for a higher grade or looking for the easy way out, youíll be wasting your time. Focus on the quality of the essay, rather than grades or grading standards, and youíll achieve better results.