Three Writing Habits to Change in College

A lot of what we learned about writing in high school was designed to make us score well on AP exams, SATs, and other high-stakes tests. That’s all well and good, but the same style of writing that we used in high school might not work so well in a college-level class. Adjusting to college-level writing can be difficult, but if you build on what you already know, it won’t be so daunting. Here are three of the most important writing conventions to change:

The upside-down triangle:

A common tip for essay introductions is to start with general knowledge and work your way down to a specific thesis. Visually, then, your introductory argument would look like an upside-down triangle. Although this method might be a quick, easy way to start a timed essay, be careful about how broad your first sentence is. The upside-down triangle can lead to cliché first sentences like “Since the beginning of time…” or “Throughout human history…” Your professors want something a little more original and specific than these beginnings.

For example, in a literature analysis, instead of starting off with a blanket statement, start by being as specific as possible. Your opening sentence should include, if applicable, (1) the author of the work you’re engaging, (2) the title of the work, and/or (3) the topic you’re focusing on. The rest of your introduction should introduce tensions, questions, or other interesting things that you noticed or want to argue about in your essay.

The three-pronged thesis: 

A lot of students are told that a good thesis statement should include three separate points that will be addressed later in the essay, and that those points should correlate with three body paragraphs. But this way of constructing a thesis often leads to three unconnected ideas obscuring the main argument.

Depending on your discipline, using your thesis chiefly to outline your paper might be too mechanical. Just make sure that your thesis addresses your core argument and compels your reader to find out more. The most important element that your thesis can have is argumentativenessyour thesis should be debatable. If you can anticipate someone disagreeing with your thesis, that’s probably a good thing—you have the rest of your paper to prove your point, after all.

The five-paragraph essay: 

Strict adherence to the “five-paragraph essay” will also get you into trouble. This method is designed to give you a generic outline that will work with any type of writing. Again, while this is a very useful template if you’re writing a timed essay exam, you can do better in a college essay.

You should design paragraphs based on your ideas themselves, regardless of how many pieces of evidence or analysis it takes to support your argument, and often it will take more than three body paragraphs to prove your point. Each paragraph should lead logically into the next and should build on the ideas that came in the paragraph before. Organize your paper according to what makes the most sense for your argument—in a literature analysis, for example, try moving from the literal to the metaphorical.

These three conventions of writing had their merits, especially in the context of important timed exams in high school. But in the case of college writing, it’s time to bend the rules a little bit.

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