The most important high school habit to leave behind is not writing with a purpose. Many college students soon realize that their professors expect them to use their writing purposefully—not to show what they’ve memorized from their class notes or even simply synthesized through research. College students observe that now their writing needs to present a new perspective or provide instruction. Ways to help assure that you’re doing that:
- Consider your title. Your title is the first chance to let the reader know what your essay is about. Shoot to the heart. Be as exact and provocative as possible. Instead of “The Transformation of Roger Chillingworth” (not bad) try “Roger Chillingworth: From Doctor to Devil” (better) Ask, does your title direct the reader to the heart of your argument? Does your opening make a purposeful move to grab the reader’s attention, presenting details rather than generalizing about what is widely known, and then giving some sense of the direction of the essay?
- Present a focused and specific thesis. Not, “All of the people and their appearances, actions, words, along with the present symbols are interpreted in many different manners throughout the whole book by the varying characters.” (I did not make this one up). Narrow your scope, and again, be sure your thesis provides some destabilization of the usual way of perceiving something. Argue for a fresh perspective. Reveal something.
- If you have a strong argument, it should be presented in a balanced, confident tone. Do not overstate. As Strunk and White observe, “When you overstate, the reader will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in her mind because she has lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.” Common examples words and phrases that signal overstatement “Throughout the whole novel”; “an entirely different light”; “the total opposite of”; and words such as never, always, everyone, nothing, perfectly, forever
- As long as we’re focusing on specific words and phrases, as a college writer you should be careful not to mix up similar words (homonyms/ homophones/ homographs) such as:
their/there; guilt/gilt; coarse/course; role/roll; cite/site/sight; hear/here; waste/waist; weather/whether; principal/principle; to/too/two; bare/bear; except/accept; affect/effect; whose/who’s; threw/through; breath/breathe; allusion/illusion; everyday/ every day; lose/loose; lightning/lightening; your/you’re
These can be tricky, but you should be conscientious enough to be sure
your you’re using the right one.