College Level Writing Guide

Many students are often told by profs that they need to work on their writing, but don’t know where to start.

Many profs also don’t know precisely how to teach better writing, they just know what good and bad writing look like, and so they have trouble giving students direction on how to improve other than practice. And most grammar books are terrible at explaining things.

To help make things easier, over the last 10 years of teaching college-level writing, I’ve developed a worksheet of the most common student errors, and I just updated it. No complicated grammar terms, the sheet is designed to be easy to use, and easy to understand, so that students can read it on their own and use it to help proofread. It can also help professors not trained in teaching writing to know what to look for, and how to explain ways to fix problematic writing to students.

Guide to College-Level Writing:

Many students know they have problems with their writing, but don’t know how to improve. Below is a basic checklist of ways to improve your writing for college-level papers.

Beyond this checklist, however, the best way to improve your writing in general is to SHOW YOUR WORK TO OTHERS (preferably someone with good writing skills) and have them read it out loud in front of you. When the other person gets confused with what you are trying to say, then you know there’s a problem. Mark that spot down, then brainstorm on different ways to say it better. When the other person says ‘oh, THAT’S what you were trying to say!’, you’ve just improved your writing! Try to remember what you did for next time. If you can’t find someone with really good writing to do this with, even a roommate can be helpful (just watch for when they get confused). Often if you just read your paper out loud, you can catch your own mistakes this way too, just see where you seem to trip over your words when you read them out loud.


1. USE PROPER FORMATTING: Nothing annoys most professors more quickly than seeing a paper that’s short but oddly formatted to seem longer. Don’t do it, we’ve seen it all! Standard formatting for papers handed in at most colleges is standard 12pt fonts, 1 inch margins on all sides, and lines double-spaced. Don’t use a large heading or other device that creates too much extra white space to make your paper appear longer. No title page is required.

2. ALWAYS USE SPELLING and GRAMMAR CHECK: Use these tools for EVERYTHING, from papers to emails. These aren’t just checking tools, they can actually TEACH you better spelling and grammar! MS Word has a built in grammar-check that you can use after the paper is done, or even while you type. All computers at the PRATT COMPUTER CENTER have MS Word with grammar check. It is REQUIRED to use both spelling and grammar check for all papers handed in at Pratt, and a teacher can return a paper to you if they have basic errors that could be picked up by these types of programs.

3. THINGS SPELL/GRAMMAR CHECK WILL USUALLY CATCH: If English is a second language, the following errors are common. Most grammar check programs WILL catch these errors, but not always, so make sure to check for them in your final proofread! Nothing tells a reader that English isn’t your first language like the following common errors, so getting rid of them is the first step to having English that sounds like that of a native-speaker:

– plurals generally have –s at the end

– past tense words often have –ed at the end

– many words need articles like a, an, the, that, etc.

– contractions need apostrophes (ie: cant should be can’t)

4. THINGS A SPELLING/GRAMMAR CHECK WON’T CATCH: The two most common things:

– ALWAYS USE APOSTROPHES FOR POSSESSION: don’t write “Pauls book” when you need “Paul’s book”. Nothing says ‘I didn’t proofread my paper’ to your professor quicker than missing this! (And I see it ALL the time.)

– CHECK FOR SIMILAR WORDS: Don’t confuse these –

to and too                       your and you’re

they’re and their             off and of

here and hear                 where and wear and where

form and from

its and it’s (it’s=IT IS, just substitute it into you sentence to see if it works)

5. NEVER HAVE PARAGRAPHS UNDER THREE SENTENCES OR OVER ONE PAGE IN LENGTH: The exceptions to this is that you can have short paragraphs in journalism, and long paragraphs in papers over ten pages in length, but most student papers should never have paragraphs that are too short or too long. Medium sized paragraphs are best for presenting a unified idea with 2-3 supporting statements/details/examples.


– Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was based on a short story called “Roadside Picnic.”


– “She didn’t know what he was accused of.” [Don’t do this!]

– “The mother told the man he would drive by, and then take him to the store.” [Another way to say this?]

– [exception: you can get away with breaking this rule on occasion with phrases like ‘to wake up’ or ‘to pick up,’ in which the preposition becomes basically part of the verb. For example, this is generally fine: “I wasn’t sure what time I was supposed to go to school to pick her up.]”


– “In the story, the man saw a ghost when he ran through the cemetery.” [Use the present tense: “In the story, the man sees a ghost while running through the cemetery.”]

– “After he saved the day, the hero of the film saw the bad guy was dead.” [Use the present tense: “After saving the day, the hero of the film sees that the bad guy is dead.]”

9. COMMAS:  Read a sentence out loud. When you pause, insert a comma. If you don’t pause, don’t use a comma. In most cases, it’s really that simple.

10. USE THE WORD ‘I’ SOMETIMES:  No matter what your high-school teacher told you, you can use the word ‘I’ in your paper to tell the reader what you’re going to do. Don’t use ‘I’ to state feelings or opinions in a standard analytical paper, though.

– “In this paper, I will describe two ways in which this film uses camera angles to comment on the narrative” [This is fine!]

– “I liked this character in the film” [Don’t do this! Why should we care what one person thinks? Better: “This character in the film was nice to the others, and this made them all like him”]

11. VERBS TENSES NEED TO AGREE: Make your verb tenses all agree, especially when the sentence is long and has many parts.

– “I went to the store, and then SEE my friend” [should be SAW]

– “I went to the store, then walked around the block, and when trying to cross the street, then I SEE my friend” [should be SAW]


– “The painting had strange colors” [You think they’re strange? Why? Would everyone think they’re strange?]

– “This film had interesting camera angles.” [Why were they interesting? Would everyone find them interesting? Be specific!]

13. AVOID PITFALLS IN YOUR INTRO: Introductions are always tricky, so until you’ve gotten good at this skill, go for short, sweet, and direct. You don’t need to explain the whole history of the universe in an introduction, just give a little context for your paper! Keep an eye out for two common mistakes students often make in their introductions, but also elsewhere in their papers:


– “Throughout the history of the universe people have always wondered about what makes people scared.” [Can you prove this? All cultures?]

– “Everyone loves Jimi Hendrix.” [Everyone? Really? How can you prove this?]


– “This paper will show why the Roman Empire fell.” [In a 5pg. paper? Really?]

– “I will disprove Freud’s theories in this paper.” [In 5pgs?]


– “In the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels wrote about communism,

and then he died.” [Who died – Engels or Marx?]

– “After she and her sister went to bed, she saw a ghost.” [Who saw

the ghost – her or her sister?]


– The man said, “I don’t know what you want me to say.” This made the woman sad.

– “What do you want me to do?”, the woman asked.

16. AVOID ABSTRACT -ING WORDS: Concrete –ing words (ie: running, hitting) are usually safe, many students overuse abstract ones (ie: being, having, thinking, going):

– “Due to his having been angry, going mad was inevitable.” [Better:

“Because he was angry, he was inevitably going to go mad.”]

– “Driving while having been tired, was not going to be an idea worth having” [nooo!]

17. MAKE SURE THAT ALL VERBS THAT NEED ‘DOERS/EXPERIENCERS’ HAVE THEM: Technically called a ‘passive voice’ error, students often leave out the ‘doer’ or ‘experiencer’ of a verb (technically called a verb’s ‘subject’) because it’s a way to sneak out of being specific about who does or experiences something. Writing professors will always call you on this, though, so you need to work to get rid of this. The only exceptions are in journalism or legal writing (ie: ‘the accused stood trial today’), but these situations almost never apply to basic college paper writing:

– “In this film, anxiety IS HEIGHTENED when the monster arrives.” [Who heightens the anxiety? Whose anxiety is heightened?]

– “Sadness WAS FELT at this part of the story” [Who feels this? Will everyone feel this way? Always?]

– “In the nineteenth century, communism WAS often DISCUSSED” [By whom? Everyone? By you?]

– “In this film, uncertainty IS ENCOUNTERED at various points.” [By you? By the author? By the character?]

18. PROPER CITATION FORMAT (AND CITATIONS OVER THREE LINES HAVE SPECIAL FORMAT!): Here’s a guide to citation issues: Different types of courses may have different formats, check with your prof. When in doubt, just look at what format is used in one of your texts for class and use that! Long citations (over three lines) have their own special format (really). These are ‘block quotes’, they are in little mini-paragraph in between the two parts of the main paragraph, indented, and SINGLE SPACED. See the link above for examples.

19. DON’T ‘MIND-READ’ THE FEELINGS/THOUGHTS OF THE AUDIENCE, OR THE INTENTIONS OF AN ARTIST/AUTHOR: We can never know what another person thinks, feels, or intends unless they tell us. Don’t be a mind-reader! Instead, talk about the film, novel, its structure, what it does, and what it ‘tries’ to make people think or feel. When in doubt, the safest thing to do is talk about what a film, novel, or image DOES, concrete aspects of the work. However, if you need to talk about intentions/reactions, you can ‘personify’ a work of art, literature, or a film rather than mind-read a person.

– “After the hero succeeds in the film, we feel happy. [Better: “The film tries to make us happy by showing us the successes of the hero”]

– “The author wants us to feel bad for the bad guy” [Better: By showing us the hardships experienced by the antagonist while growing up, the novel shows us the ways in which this character might not be as simple as first thought”]

– “The photographer wants us to feel bad for the people in the image.”  [Better: “The photo shows images of poverty and suffering that would make most people feel terrible for those depicted”]

20. USE LINKING WORDS: Once you’re writing is free of basic errors, you’ll want to put together more complex sentence structure. This is what makes your writing really sound professional. Avoid having lots of short sentences that just state facts. Instead, link sentences and ideas together using ‘linking words’ (ie: however, because, therefore, nevertheless, although, since, hence, while, etc.). Don’t just throw these words in, though, they really need to link the ideas involved!

– “I read the book. It was fun. Then I wrote this paper.”  [Better: “I greatly enjoyed reading this book, and that’s why I wrote this paper. However, I realize that it was also an assignment.”]

– “The woman was sad. Her brother had died. She vowed to get revenge. I think this was a bad idea. She was arrested for taking revenge.” [Better: When the woman saw that her brother had died, she vowed to get revenge. However, this turned out to be a mistake, for by killing the man who killed her brother, she ended up in jail.”]


~ by chris on May 11, 2011.

6 Responses to “College Level Writing Guide”

  1. Thanks, its very helpful. You may want to check out Trimble’s book on writing. It’s slim and full of ideas on how to write a college level paper analysis paper. Unfortunately its examples are all geared towards english majors writing on literature. I am trying to help my students write analysis of academic research articles. I use Trimble for a mid-level writing course in a comm studies department! Thanks again.

  2. Not to be contrary just for the sake of it, but it seems like #7 is losing ground over time. Although I still err on the safe side.

    M-W Editor on ending with preps

  3. Hey Chris, you forgot to add, “Avoid Being Drunk”. I could have used that advise a decade ago…

  4. I have a high school son who will be taking an AP course this Fall. He has a reading assignment and 3 papers to complete before the school year begins in September. He hasn’t a clue what is about to descend upon him in terms of focus, research and writing. Thank you for the list. He is not listening to me. Maybe his will listen to you and read your list.

  5. […] Please read, revise, and then reread your abstract. Use the spellcheck feature in your post (the button with ABC and a checkmark). I expect college level writing. If you are unsure as to what that means, see this post, College Level Writing Guide. […]

  6. Have to agree with most of these except the nearly carte blanche allowance to use first person in college level writing. This is almost always on an assignment by assignment basis or an instructor by instructor basis, but what most students fail to realize is that adding “I” lends no creedence to their argument. Even “bolstering” it with “personally” (which is actually redundant) does not add any force to their statement. Unless you are at the top of your field, what “I personally think” about a topic does not strengthen my writing. It might if I were Neil DeGrasse Tyson writing about science or space, but otherwise, keep “I” to a bare minimum.

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