September 07, 2016

How to ask for help with writing

Baffled by your writing assignment? Don’t be afraid to discuss it with your professor. Learn from Rob Desjardins, Graduate Writing Advisor with the Student Success Centre, the steps you can take to strategically approach your professor for help.

As the professor hands out the writing assignment, she launches into a detailed description of her expectations for the work. “Be sure to do this, take care not to do that. And by all means, avoid this other thing.” It’s hard to follow what she’s saying, though. As you scan the densely worded assignment sheet, it seems to call for intellectual feats you’ve never accomplished before.

Sound familiar? For many students, the experience of receiving a writing assignment is two parts bewildering and three parts terrifying. Too many respond by stuffing the instruction sheet into their backpack and planning to decipher it later. When “later” comes — often hours before the assignment is due — it’s usually too late to think clearly about the project.

We suggest that you do the opposite. Face your fears head-on by planning the project as soon as possible — and by asking for help when you need it. Your professors are happy to assist you, but be warned: they’re not in the business of holding your hand or solving your problems for you. Before approaching them, therefore, it’s often a good idea to do some critical thinking on your own.

Try following these steps before and during your meeting with your professor.

Analyze the instructions carefully. As you read the assignment sheet, try to identify the one central or core goal the professor wants you to achieve. Does s/he want you to make an original argument about a text, or report on the outcome of an experiment? Look for cues that will help you to decide how to structure your written assignment to best achieve this. Hint: the marking rubric may be helpful.

Do some comparative reading. See if you can find a few good sample texts, either in class or in the library, that reveal how other writers tackled a similar task (if you’re not sure how to find one, your research librarian might be able to help). Don’t copy their language or their ideas, but have a close look at the structure of their essays. What kinds of things do they raise in the introduction?  How do they organize body paragraphs? How do they conclude the text?

Generate a plan. Sketch out a very short preliminary outline indicating how you might craft your own assignment on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Keep the entries short – just one line or so for each paragraph — but think in detail about how you might develop each paragraph. What will you say first? How will you support it?

Ask for help. Armed with these ideas, meet with your professor to share your outline and get her or his feedback. Are you on the right track? Is your plan likely to generate an effective assignment? Does s/he have any ideas on how you could do it better?

Try to arrange a second appointment. In some cases, professors are willing to arrange another brief meeting, well before the assignment due date, to discuss a writer’s progress. There are no guarantees here; but you’re more likely to succeed if you keep the request narrowly focused. Ask if they’re willing to discuss a few draft paragraphs (the introduction and first body paragraph are usually good choices). This will help them to analyze various aspects of your writing and to point you in the direction of other resources, if you need them.

Want more help with your writing? We’re here to help. Contact the Student Success Centre at success@ualberta.ca or 780-492-2682.