Writing Across the Curriculum/
Writing in the Disciplines
Breaking It Up into Manageable Steps
A large assignment may seem overwhelming, but it can always be broken up into smaller, manageable steps. In WAC, we call this scaffolding because you create multiple levels to complete, sort of like playing a video game. When your professor assigns a research project, you can break it down into parts and create a timeline for yourself for when each section of your project is due. Read on for a list of tasks you can follow.
When planning, remember to be realistic about how long it will take. No one does his or her best work at the last minute. It’s a good idea to give yourself at least a month (or more) of writing time before the assignment is due. Aim to complete two of the following tasks per week. If you happen to be making a plan at the last minute, it’s still a good idea to scaffold the writing tasks, but with shorter deadlines.
Tip: If you know you struggle with deadlines, work with another student. Exchange your written ideas for each of the research steps below with a classmate. “Hand in” your work to your partner so that you can discuss and edit each other’s work throughout the semester.
Here are the stages of a basic writing assignment (add in any other stages you may need for your particular assignment):
Formulate a research question and task
Choose a question you really would like to answer. Try to connect your research to your major, your career, or things you think about outside of class. This strategy will help you to be an expert on an interesting topic before you even hit the job market. Once you’ve decided on your research question, write it down on the same page as your writing assignment instructions.
Research task: When you’ve chosen your research question, decide on your task. What texts will you read? What databases will you search? What terms will you enter? Write out your research task as a sentence beneath your research question.
Compile an annotated bibliography as you research.
Research isn’t just reading quietly in a library or at your computer; it’s a whole lot of writing. The purpose of an annotated bibliography is to save yourself time. Summarize the important points of each article or book you read, so that you don’t have to read it again later. Be sure to jot down anything that’s relevant to your research, along with page numbers. It’s also a good idea to write down quotations you’d like to use from each source (with page numbers!). Also see Writing Terms You May Come Across.
Tip: As you keep your annotated bibliography, write down any additional thoughts that occur to you about your research question. Write them as soon as they come to you; don’t count on remembering them later. You just may wind up accidentally writing whole sections of your paper.
Create a thesis or hypothesis.
Aim to state your thesis or hypothesis in one sentence (not a question) that makes an arguable claim (a claim people might argue with). The rest of your paper will provide proofs or arguments to support this claim.
Tip: Be aware that, as you write your paper, you may want to argue something slightly different. This is all part of the normal writing process. Be prepared to rewrite your thesis, based on what your paper argues!
Plan your paper with an outline.
The outline is the skeleton of your paper; you’ll “flesh out” everything else later. For each paragraph, write one substantial sentence (not just a topic or idea) that sums up the main point of the paragraph. You can start each one out like this: “This paragraph is stating that…” Beneath each of your sentences, jot down what you will support or prove it with—important quotations, arguments, summaries, or results from your experiment. When you fill in the rest later, you can concentrate on supporting or proving that statement (with quotations or summaries from your sources, or with the results from your experiment).
Write a first draft.
Simply convert the information in your outline into a format that people outside your brain can also understand. Basically, you’re telling people about what you found out when you researched your question. To write good topic sentences, check the sentences in your outline that begin with This paragraph argues that. Revise them to make sure they’re accurate, and then remove the words This paragraph agues that.
Tip: It helps to picture yourself explaining your outline to someone who isn’t in your class—a sibling or a friend. If imagining doesn’t cut it for you, actually sit down with someone and your computer. As you explain what each paragraph should argue, write down anything brilliant or clear that comes out of your mouth.
Check your writing prompt or rubric (if you were given one).
See Understanding the Writing Assignment for a list of requirements and specifications to cross-check your writing against. See Writing Terms You May Come Across for an explanation of rubrics. Make sure you’re following your professor’s guidelines.
Proofread your paper with fresh eyes.
Proofread your paper after putting it away for the night (or at least several hours) to see if there’s anything you want to change or add. Read all the way to the end, since many typos and mistakes are in the last paragraph or sentence. Try reading your paper aloud to someone else; if you find that you want to add side explanations as you read it, you probably need to write those into your text to make it clearer on paper too.
Ask others to proofread your paper. Give them specific tasks to read for, like grammar, style, or argument. Ask them where/what questions instead of yes/no questions. For example, instead of asking, “Is my paper clear?” ask, “Where is it difficult to understand what I’m saying?” Instead of asking, “Is my argument good?” ask, “What do you think I’m arguing?” See Self-Editing Toolbox for more strategies.
Revise your paper into a better draft. Rinse and repeat.
Give yourself at least a week for this one. Revising often means changing the order of paragraphs or finding a new source to support one of your arguments. And then after all that, there’s another revision just for grammar and spelling. Once again, proofread with fresh eyes (yours or someone else’s) and revise based on the new feedback. Keep doing these last two steps until you’re happy with your product. If you’ve checked your assignment instructions along the way, you should have a pretty good idea of the grade you can expect.
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