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Preparing for College Writing

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #55, 2003.

Teach your kids how to write A+ papers.
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David Marks

If your children are working with high school level courses, it might be a good idea for you to encourage them to prepare themselves for college. Even if they don't plan on attending at this point, this could still help them because they might later change their minds and it would be too late to catch up on that missed preparation. This article is to and for this group of students. The process for the formatting and the production of a report or an essay that would be acceptable for college work is fairly complicated but not impossible to learn. The information necessary to understand this isn't available in most language arts programs, so, no matter what program you're using and if you do go to college, this information should help you understand how to go about attacking the many writing assignments you'll be given.

Types of Essays

Explanatory: The name given to essays which explain the nature of ideas, situations or objects and/or how things work.

Exposition: Exposing a reader to ideas or information (in this case with an essay).

Explanatory exposition: An essay which explains something.

The following material may seem hard to understand, but it will make sense as you work your way through it. You should read this explanation and then it might be a good idea to ask your parents to read through it with you.

The First Seven Steps

When you're assigned a paper, it will help you a great deal to have an established process for the work. The following list of steps should supply you with such help.

  1. Before you begin expository writing, you must have an experience. This can be an assigned reading, an observation, a field trip, a class discussion, an examination of material or any academic experience.

  2. You must come to a conclusion about that experience and state this conclusion in one sentence.

  3. You must rewrite this conclusion in one sentence that will function as a contending idea for your paper. This will be what some of your instructors will call a theses statement.

  4. You must divide the explanation of the idea of your contention into its constituent parts.

  5. You must select words or short phrases to describe each of those parts. These are called key words.

  6. You must write one sentence using all of the key words in the order in which they will introduce the material in the body of your paper. This is called a process sentence.

  7. Based on your reader selection, you must write a background. (Unless otherwise assigned, college writing is always semi-formal in tone and written for an educated adult.)

Papers that are acceptable for college work must be written so that the instructors know what the point of each paper is, how that point is supported and how that support works. It's hard to write this way unless a fairly rigid organization is imposed on the work. The structure I am going to present in this article will work for you until you develop your own structuring.

Parts of the Introduction

The essay introduction has three parts:

Background. This is information the reader will need to have to understand the main idea (the contention or thesis statement). This can be a history of the subject or some personal experience and/or observation (more about this in a moment).

Contention. This is a one-sentence statement of position or belief, such as: Chocolate ice cream is the best kind, or Growing up is exciting but sometimes a lot of work. This is what some people call the thesis statement. This is the point of the paper and is what the body will explain or show to be true.

Process. Usually, this is a one-sentence statement giving the order in which the points in the body of the paper will support the contention. Because this kind of writing is made up of statement and support, everything in the body must be related to the main idea (contention) in a supportive way. These support points in the body must be in the same order as they are listed in the process. (This isn't that complicated. More about it in a moment) Some examples should help. I'll use as an example the planning and structuring of an explanatory exposition about how much fun it is to go to the beach.

A Sample Introduction

Now, let's see how we go about putting together a sample essay introduction:

Background. I start by introducing my reader to the idea of having fun. The rough draft of this part of the introduction, called the background, might read like this:

The best thing about living in my part of the country is being so close to Lake Michigan. When homeschool is over for the summer, my friends and I like to hang out together and think of fun things to do.

Contention. I now have to write the contention - one sentence that would tell my reader the main point of the essay. For this example, the rough draft might read: The one activity that we like best in the summer is going to the beach.

Process. The process sentence has key words in it that introduce the reader to the supporting points in the body. These key words will also introduce the reader to the order of the supporting material in the body. You find your key words by breaking down the contention.

In my example paper about fun at the beach, the key words in the process might be: 1) swim, 2) eat, 3) tan, and 4) build sand castles. (These four activities are what will support the idea that going to the beach is fun.) The rough draft of the one-sentence process statement might then read:

The things the kids like to do most are swim, eat, tan and build sand castles.

This process sentence lets my readers know I plan to support the idea that going to the beach is fun by talking about 1) swimming, 2) eating, 3) tanning, and, 4) building sand castles.

The order of these key words in this process sentence is important. It lets my readers know that the first group of paragraphs in the body of the paper would talk about the fun of 1) swimming. The second group of paragraphs would talk about the fun of 2) eating. The third group of paragraphs would talk about the fun of 3) tanning. The fourth group of paragraphs would talk about the fun of 4) building sand castles.

Next, I put the parts of the rough draft of this introduction together:

The best thing about living in my part of the country is being so close to Lake Michigan. When homeschool is over for the summer, my friends and I like to hang out together and think of fun things to do. The one activity that we enjoy most in the summer is going to the beach. The things the we like to do there are swim, eat, tan, and build sand castles.

The Body of the Paper

The body of your paper needs to have the same number of sections as there are key words in the process statement of your introduction. However, each section might contain more than one paragraph. Each section should follow in the same order as the points (key words) appeared in the process statement. The parts of the body - each of which may be composed of a number of paragraphs - will be recognized by the reader as supporting the contention statement of your introduction.

Parts of the Conclusion

Your conclusion should have three parts:

  • In the first sentence, say the same thing as in your introductory contention statement, but do not use the same words.

  • In your second sentence, make it clear that the information in the body is organized, but do not use the key words from your introductory process statement.

  • In your third sentence, talk about the background ideas and tie them to the supportive material in the body of your paper.

The conclusions of expository papers are the hardest part for most young people to write. Plan on practicing this many times.

A Sample Conclusion

To make this clearer, here is a rough draft of the conclusion for this example paper about the fun of going to the beach. It might read:

  • Sentence 1. Summer gives me lots of time to enjoy the benefits of living in Michigan where I am so close to fresh water beaches with their miles of sand dunes.

  • Sentence 2. There are many things that are fun during summer vacation, but the best are the great picnics.

  • Sentence 3. My friends and I love to take advantage of the opportunities this gives us to be together, having fun at the beach.

Use the Diagram & Practice!

It will help you write your reports and essays if you follow this diagram. You might even want to cut it out and take it to college with you.

You may have to practice this type of essay structuring many times before you feel confident about writing this way, but it will be worth it. One way to help you understand what this structure does is to think about it this way. 1) You tell your readers what you're going to tell them. 2) You tell them. 3) You tell them what you've told them. If this is done, there won't be any confusion in your instructor's mind about what you're trying to say. This will eliminate one of the big complaints that college teachers have about student papers: they're not organized, so that the points the papers make are not clear and that the points in the papers are not supported. If you use this outline, these comments will never be made about your work.

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