Writing Guidelines

Writing Guidelines
Department of Political Science
Gonzaga University

Do you ever wonder why your professors require you to write essays in many of your courses? It isn’t just because professors need to assign you work so you can earn a grade for the semester. Essay writing fulfills an important function in your education.

Professors design essay assignments to serve two main purposes: 1) to encourage you to acquire knowledge and 2) to provide you with the opportunity to hone your critical thinking and writing skills. In order to help you both earn a good grade and develop the knowledge and skills that will serve you well at Gonzaga and beyond, we have developed the following guidelines for writing a strong essay.

6 Tips for Writing an Effective College Essay

1. Clearly State Your Thesis in the First Paragraph

A thesis statement is a sentence that presents the main focus of your essay. If your professor has assigned you a specific question, then your thesis statement is your answer to that question. If you have been given the freedom to design your own topic, then your thesis will clearly state what you will be discussing in your paper. A thesis statement is always a complete sentence, but it should not be simply a statement of fact. Your thesis should present your particular position on the assigned question or your specific take on the issue you’ve chosen to explore. Your thesis is meant to be debatable or open to argument. In fact, your thesis statement can be strongly opinionated or even controversial as long as you can back up your opinion with evidence. The remainder of the paper after the thesis paragraph is devoted to winning the debate or proving your argument, so you certainly should not advance a thesis that you cannot support with evidence.

Don’t worry if it seems to be taking you a very long time to develop this one sentence. It takes a lot of critical thinking to come up with your thesis. You need to think hard about what you think the best answer to the assigned question is or what position you are going to advocate for in your paper.

    → Want more help with thesis statements? Check out this site for more thesis writing:
         http://www.temple.edu/writingctr/support-for-writers/documents/CraftinganEffectiveThesisStatement.pdf

2. Provide Evidence that Supports Your Thesis

Now that you’ve clearly told your reader what your answer to the assigned question is or what you will be arguing in your thesis statement, you need to convince your reader that your answer or argument is correct. You do that by presenting evidence. This is where your knowledge comes into play. Here are some types of evidence that are appropriate and convincing in college-level writing:

  • Facts that you have learned from your assigned readings or outside research
  • The authority of widely respected experts on the subject that you are discussing
  • Examples from real life that specifically illustrate the concepts you are discussing

3. Present Your Argument in a Logically Sequenced Order

Most of your college essays will have to begin with an introductory paragraph that states your thesis and end with a concluding paragraph that summarizes your argument. In between those two paragraphs, however, you will have wide latitude to construct your argument as you would like. You should give a good deal of thought to the order in which you will present your evidence. Consider how to reveal the evidence you’ve collected to make it most persuasive to your reader. For instance, if you’ve uncovered a very shocking fact or found a particularly profound quote from an expert, think about whether it will make the most impact if you reveal it near the beginning of your argument or closer to the end. Also be thinking about the most common objections to the answer or argument you are presenting and address those criticisms in your writing. When you recognize and then refute potential objections, you strengthen your own argument.

4. Pay Attention to Writing Well

Writing is a skill that you are just about guaranteed to need in the future, no matter what path you follow when you leave Gonzaga. Take the opportunity to seriously work on this skill when you are composing your essays. Of course, your grammar and punctuation should be correct, but you should strive for more than that. Work on making your writing clear, engaging, and easy to follow. After all, you can’t persuade a reader who can’t figure out what you are trying to say or one who is too bored to read all the way to the end of your paper. Avoid using polysyllabic words and writing unreasonably long sentences. One easy way to improve your writing is to read your paper out loud—to a friend, or even just to yourself. Do the sentences sound like they flow well? Can you or your friend follow the argument? If the answers to these questions are both yes, you are on the right track. If your writing sounds too fancy or complicated when you read it aloud or your sentences are so long that they are difficult to follow, rewrite the offending sentences or paragraphs.

    → Want more help with your writing skills? Gonzaga University’s Writing Center offers
         tutoring and some on line writing resources. Check out their webpage here:
         http://www.gonzaga.edu/writingcenter

5. Evaluate and Cite Your Sources

As you collect the evidence that will support your thesis, you should evaluate the reliability of the source from which you’ve collected it. Books and journals that you access through the library website can be generally considered accurate and trustworthy sources of information. Materials uncovered by searching the internet require more attention. This site, from Johns Hopkins' library system, offers some good advice about how to evaluate the reliability of internet sources: http://guides.library.jhu.edu/content.php?pid=198142&sid=1657518

When you use facts, important ideas, or the words of others, you must credit their source. Using another person’s words or ideas without attribution is plagiarism, and it is a violation of Gonzaga’s code of Academic Honesty. If you are unsure about how to avoid plagiarism, you should consult with your professor or the Writing Center.

There are several standard ways of citing and each professor should let you know which she or he expects you to use. If s/he doesn’t, ask. This website offers guidance on most of the standard styles of citation, including American Political Science Association (APSA) and Chicago: http://citesource.trincoll.edu/socialsciences.html

6. Follow Instructions

This last tip is pretty obvious: follow the instructions the professor gives you. Common instructions dictate the number of pages, the due date, the number or type of sources to use, the font size, and line spacing. Remember to read and follow the instructions the professor provides and ask for any clarification you might need well in advance of the due date.