Blog

Posted Date: February 27, 2019

By Peter Mosley, PhD

Kalle Kortelainen 124970 Unsplash

Congratulations. You wrote the paper.

Now you have to revise it. How do you revise efficiently, taking the most of every one of the precious minutes you have?

Here are a few tips.

  1.  Give it a rest. It might sound counter-intuitive, but taking a break from your writing project is usually an excellent idea — especially if typing out that first draft gave you some mental fatigue. Even if you only have enough time to step away for 15 minutes, you will be empowering yourself to look at your document with a set of fresh eyes upon your return.
  2.  Match up the content of the introduction and conclusion first. The introduction should be introducing your thesis statement, and your conclusion should be pointing out that the thesis statement has been proven and discussing the resulting implications. If your introduction strays from the paper you actually wrote or your conclusion seems to focus on a point that is different from your thesis statement, you’re going to have to revise your paper significantly.
  3.  Underline topic sentences. The fastest way to get a strong handle on the organization of your document is to go through it, in its entirety, and underline every topic sentence. Then, match up the topic sentences to the thesis statement in the introduction. As you do this, you might have to change topic sentences to better match your thesis statement, or you might have to change your thesis statement to better match the content of your paragraphs. Changing topic sentences also often means changing the content of the paragraph associated with the topic sentences. As you make these adjustments, you can also check the sequence of your organization by seeing how well the points in your topic sentences follow each other.
  4. Look for broad or controversial claims. Before you start nitpicking at your grammar, try to make sure that claim you make in your paper is well supported and precise. Try to avoid words like “good,” or “numerous” — instead, use a description that entails why you think something was “good,” or use an exact range of numbers to define “numerous.” If your audience is adamantly pro-choice, it may not be effective to tell them “abortion is murder” without a further rationale. If it helps, underline places in your document that seem to make general or controversial claims, and then come back to those underlined places to add more specificity and support.
  5. Proofread. The most difficult thing about proofreading is our tendency to skip over our own errors. You can safeguard against this in three ways. First, identify the errors you are most likely to make and look specifically for those errors in your draft. If you need help with this, stop by CAP and I can give you personalized tips regarding what you can work on. Second, don’t read your paper in order. Reading from the last sentence to the first sentence of your document can help ensure that you don’t get into your natural flow of thought and skip over key errors. Third, read aloud. Reading aloud can help you take “ownership” of your paper, slow down your reading, and allow yourself to hear your own words. As an addendum, your computer might have a text-to-speech function that you might be able to use to have your paper read to you.

Generally, you should try to do this list in order. If you spend an hour revising the grammar of a paragraph you’ll eventually need to take out due to its incompatibility with your introduction’s thesis statement, you’ve wasted an hour that you could have been spending on more substantive revisions. Effective revisers usually focus on making large revisions first, and leave the fine-tuning for last.

Any additional tips? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted Date: February 14, 2019

By Peter Mosley, PhD

Ian Stauffer 578276 Unsplash

I saw a video recently that was refreshing. There were no flashing lights, no frills, no gimmicks, no professional lighting. Just a chemistry professor, Dr. Pete Carr, sitting at his desk, talking about how to write a scientific research article over a weekend (provided you have already completed your preliminary research).

The video provides strong, helpful advice that largely applies to nearly all writing, not just the writing project discussed the video.

Let’s go over some of the tips, and I’ll explain what I mean.

  1. Don’t Procrastinate

This one is by far the hardest, and there are five basic reasons why people seem to procrastinate: you don’t have a structure to follow, so you don’t know where to begin; for you, writing is an unpleasant task, so you put it off till the last possible moment; writing is a choice that will have long-term and uncertain results, so it’s harder to see immediate goals met; you’re anxious about writing papers; or you’re not confident in your ability to write.

Now, if you struggle with procrastination, don’t beat yourself up over it. Try to think about solutions. If you don’t know where to begin, maybe you can try to start by writing a rough outline that will give you a structure to follow. If writing is unpleasant for you, perhaps you can concentrate on positive aspects of the writing process, keeping careful track of these benefits to restore your interest. Maybe the end goal of writing seems far away and you need to set short-term goals to finish your project, possibly using an outline (in the writing stage) or to-do list (in any research stages) that you can check off. Maybe you’re not confident in your abilities, and you need to come see me to further establish your confidence.

One piece of advice I have is that you should not be ashamed to seek help that will help you develop your time management skills. Don’t be ashamed to get help. Here at UNTHSC we have learning specialists who can walk you through your personal struggles in time management. I’ve seen that students who take full advantage of such resources often experience much stronger mental health and achieve significantly higher levels of academic performance.

  1. Perform Research

You should perform research, but be sure to perform research in a somewhat organized manner. Don’t get sidetracked onto tangents; proceed with a strategic, organized mindset. Remember that you’re not simply reading information randomly; you’re reading because you’re preparing to write a paper. It can help to organize your research with a reading list that is prioritized by importance, relevance, and influence in the field. And as you read, you should take notes so that you can use them as you write your paper later.

If you need help finding resources for your topic as you try to organize your research, we have an awesome team here at UNTHSC to assist you with all your questions.

  1. Determine Your Audience

This one is important. You’re not going to write the same way to every audience, so you should be very careful to write up to your reviewer’s specifications – whether that reviewer is your professor, your colleagues, peer reviewers for a journal, or a magazine editor. Don’t let this focus on appealing to your reviewers paralyze you, though; ask questions as needed, and do your utmost with the information you can glean. Reviewers will appreciate the effort.

I’ve written more about identifying and using writing project guidelines here.

  1. Plot out the big picture

Most students seem to jot down a rough outline before they write. Generally, that’s a good idea. Your outline doesn’t have to be thorough in most cases; leave room to improvise as needed, but jot out a game plan that enables your to have a general goal or direction. Your rough outline can also provide you with a structured series of small goals to meet that will help insulate you from procrastination and writer’s block while ensuring you produce a well-organized paper.

For more on outlining and other strategies for getting rid of writer’s block, check out my blog post on prewriting.

  1. Don’t edit grammar when you write your rough draft

Sometimes, editing your content can clarify that content in your own mind. At other times, however, it is a distraction that breaks up your train of thought, giving you writing fatigue that brings you closer to the brink of irresistible procrastination. If I’m going to be honest, I constantly edit while I’m writing because I often find that I need to rephrase my sentences to better continue my argument. Forcing myself to continue a badly-framed argument in my writing is a recipe for disaster. However, I try to save my main grammatical corrections until after I have written a first draft.

One reason you might be tempted to edit for grammar in the rough draft stage is the lie that you’re saving time by editing as you write. A difficult part of the writing process is making peace with the fact that you’re going to spend a significant amount of time revising your words, and that’s OK. Make peace with investing that time; writing your rough draft is the time to make a strong argument, not to perfect your grammar.

  1. You don’t have to start writing at the beginning

As long as you have a rough outline or topic in mind that is based on your research and writing project goals, you don’t have to start writing at the beginning in a research paper or any other writing project. In his YouTube video, Carr advises you to start a research paper with the methodology and results because they are easiest sections of a scientific research paper. This general advice may be helpful in your other papers, as well. If you have a strong basic game plan, consider starting with the easiest part of your game plan first.

However, as you near the completion of your project, make sure that you have a well-connected, well-organized discussion throughout your paper; don’t just rely on the outline.

  1. Critical Editing

Try to map out places that you will check your argument and grammar ahead of time, so that you don’t stop arbitrarily and ruin your train of thought. Make sure that your statements make sense, your reasoning is strong, and your ideas are coherent. This checklist will prepare you well for ensuring strong work on the remaining parts of your paper.

As you finish more parts of your paper, you’ll have to carefully proofread for strong organization. Check out the overview of how to ensure your paper is well-organized here.

  1. Writing the Conclusion

As Carr advises, you need to write your conclusion in a way that will allow readers to understand what you did. Don’t merely repeat what you said, and don’t concentrate on making a new point. Instead, focus on clarifying the argument you already made, its significance, and its implications. This is your last chance to make an appeal to your reader that makes them allies in accomplishing your purpose; don’t blow it.

  1. Writing the Introduction

Your introduction is where you convince your audience that they should read your writing project. You’re also going to be preparing the audience to read your writing project in a manner that will accomplish your purpose. If you’ve waited until this point of the process to write your introduction, you will have the advantage of a full picture of the overall writing project that will empower you to adequately prepare and entice your audience to read your document from beginning to end.

Do you have more tips for completing outstanding writing projects? Let us know in the comments below.

Posted Date: January 29, 2019

Peter Mosley, PhD

Olav Ahrens Rotne 1102458 Unsplash

 

I learned this trick back when I was pursuing my master’s degree in English.

The professor was disturbed. Most of us were fresh out of undergrad, and we wanted to impress her. The disappointment on our face created a lump in the pit of our stomachs as she handed back our first papers.

Our writing, she said, was too scattered. We needed to be more organized. The remedy for this malady, she continued, was for us to underline our topic sentences. In our next papers, she proclaimed, each of us had to underline the topic sentence of every single paragraph.

We were initially insulted. This was graduate school, not grade school. We were getting master’s degrees in English; most of us had already fulfilled four years of college-level training. We knew what a topic sentence was, and going through this elementary exercise seemed a bit humiliating.

You might not be an English major, or maybe your last English class is too far in your past for you to remember what a topic sentence is. So let me jog your memory: A topic sentence is the main sentence of a paragraph – the idea that this paragraph is attempting to support. In my experience, most people think it comes at the beginning of a paragraph…but a topic sentence can actually be anywhere within the paragraph. Sometimes it will be in the second sentence, after a transition. Sometimes it will be in the middle, after you argue up to it, and then make the rest of the paragraph discuss the implications of the topic sentence. Other times, you might spend most of the paragraph arguing towards your topic sentence and finally put it at the end.

The common denominator is that your topic sentence is the “hub” of entire paragraph’s discussion.

When the professor forced me to underline my topic sentences, my writing immediately improved. The focus of each paragraph became clear. Making my ideas “flow” became easier because each paragraph was clearly labeled. I could also double-check connections between individual paragraphs and my thesis statement rather easily.

If you want to improve your ability to organize your ideas in a paper and make your thoughts “flow,” you might want to consider trying this method out.

Start from the first paragraph and underline your thesis statement. Remember: your thesis statement is the sentence that briefly summarizes what you will discuss in the body of your paper and how you will discuss it. For most writing projects, you’ll put your thesis statement at or near the second-to-last sentence of the first paragraph, after you’ve spent your previous sentences drawing your audience in and introducing your argument.

Now, go through each body paragraph, carefully looking for the main sentence of each one. If there are multiple main sentences, underline each one; this will be handy for revision later. After underlining each body paragraph, underline the topic sentence of the conclusion. Usually, the conclusion will underline the fact that the thesis statement has been proven by the information in the body paragraphs as a foundation for a short discussion of the significance or relevance of what has been proven. This organization means that your conclusion’s topic sentence will probably contain a statement on this significance or relevance.

Once you’ve underlined your topic sentences, use those topic sentences to organize your paper. To do this, first match each of them to your thesis statement. If you find that one of your topic sentences does not seem to correlate with what you promised the reader in your thesis statement, you may have to revise that topic sentence or revise your thesis statement. Then, revise each paragraph so that it is squarely focused on proving, clarifying, emphasizing, or expanding on its topic sentence. This may require changing your topic sentence or moving a couple wayward points in one paragraph to another more suitable paragraph. Finally, use your topic sentences to check the progression of your paragraphs. If your points seem out of order, go ahead and reorganize them (don’t forget to ensure your paper “flows” by adjusting transitions you move around paragraphs).

You might find this a challenging exercise, especially if you tend to struggle with organizing your paragraphs. However, if you try this your organization should develop exponentially over time. Give it a shot, and let us know how it goes.

Do you have any other strategies for ensuring that your paper is well-organized? Please let us know in the comments below!

Posted Date: January 16, 2019

By Peter Mosley, Ph.D.

Mike Tinnion 327565 Unsplash

Image Courtesy of Mike Tinnion

I want you to think hard about this question:

What would happen if you didn’t write?

Let’s break it down. What would happen if you didn’t type up your resume? What would be the consequences if you had decided not to write that last paper for your class, or the personal statement for entry into your program?

Yeah, sure, maybe there would be immediate consequences. If you didn’t type up your resume, you wouldn’t get the job; if you didn’t write that last paper, you would have received a failing grade; if you didn’t write the personal statement, you wouldn’t have been accepted into your program.

But there are also reasons behind those consequences. If you don’t type up your resume, you don’t get hired because potential employers don’t have a clear view of your skills and abilities. If you don’t write that paper, you’ll receive a failing grade because no one can tell how much of the information discussed and studied in the class you actually know and can use. If you don’t write the personal statement, the admissions committee can’t really figure out your motivation behind succeeding in your field.

So when you write, you’re not just filling a page. You’re trying to address real-world concerns that stand in the way of making real-world events happen – especially when you’re in one of the health professions and people’s lives are on the line.

When you’re addressing these real-world concerns through writing, you’re interacting with a concrete situation in every word. In composition studies, we call this situation the rhetorical situation. Now, the description of this rhetorical situation might be obvious, but bringing this description to the surface and making it explicit can help you become a more aware and successful writer.

The most fundamental part of this rhetorical situation is its exigence. Basically, an exigence is the need that makes your piece of writing necessary. To focus your writing on its concrete purpose, it’s a good idea to make yourself aware of your exigence by identifying a few reasons why your writing project is needed. You don’t want to stop at “I need this piece of writing to earn a good grade,” of course – you’ll want to go further and think about how a piece of writing may be needed to address a wide variety of specific concerns you have, your professor has, your peers have, the public has, and so on.

Beyond the exigence, you’ll also want to think about your constraints. Constraints are any factors that may be limiting or defining the way you can effectively meet the exigence. One constraint may be a style guide, if it’s expected that your piece of writing be written in APA format. Another constraint may be a deadline that limits how long you can work to perfect your piece. Other constraints might include previous studies on the topic you’re addressing, word count limits, your own strong beliefs or preferences, and conventions of the particular type of writing project you’re completing. If you want to effectively fulfill the practical needs of your writing, you have to thoughtfully consider these constraints.

Finally, we have to consider the people who can actually turn our goals into reality, or our audience. Usually, that audience is going to be a party that has some power to act in order to positively affect the exigence. You’re rarely writing in a vacuum – most of the time, you’re going to be writing to a party that can actually accomplish at least some of what you need accomplished. So don’t just fill a page with words – write with that audience firmly in your mind.

Let’s recap:

Writing isn’t done in a void. Every piece of writing is completed in response to a particular pre-existing rhetorical situation. This rhetorical situation consists of an exigence (a problem or need that makes the piece of writing necessary), contains constraints (limitations or guidelines that need to be followed in order to effectively address the exigence), and is written to an audience (a group of people that can act to positively address the exigence).

In short: we write in order to create a needed impact in the real world. Most of the time, we aren’t just writing in the void.

Embrace that fact all the way down to your bones, and you’ll become an awesome writer.

PS (Composition Studies Nerd Stuff): This is one of many ways to think about writing. I chose it because it seems especially relevant for the health professions, where you are going to be addressing concrete situations with preexisting guidelines and requirements for communication. However, if you go deep enough down the rabbit hole of communication studies you’ll find that there are many other ways to think about writing, and that some of them claim that writers create their rhetorical situation through the choices they make while writing – in these theories, the rhetorical situation isn’t preexisting, as it doen’t exist until the writer creates it. While this pattern of thinking might have its merits, I think that in many ways it makes a distinction without a difference – whether the actual rhetorical situation is created by the writer or exists before the writer starts typing, we can at least say that the potential for a writer’s rhetorical situation exists before the writer starts typing, and that this potential rhetorical situation, for all intents and purposes, would work in exactly the same way as an actual preexisting rhetorical situation. Basically, I’m saying that another composition expert could object to the preceding snippet of composition theory, but for our purposes that objection doesn’t really matter.

Posted Date: January 8, 2019

By Peter Mosley, Ph.D.

Jeshoots Com 523925 Unsplash

Ever had that experience of staring at a blank sheet of paper, nervous and bewildered as you frantically, unsuccessfully search for the first word in your intro?

Relax.

You don’t have to think about writing the introduction as the first item on the writing project agenda. If you are stuck, embrace the reality that you are simply at the first stage of the writing process.

Writing professors have dubbed this the invention stage. It’s the stage when you to take inventory of what you know or need to know about your general topic, and as you take inventory you begin to invent the content of your writing project. This stage often involves processes like freewriting, mind-mapping, preliminary researching, and listing. You don’t have to do these things in order, and you don’t have to do all of them. Different methods will work for different people. Figure out what works best for you and use it to enhance the way you start your writing process.

Freewriting is probably the most popular way to start the invention process. Here’s how to do it: sit down, try to focus on the general topic you’re discussing, and freely write anything that enters your mind, no matter how disorganized or ridiculous it is, for about five minutes. Miracles can happen when you the disorganized thoughts from your head and put them on paper. Then, survey what you’ve written. Look for connections, common themes, hints on how you’ll organize your paper, questions or concerns that may need research, and possibly even a topic that is suitable for your paper. Sometimes having someone else read what you wrote can also help you develop your topic.

Mind-Mapping or Clustering will generally work well if you think best visually. Start with your broad topic and write it in the center of a piece of paper. Then draw lines that branch out from that center, and label each of these branches with a subtopic. Draw lines out that branch out from these subtopics, and label each of those branches with a sub-subtopic. And so on.

You can perform mind-mapping by itself or in conjunction with other methods. For example, to organize your freewriting sample you can make a map in which the main topic of your freewrite branches out into the freewrite’s sub-topics. As you write your paper or conduct research, you can continue to add to your mind-map to create a visual plan for organizing your paper.

Preliminary Research is often essential when you have writer’s block because you don’t know enough about the topic to start writing. When you conduct preliminary research, try to focus on reading in a direction that will give you a suitable topic for your writing project. Don’t just conduct research; conduct research with a general focus in mind that will enable you to further define your project.

Also, remember that writing the information you glean from the sources you read as you read them can help you organize your thoughts. In large writing projects that have dozens or even hundreds of sources, it’s generally a good idea to make a record of each source in an annotated bibiliography, keeping track of key information and thoughts you have on the key information as you do so.

Outlines can help you plan a direction for your paper. Your outline doesn’t have to be detailed for most writing projects, and it may shift as you continue writing the paper. You also don’t have to write your outline from the intro to the conclusion – you can start writing the outline for your body, and then examine that outline to help you determine a strong introduction and conclusion.

Outlines can easily be used to enhance other invention methods. You can organize your freewrite results into an outline, use your outline to organize the topics in your mind map into a paper, or use your outline to organize and plan your research.

Additional Tips

Don’t overwhelm yourself with disorganized information.

Try to strike a balance between open brainstorming and strategic organization of your invention process so that you generate ideas that fit your writing project.

Your invention process doesn’t have to stop when you start writing the paper. These techniques can help you at any point in the writing process.

Thank you for reading!

What invention techniques work best for you or your students? Let us know in the comments below.

Based on the above discussion, consider the following questions:

  1. Your friend Jason is having trouble getting started on a writing project. He has done enough preliminary research for his project, but all the information has left him with a lot of disorganized thoughts, and he’s unsure of what to write first. How can one or more invention exercises jump-start his writing process?
  2. Your classmate Sarah is stuck on her writing assignment. She keeps freewriting, but every time she freewrites she ends up uncovering more information she doesn’t know. What should she do?
  3. Joanne is writing a cover letter for a job opportunity. She has a lot of relevant experience and is stuck on how to organize it all into a successful piece of writing. What kind of advice can you offer her?
  4. Why do you think you often get stuck? Which combination of the above methods do you think will work best for you?

Posted Date: January 2, 2019

Peter Mosley, Ph.D.

Daniel Gonzalez 602501 Unsplash

Image courtesy of Daniel Gonzalez

About 75% of the students who come to see me because they received a low grade on a writing project did not read and follow the assignment guidelines.

Most of them skipped or merely skimmed over these guidelines because they assumed the instructions were redundant. This is not surprising. It is tempting to assume that the book review in your graduate class will has the same requirements as the one you aced in undergrad. If an assignment in your Tuesday class is somewhat similar to the assignment in your Monday class, it is easy to hastily assume that all the requirements for the two assignments are the same. When a professor assigns two papers with the same assignment title in the same course, you might miss the fact that the requirements or standards for each assignment are different.

In addition, when you skip over the guidelines and begin writing the paper, you become increasingly less likely to compare what you write to the assignment expectations.  After all, you worry, they might indicate that you have to change something significant. The more we write, the more most of us want to defend what we have written.

As a result, students often write long papers and are surprised at the low grades they receive when they get them back.

There are few experiences worse than finding out that a paper you worked hard on does not fulfill assignment requirements. It is obvious that getting the low grade would be frustrating to you, but the experience of giving the grade is also usually frustrating for the professor grading your paper. Professors have strategic goals for each of their assignments; they may not be as personally invested in your grade as you are, but they are concerned about whether or not you are learning. They know that when your paper significantly deviates from assignment requirements, you are crippling the ideal trajectory of your educational development in the course. Every assignment in your class is carefully tailored to ensure that you develop relevant skills, so failure to follow assignment guidelines can negatively affect your long-term professional performance.

Following assignment guidelines requires a strong understanding of the assignment’s purpose, an awareness of any rubrics associated with the assignment, and as strong grasp of the formatting guidelines.

1. Understand the Assignment Purpose

Determine the professor’s overall purpose for the assignment, and try to make it your purpose for completing the assignment. Figuring out the professor’s purpose for the assignment usually is not guesswork; most professors in graduate school will spend considerable time and effort explaining how your next assignment will contribute to your long-term development. Every lecture, reading, assignment sheet and syllabus, correction on previous papers, and professor-student email may provide further insight into the purpose the professor has for the assignment.

Remember that different professors often have very different purposes in the assignments they give students, even if each professor’s assignment has the same title. For example, two professors might require a 2-page book report in each of their respective classes, but one professor might be more focused on your ability to synthesize and summarize information, while the other might be much more focused on your ability to present a well-considered opinion on the information you read. Paying attention to nuances in focus will do more than ensure a higher grade; it will also ensure that you are gleaning what you were meant to learn from each class, preparing you more thoroughly for effectiveness outside of the university.

Thinking about these different focuses also prepares you for publication, as each journal you submit an article to will likely have a unique perspective and goal. If you develop your skill in identifying the goals of your professor’s assignment, you will probably be more successful identifying perspective and goals in the professional realm after you graduate.

Think about:

  • What is the professor trying to prepare you for in the long term? What does your professor say about the connection this assignment has to what you will be need to know to be successful in the field after you graduate?
  • How is the professor trying to prepare you for other writing projects? What does your professor say about how this assignment will prepare you for future assignments?
  • What has your professor said about how other assignments or information taught in lecture has prepared you for this assignment?

2. Pay Careful Attention to Rubrics

Second, look carefully at the breakdown in the rubric of any assignment. Pay special attention to how much of your grade each category of the rubric is assigned, and prioritize the parts that are the largest parts of your grade first. Often, over the course of a semester, you will see some significant differences in each rubric provided for each writing assignment. Maybe your professor realized that most students would struggle with synthesizing their articles early in the course, so “organization” had a low weight of 15% in the beginning of the course, but over the course of the semester your professor wants to provide an incentive for you to pay attention as they teach that skill, so that “organization” has a weight of 30% by the time the course reaches the final project. If you write papers the same way each time, without paying attention to the rubric, you are likely to receive lower grades on papers as the semester progresses because you will not be paying attention to the areas in which you are expected to improve. Read rubrics carefully, and read the syllabus carefully to catch any information that is not in the rubric.

Think about:

  • How is this rubric different from previous or future rubrics in this course? What does this difference say about the way the professor expects me to progress throughout the course?
  • Which rubric category is weighted most heavily? Least heavily? In the time I have, how can I ensure that higher-rated categories are addressed, without neglecting the lower-rated categories?
  • How do rubric category descriptions correlate with or enhance what the professor has discussed in this course?
  • How does the description show that this assignment has different expectations than assignments with similar titles that I have done previously?
  • Are any parts of the description difficult for me to understand? When can I talk to the professor for clarification (ideally, you will do this ASAP after receiving the rubric, not at the last minute)?

3. Understand and Follow All Formatting Guidelines

Finally, make sure you are clear on the paper parameters. Minimum word requirements may be there to ensure your project has a certain degree of depth, maximum word limits may be present to encourage succinctness, and no word requirements may imply that the professor wants you to be firmly aware of the assignment’s goals so that you can be prepared to take on similar projects outside of the course. Professors who are strict on formatting may want to teach you the importance of following writing guidelines exactly. Do not miss or gloss over the “technical” requirements; every parameter given for a paper is important. Additionally, if you follow assignment parameters that your colleagues missed, you show that you are paying attention and will make a strong positive impression on your professor.

Think about:

  • What is the minimum length requirement? Does this length requirement exclude any cover pages, abstracts, appendices, and reference/works cited pages (it usually does, but double-check)?
  • Which style guide should I use? APA, MLA, AMA, Chicago, AP? Another? What fonts are standard in the chosen style guide? What citation style? Should the paper be double-spaced or single-spaced? What are the rules on comma usage in a series? Spaces after a period? The more exact you are here, the stronger your writing will come across.
  • What explicit directions on format does the professor provide? Anything about font size and type, margins, cover sheets, line spacing, or any other elements?
  • How does the description show that this assignment has different expectations than assignments with similar titles that I have done previously?
  • Are any parts of the description difficult for me to understand? When can I talk to the professor for clarification (ideally, you will do this ASAP after receiving the rubric, not at the last minute)?

In most cases you should seek to understand these guidelines as soon as you receive an assignment, before you put one word down on the page. Unless your professor explicitly states that you should hold off on your questions because the assignment will be discussed in more detail later, it is better for all concerned if you ask for any needed clarifications the day you receive the assignment. You want to avoid asking the professor at the last minute and implying that you only recently started working on the assignment; do it ASAP.

Do you have any comments, questions, or additional concerns? If so, please let us know in the comments below.