Writing Tutor Tips for College Essays
One of the most intimidating experiences of college is essay writing. Over my college career and my time as a writing tutor, I’ve identified the most common hurdles and how to beat them.
Understanding the Assignment
The best first step to take, after trying to understand the assignment, is to go to the teacher, a tutor, or a friend for help.
Once that first step is done, break the assignment into parts. Ask yourself, “What does the teacher want? Do they provide an outline? Do you get to choose your own topic? How many sources does your teacher want? What style guide does your teacher want? Is there a rubric?”
Once you have a grasp on the assignment, brainstorm your prompt. What you come up with will be the essay’s main point or thesis. The questions you ask will be different depending on the type of essay and teacher requirements.
A loose outline will give you some structure to work with as you move through the rest of the process. This initial outline will give you a chance to try out supporting ideas before formalizing the paper.
If you’re having a hard time coming up with points to support your thesis, leave them blank and fill them in as you find information in your research.
The internet is now the most common research tool. Much like finding a good news source, you must analyze your sources. Look for when it was published, sources used, author bias, author reliability, publication history, and if it’s relevant to your topic.
When doing online research, use good keywords. Instead of typing in a full sentence, identify the main idea you’re trying to look for. For instance, instead of typing “How many people got breast cancer in 2012?” try “breast cancer statistics 2012”. Boolean search tools are also useful. (find video for that)
As you’re researching, keep records of your sources and the information you think will be useful. An annotated bibliography is helpful because you’ll cite your sources before you start writing, and keep all the information you’ll use by the citation. It’s best to reword the passage in your own words unless you intend to use it as a quote. Be sure to keep track of what comes from which page
As always, there’s no harm in getting help. Librarians are willing to help, as are tutors. Many schools have tutoring centers and there are private tutors available.
An Overview of Boolean Search and Why to Use it
Once you do your research, fill in the missing parts of the final outline. Outlines usually only have short summaries of supporting points along with the thesis written out, but they can use full sentences if that’s easier for you.
If you have a detailed outline, the drafting should be relatively easy, but that blank page can still be intimidating. The best way to work past that block is to sit down and just write. At this point, spelling, grammar, and word usage don’t really matter. All that counts is to get your ideas down.
You need no one’s permission to write. If you don’t like what you put down, you can always change it during the editing process.
There are different levels of editing, and you’ll need to go through your essay multiple times as a result. The most important things to look for are what are called “high-level edits”. Those are: Content, Organization, and Clarity.
While you’re editing for content, ask yourself if what you’re writing is accurate. Are the facts you include complete? Do they support your point?
Can the reader follow what you’re saying, both in your paragraphs and the larger essay? Is the order logical and do the points flow from one to the next with ease?
This is about how clear your sentences and points are. Are you saying what you want to say? Can the reader understand your sentence structure and ideas?
Once you’ve gone through this phase on your own, it’s time for the next step.
We tend to miss our own errors after looking at a piece long enough, no matter how experienced we are. That's why it's a good idea to show someone else your work before turning it in.
Ask them if your ideas are clear and if they can understand what you’re trying to say. Do they think you need to change how things are organized? Is anything important missing?
You can either take or reject the suggestions from the person who gave you feedback. There’s no need to accept all suggestions, but, often, they help. Even some teacher suggestions can be rejected, depending on what they are. However, since the teacher will be the one grading your paper, their input carries the most weight.
In this stage, you comb through your work for lower order problems: grammar, spelling, syntax, and word usage. This varies in difficulty depending on your comfort level with the language and writing in general. I kept a writing handbook nearby when I did my editing and looked grammar questions up online when I couldn’t find it in my handbook.
At this point, you’re probably tired of looking at this essay, but there are a few techniques that can help with that fatigue.
If possible, read your work out loud to yourself. This forces you to focus on each individual sentence. You might also hear where your errors are more easily than when you read quietly.
Read your essay backward
Start with the last sentence of your essay and work your way to the first. This forces you to look at each sentence without getting lost in the flow of the piece.
Change the Font
Changing the font can fool your brain into thinking you’re looking at a different paper. That will make errors stand out some more.
Make sure you cite everything you need to within the text. Plagiarism is a serious issue in college, and it can be grounds for expulsion. Avoid that by always citing quotes, summaries, and paraphrases.
One Last Consultation
Have someone look at the essay again at this point. They might catch errors you missed. It’s even better if they’re familiar with the style guide your teacher requires, so they can double-check your citations. Although there are many citation tools online, they’re not always accurate, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with citations on your own.
Essay writing is intimidating, but it is necessary. You’re not just learning how to write, but you also learn how to make logical arguments, portray your points clearly, and how to understand why people making opposing points believe what they do.
The Bedford Handbook
I used the edition before this one while I was still in college. The APA recently updated, so I would suggest getting the newest edition for the current guide. Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers do a great job of writing this type of reference material.