Advice From Instructors

Want some advice from people who know about college writing assignments as Course Instructors and Writing Studio consultants? Bits of this advice appear on other pages in this website, but here’s an array of thoughts and advice on making the transition to college writing from Vanderbilt instructors of English and Graduate Writing Consultants.

Looking for a good place to start? Check out these letters to new college students, written by Vanderbilt Writing Studio consultants expressly to give advice to writers as they are beginning their college journey.

Want more tips? Keep reading.

An overview of a survey of undergraduate writers: 

Reflecting on the results of a survey of current Vanderbilt students regarding their transition from high school to college writing, Sari Carter, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English, had the following thoughts:

The road transitioning from high school to college writing may hold some unexpected bumps; students often report being at the top of their class in high school, used to receiving A’s without much effort, having internalized the five-paragraph essay and memorized all the comma rules. Then in their college freshman writing class, they get their first B ever and are baffled. What changed? How can high school students better anticipate and successfully navigate those changes?

One bump that may seem most new is the emphasis college writing places on more in-depth research and original argumentation. Students repeatedly comment on how they need to learn how to write a thesis statement that is not just an observation but an actual argument uniquely reflecting their point of view, situated in a context of existing dialogue with real opposing viewpoints. To make an original argument may seem intimidating, but college writing assignments often afford more flexibility about the choice of topic, so students can focus on something they are invested in and learn to bring more nuance and sophistication to their arguments. This sophistication is not a result of bigger, fancier jargon words! Many students learn in college that a clearly-stated original argument is much more powerful than an empty, derivative argument couched in fancy language.

Connected with the need to make more sophisticated arguments is the expectation that these arguments will count for something in the real world. Many college students describe how in high school they coasted through assignments on autopilot mode, writing to the rubric or teacher’s expectations, but not thinking about how their writing spoke to larger questions. Learning how to articulate a “so what” to the argument, showing how it matters for larger issues, is one of the central lessons underscored in college writing.

Another surprise students encounter in college is the increased length but also freedom of the structure of writing expected. No longer are they required to write short five-paragraph essays, with a three-pronged thesis observation and transitions marked by “first, second, third.” Rather, in order to sustain the requirements for supporting a more sophisticated, original argument, papers become longer and the structure of writing becomes much more flexible. Some students have been frustrated at what seems less direction or vaguer prompts, but these are so to allow more creative engagement. Because of this increased flexibility in content and argument, though, elements of structural cohesion such as transitions and topic sentences become much more essential; in college, students need to further develop the skills that enable them to navigate the unwieldiness of longer arguments. Students who go to the campus writing studio and to the instructor’s office hours report that these resources help them better understand the assignments and more creatively deepen their arguments.

Finally, one of the main things students learn in transitioning from high school to college writing is that writing is a collaborative process that takes time and many revisions. Gone are the days of dashing off a few pages by oneself the night before an assignment is due! In college writing classes, students who write multiple versions of their papers, giving themselves enough time for brainstorming and outlining and taking drafts to the campus writing studio and other peer reviewers, do much better in writing. Part of the collaboration can also take the form of reading; many college students offering advice to their high school selves suggest reading more books, including books about writing. Seeing good writing in action enables a vision of the purpose for learning so many new writing strategies and motivation to benefit from the revision process.


Concerns about the specificity, or lack thereof, of college writing assignments:

[A]s a consultant, I might say to students who come in to the Studio, as they often do, feeling that they have little “structure” or “direction” on a writing assignment, “This is a common feeling. It is also an unsettling one. Often, college professors expect their students to be more advanced than high school writers and therefore think they should need less direction.”

-Deann Armstrong, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English


Concerns about increased paper length in college:

“For me personally, it feels as if my students’ main complaint is that essays are too long. Even when I assign 5 page papers, my students don’t believe they can find enough things to say to fill the minimum pages. But if the student works on crafting a strong thesis statement, they can always find new ways to explore the text. This is especially true because they no longer have to write in the “5 paragraph essay” model — instead of just providing new examples of their argument with each body paragraph, they can advance new ideas and arguments each time (as long as they relate back to some aspect of the thesis).”

-Alex Oxner, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English


On good time management:

[M]y advice for students would to be to think early about paper structure and time management. Students should develop methods to motivate themselves to begin working on the paper early, rather than procrastinate until the last minute. Possible options include writing partners, which can serve as a sounding board for paper ideas and hold each other accountable for progress on current projects.

-Marilyn Holt, Ph.D. candidate Chemical and Physical Biology, Vanderbilt


Before you begin to write:

Think about the purpose of each piece of writing and pay careful attention to assignment descriptions.  Are you being asked to write an argumentative essay?  If so, what forms of evidence are acceptable?

-Amy Voss Farris, Ph.D. candidate (Learning Sciences), Peabody College


As you revise your writing:

Try to imagine yourself as the reader of your paper. What questions would you have as you read your own writing?  Would you expect someone else to know what you are talking about?  If not, simplify.  Good writing is often about keeping the reader in mind.  What seems obvious to you may not be apparent to the reader, so go ahead and say what you mean!

-Amy Voss Farris, Ph.D. candidate (Learning Sciences), Peabody College


On the structure of the academic paper:

Writing effective introductions and conclusions is challenging even for seasoned writers.  One goal of the introduction is to give the reader an idea of where you are headed.  Often this means laying out the general structure of your paper.  Conclusions often synthesize elements of your paper and explicate the “so what?” of your paper.

-Amy Voss Farris, Ph.D. candidate (Learning Sciences), Peabody College


Thoughts on ways to best make use of your school’s Writing Center:

Writing Centers are really special spaces:  you’ll find writers who think carefully about the process of writing and will enthusiastically brainstorm, troubleshoot, or read and respond to your text, wherever you are in the process.  Don’t think you have to have a complete draft ready before talking about it with others!


-Amy Voss Farris, Ph.D. candidate (Learning Sciences), Peabody College


–scheduling a recurring writing studio visit can help with time management, even if the student ends up using it as a brainstorming session

–the writing studio is really great at helping with argument-driven papers because our thesis worksheet provides templates that begin forcing students to consider the “so what” part of their arguments (and the thesis templates can also be used for drafting sub-theses)

–focusing on outlining and reverse outlining can also help with time management and I ask most of my clients to do one (or both) of these things

–if students are nervous about research, the studio can help because I have had entire sessions devoted to teaching a client how to use the library databases, how to skim through articles, how to cite in MLA/APA, etc.

–the writing studio can also help with writing concisely because tutors have enough distance from the work and can identify repetition more easily than the writer themselves


-Alex Oxner, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English


I would encourage students come to the writing studio early, even before they have a full draft, when they are planning and drafting, as this can help with time management, structuring, and even setting research expectations. However, for students who think that writing a paper is a single-sitting event, this advice is not likely to be well received. The perception that writing will be a drafting and re-drafting process, an ongoing dialogue with other research, needs to be formed for students to be more likely to use the Writing Studio. If they don’t believe that writing will involve drafting, coming to the studio might seem like an unnecessary investment of time.

-Deann Armstrong, Ph.D. candidate and Vanderbilt Instructor in English

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