How Do Most Students Write Papers?

Most students plunge into writing without really thinking about what they are doing.  In the almost twenty years I taught writing, I saw students use the same strategies, year after year, even when they knew they were ineffective. Here’s a typical pattern that most student writers—and many adults who have to write for professional or personal necessity—follow:

  1. Make a cursory list or map of ideas to be covered in a paper.
  2. Stare at blank screen until a great opening line pops into mind.
  3. Explore ideas about the topic by writing an introduction that lists general statements about the topic.
  4. Take ideas from the list or map generated earlier and write a paragraph about each one by stating the idea and then repeating it or explaining it in different words, sometimes using quotes from other sources if required.
  5. Write a conclusion that restates some of the ideas from the introduction in similar—but not identical—sentences.
  6. Use spellcheck and grammar check to make any corrections that are indicated.


Students use this default writing strategy even when they can describe the writing process and when they say they are following it.  The job of the teacher is in this scenario to find the mistakes and spots where the writing is unclear and grade the paper accordingly.  And the default writing strategy will yield a paper—one similar to most of the other papers that other students write.  It does not, however, encourage deeper knowledge about a topic or use critical thinking skills.

Next Time:  Using the Writing Process

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