When students get to college, they’re often surprised that they have to learn a new kind of writing. They’re used to writing reports on subjects like the Battle of Bunker Hill, where they look up facts and then repeat the facts in their own words.
On the other hand, college students are expected to do academic writing, which requires them to state an opinion and then defend it. Students can get thrown off by this.
The biggest challenge for students who are learning academic writing, far bigger than any other one, is deciding on a main idea. Every academic paper has to have a main idea. This is an opinion, clearly stated, which the writer is going to assert and defend. For example, a main idea might be “dogs make good pets.” It’s simple, easy to defend, and can reasonably be dealt with in a college-length paper.
It’s really important for students to decide on a main idea before they start writing. The alternative is what we tutors call “global revision,” which is a fancy term for doing the whole thing over. I’ve seen twelve-page papers with no main idea. Sometimes some of the writing can be salvaged, but often the student just has to start from scratch.
But once students have a main idea, such as “dogs make good pets,” half the battle is over. Now they need to defend their opinion by stating why dogs make good pets. For example, dogs are loyal. Dogs are fun to play with. Dogs will protect you. Dogs are really cute. Dogs are friendly.
At this point the paper is humming right along. An academic paper will require developing its defense with some kind of evidence. A good way to do this is to cite expert sources; for example, quotes from veterinarians or dog psychologists agreeing that dogs are loyal and friendly. Stories are also a good type of evidence, and a story about the writer playing with his dog would work just fine.
Now one important rule of academic writing is “there are two sides to every story.” Student writers don’t have to prove their point beyond a doubt and they don’t even have to be right. They just have to make a good case for the opinion stated in their main idea.
Academic writing should be presented in a straightforward, neutral tone and the grammar, spelling and usage should be as correct as possible. An academic paper should be properly formatted. These are important components of a paper, because they lend credibility to the writer.
But the most important aspect of academic writing is the main idea, clearly stated as an opinion and defended with good reasons and with evidence.
Students have a lot thrown at them in freshman English. But once they master selecting a main idea and defending it, everything else falls into place pretty easily.