Don't Forget Everything You Learned About Writing in High School

by Yanar

So, you’re fresh out of high school and getting your start in the wonderful world of higher education. You walk into your first composition class; ready to knock out whatever your professor throws your way. Maybe you took an advanced English class or two in high school. Maybe you never learned analysis but scraped by with plenty of summary. You feel good, even confident that this will be a breeze, and the first few weeks fly by. You write up your first paper in an afternoon, but the day you get it back, your professor makes an announcement:

“Forget everything you learned in high school English.”

Suddenly you’ve been pulled into the deep end. You’ve gotten A’s and B’s all your life, but suddenly you get a C. How can you just forget what’s been so helpful for the last four years?

Your world has been rocked but all is not lost. There are plenty of habits you learned in high school that are useful in university writing; we just have to tweak them a bit. Let’s talk about three big ones.

The 5 Paragraph Essay

The king of all writing structures has served you well in high school, but it usually doesn’t cut it now. Your professor might very clearly tell you not to use this structure, but what do you use instead?

First off, the basic idea of the structure is still useful. Your writing has an introduction with a thesis, a number of body paragraphs that support that thesis, and a conclusion that summarizes your argument. Your thesis is the claim you are trying to prove about whatever your topic is for that paper. The five-paragraph structure only allows for a basic thesis and three points of supporting evidence, but your argument has to be more complex in order to flow well and be convincing.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m writing a paper about how historical context affects my understanding of a character in a novel. Since part of my topic is about history, I’ll need to include a background section to set the stage for the rest of my analysis. I’ll also need several body paragraphs depending on the types of evidence I use for the character I chose, and a paragraph or two before my conclusion to connect the character analysis with the background section. Five paragraphs would definitely fall short, as I need all these sections to fully address my topic.

Now this may seem complicated, but what if I told you I created this structure from the five-paragraph setup? I started by thinking about the three supporting points I wanted to write about and built on them to match the topic I chose, such as adding background and discussion sections. From here, I thought about which points were more important than others and planned for additional amounts of evidence for my analysis.

What is key to remember is that you can (and should) write more than three points of supporting evidence in your academic writing. Your argument probably won’t be persuasive enough otherwise, so if you feel yourself slipping into the five-paragraph trap, think about your main points and see where you can add more detail to your structure. Use the initial three supporting points you come up with as a launch pad and your structure will end up as sophisticated as you need it to be.

Starting to feel better? Even if you develop a complex structure, it won’t amount to much if your main point isn’t persuasive enough to begin with. A house is only as good as the foundation it’s built on, and another familiar tool can help you get started on solid ground.

The Brainstorm Map

Another classic. Some call it the “spider-web map” or a “mind map,” but it’s the “map” part that we need. Nothing is more valuable in writing than getting your ideas out of your head and onto paper. Everyone has a different process for essays, but whether you create a detailed outline, or just start writing from start to finish, forming a good topic is essential. Some professors will provide detailed prompts, but often you’ll be handed a single sheet with some vague suggestions and a line at the end that says you can choose your own topic. The brainstorm map can help out when you don’t know where to start.

No matter what subject you write about, you should give yourself some time to look through your notes and write down possible paper topics to work with. Once you know what you want to write about, think about your topic and jot down the general idea in the middle of a piece of paper. Then, write down any ideas you have about what you think could connect with your main point. If you researched your topic and have outside sources, you can add those in and see if they agree, disagree, or provide a different idea from your opinion

After you have all of the ideas on paper, find the two or three most interesting or important supporting ideas and connect them to your central point with arrows (depending on the assigned paper length, you should choose more or fewer ideas to connect with). By this point, you should have a general idea of what structure your paper needs. Add a note to each supporting point that explains why you need it in the paper. It may provide background, or act as a comparison to another point, or be a support for your argument. Now you can draft your thesis. As you look at the messy page of notes and arrows, ask yourself “why is this topic important and how is it important?” By answering these two questions, you can create a thesis that is arguable, detailed, and very clear.

Whether you’re writing your first research paper or drafting a short essay, a map for your ideas is a classic technique that can help you think at a higher level and put together a thesis to guide your writing. 

First and Second Person Pronouns

“Never use I, you, or we.” We all heard this through high school, and some professors may still enforce this rule while others encourage you to forget it.

Please don’t forget it.

Chalk this one up to the old adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” It turns out your high school English teacher had a pretty good reason for stifling your vocabulary. First and second person pronouns have their place, and while they can add a lot of personality to a piece of writing when used correctly, they can also do more harm than good.

Often times, first and second person pronouns end up as unnecessary additions to your writing. Phrases like, “in my opinion” are unnecessary and can interrupt the flow of your paper. By starting the sentence with your main point, you skip the unnecessary bit and keep your writing lean and mean. These pronouns can do a lot more damage if you end up relying on them and straying into the overly subjective and opinionated writing that can weaken an entire argument. Keeping your tone formal doesn’t just mean you should use big words; your personal, unsupported opinions or emotional reactions can make your otherwise persuasive ideas seem unjustified.  

In the opposite way, a personal reflection or anecdote will probably sound better with first person pronouns. Using them to start off a paper and hook your reader can be useful, and any reflection or story will sound wooden if you try to use words like, “one would have felt” instead of just saying, “I felt.” Again, different professors feel differently and will or won’t enact the rule, but remember that the high school pronoun-ban still has its use to help keep your tone formal and academic. As a short rule, think of them this way: use them carefully in analysis and summary, but feel free to experiment with them for an opening hook, or in personal reflections. Some disciplines, like the humanities, are more accepting of these pronouns than others, such as the hard sciences, so do your best to find out the “rules” of the class you’re taking.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? That C is barely a scratch on your grade. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to show your professor how smart you are and that you totally were listening to his twenty-minute lecture on rhetorical analysis. Your professor won’t remind you to spend a day using that one outlining trick you learned in 11th grade, so plan your time, and use what was useful in high school to find what works in college. Build on the strategies that helped and adjust them as you go along and you’ll find your ideal writing process in no time.  

*See our handout for more details: Brainstorming techniques