Welcome to the Cincinnati State Writing Center!

Are you having trouble getting started on an assignment? Have you encountered the dreaded writer’s block and need help pushing through it? Do you want an extra set of eyes to help you as you review that final draft? Are you an ESL student struggling with English grammar and mechanics? Have a question about an assignment from your AFL course?

The Cincinnati State Writing Center is here to help! Our tutors are ready to help you tackle your writing needs and improve your writing! The first step to getting help is scheduling an appointment. We offer half hour appointments, and while multiple appointments can be scheduled in one day, we ask that you not schedule back-to-back appointments.

Once you have scheduled an appointment, make sure to bring any materials (the assignment description, prewriting/outlining, drafts, instructor examples/comments, workbooks/textbooks, etc.) with you to your scheduled appointment. This helps your tutor to provide the best advice possible! It is also a great way to make sure that you complete the assigned task as instructed and while meeting any and all of your instructor’s expectations!

Bring any questions or concerns with you as well! Our tutors have a wealth of knowledge on many topics and have instructed many different courses. We are happy to help you understand the nuances of writing – from brainstorming ideas, to making sure your finished project is coherent and complete! We are here to help!

Grammar Tips: Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

As of January 1, 2014, the Global Language Monitor estimated that there are 1,025,109 words in the English language, with nearly 15 words added every day. With such a large number of words, it is understandable that there would be many words that are similar in how they are spelled and how they sound. Today, we are going to talk about some of those words. First, we will break these similar words down into three categories: homonyms, homphones, and homographs.

  • Homonyms: words that are spelled and pronounced the same but that have multiple meanings.
  • Homophones: words that sound alike but that are spelled differently and have different meanings.
  • Homographs: words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciations, and different meanings.

Now, let’s break it down.


Our definition above tells us that homonyms are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but that have multiple meanings. Homonyms are also known as sound-alike words (because they sound the same when we speak them). Let’s take a look at an example:

  • The driver turned left and left the parking lot.

In this case, both uses of left are spelled and pronounced the same, but they are used differently in the sentence. The first instance of left (“the driver turned left”) indicates a direction, while the second instance of left (“and left the parking lot”) indicates a departure from the parking lot. Click here for a list of true homonyms.


As our definition above tells us, homophones are words that sound the same, but that are spelled differently and have different meanings. Homophones often sound the same, like homonyms, but remember, their spelling is different. Let’s take a look at a common example involving to, two, and too:

  • I wanted to take two chocolates home so my sister could have one too.

In this case, we have three different words with three different meanings and spellings, but they are pronounced the same way. In order to know which word to use in which place in the sentence, we have to know which meaning to pair with the proper spelling. For example:

  • To: A preposition before a noun, or an infinitive before a verb
  • Two: spelling out the number 2
  • Too: Also

So, in the above sentence, take is a verb, and we use to as an infinitive before it. We have 2 chocolates, and if we replace the word two with the number 2, our sentence would still make sense. Since our sentence is showing that we want a chocolate for ourself and we also want one for our sister, we need to use too at the end of our sentence to illustrate that. Click here for a list of homophones.


Lastly, as our definition above explains, homographs are words that are spelled the same, but that have different pronunciations and different meanings. These words are very confusing because although they are spelled the same, they are pronounced differently, and should be used differently. This is more of a problem with spoken English than with written English, as the spellings are the same when we write them down. Let’s take a look at an example:

  • After she used her bow to shoot the arrow through the apple, Cindy took a bow.

In the above example, the first use of the word bow is referring to the object that Cindy is using to shoot the arrow. The second use, though, does not indicate that Cindy took another physical bow to have two bows for shooting arrows. Instead, Cindy is bowing before the audience because she has completed her task. While the two words are spelled the same in the sentence, they would be pronounced differently, and in pronouncing them differently, we can easily illustrate and imply their different meanings. Click here for a list of homographs.

Grammar Tips: That vs. Which

When should you use ‘that’ in a sentence? When should you use ‘which’ in a sentence? Can you swap them in and out with no worry? These are just some of the questions that arise when structuring sentences and choosing the correct word. Many people struggle with deciding when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’ and a lot of this has to do with our understanding of conversational English. That said, there are a few things that you can keep in mind to help guide you to the correct word choice.

First, there is a rule that you can follow for some general guidance:

  • Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive (or parenthetical) clause
  • That is used to introduce a restrictive clause

Well, what does that mean? Basically, a restrictive clause is something that is essential or that provides essential information within the sentence, and a non-restrictive clause is something that can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence (hence why it is also considered a parenthetical clause; parenthetical asides can be removed from the sentence without altering the meaning of the sentence). For example:

  • Cars that do not have fuel will not run.
  • Cars, which may experience many issues, need fuel to run.

With the first example, the clause beginning with that (“that do not have fuel”) provides essential information that is necessary for our understanding of the sentence. If we remove this clause, we would have a complete sentence (“Cars will not run”), but we do not know which cars will not run (those without fuel).

With the second example, the clause beginning with which (“which may experience many issues”) can be removed from the sentence without greatly altering the meaning of the sentence (“Cars need fuel to run”). The non-restrive clause in this sentence only provides us with extra information about the cars; this information is not necessary for our understanding of the main idea.

Using that and which properly in our writing can bring clarity for our readers. Changing that to which (or which to that) can alter the meaning of our sentence and this can be confusing for our readers.

Direct Quotations & Stand-Alone Quotations

A direct quotation is a “report of the exact words used in a discourse” or something someone said or wrote, exactly as it originally appeared. Typically, we use direct quotations in our writing to emphasize a point or provide an example, establish credibility, or illustrate a concept. When we come across something in a text that we want to use in our writing, we include it by formatting it with double quotation marks around it to indicate it is a direct quotation.

For example, let’s say we are writing a paper for one of our classes and we are considering this article as a possible source. In the article, we see some interesting information that we would like to use in our paper:

Researchers found that women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations who protectively had their ovaries removed reduced their risk of ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer by 80%, and their overall risk of death by 77%.

Let’s say that we really like the wording of our sentence, and we want to include it in our paper as a direct quotation. We know that we would need to include a parenthetical citation (in either APA Styleor MLA Style,depending on our instructor’s specifications), and we know that we need to put double quotation marks around the quotation to indicate that it is a direct quotation. For example, using APA Style:

“Researchers found that women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations who protectively had their ovaries removed reduced their risk of ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer by 80%, and their overall risk of death by 77%” (Falco and Ford, 2014).

While our quotation is a complete sentence and is therefore grammatically correct, we still have one final thing to consider. As it appears above, our quotation has become a stand-alone quotation. It is grammatically correct, it is formatted appropriately, and it is properly cited, but it needs a little bit more.

Stand-alone quotations happen when we include a direct quotation without using some of our own writing to connect that quotation to the rest of the paragraph. Although it is grammatically correct, appropriately formatted, and properly cited, we need to use some of our own writing at the beginning or the end of the sentence to tie the quotation into our writing and to eliminate the stand-alone quotation. For example, using APA Style:

According to the article Study: Women with BRCA1 mutations should remove ovaries by 35, “Researchers found that women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations who protectively had their ovaries removed reduced their risk of ovarian, fallopian tube, or peritoneal cancer by 80%, and their overall risk of death by 77%” (Falco and Ford, 2014).

How we tie-in the direct quotation is up to us as writers. In the above example, we used it as a place to identify the title of the article – which is a great strategy if we are mentioning the source for the first time. In other situations, we may tie-in the quotation by analyzing it or working it into the natural flow of our sentence. The options are endless – but we need that tie-in to avoid leaving the quotation standing alone! We need to tie-in the quotation regardless of if we are writing in MLA Style or APA Style – the only difference would be the parenthetical citation!

Grammar Tips: Identifying & Correcting Sentence Fragments

What is a sentence fragment? 

A sentence fragment contains no independent clause. It fails to be a sentence because it lacks the necessary components to stand on its own. Sentence fragments can be difficult to recognize for a number of reasons:  

  1. The fragment may locate something in time and place while still lacking a proper subject-verb relationship within an independent clause. 
    1. Example: In my room, under the bed. 
    2. Correct: The book is in my room, under the bed. 
  2. The fragment may describe something without a proper subject-verb relationship. 
    1. Example: Running up the hill as quickly as he could. 
    2. Correct: He took off running up the hill as quickly as he could. 
  3. The fragment may be a mostly complete sentence while still missing an important piece. 
    1. Example: Some of the students in the nursing program. 
    2. Correct: Some of the students in the nursing program will graduate soon. 
  4. The fragment has an appropriate subject-verb relationship, but it includes a dependent word and needs more work before it can stand on itself. 
    1. Example: Even though the lawyer was prepared. 
    2. Correct: Even though the lawyer was prepared, the case was postponed. 

In all of the above examples, more information is needed to make the sentence complete. When evaluating your own work for sentence fragments, try reading the paper out loud. Make sure that each sentence has a subject and a verb, and that each sentence fully communicates the main idea. For more practice recognizing and correcting sentence fragments, click here!

Thesis Statements

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a sentence (or, sometimes, a couple of sentences) within the introduction of an essay. This sentence needs to show the reader where the essay is going; it should identify the writer’s scope and focus, and provide the reader with a general understanding of the writer’s overall approach in the paper. A thesis statement is a contract between the writer and the reader. Writers should uphold that contract by delivering whatever was promised in the thesis statement.

Thesis statements should also be defensible, they should not be obvious, and they should pass the “So What?” test. As The Whitman College Writing Center’s most recent blog post, “Cathy wears blue pants” explains, writers want to construct a thesis statement that is non-obvious and highly defensible. They provide some general examples to explain:

Thesis 1: Cathy wears blue pants.

This thesis statement is very obvious and not very defensible. As it is descriptive, it is stating a fact that does not need further elaboration. Cathy wears blue pants in the novel, and our sentence illustrates this for the reader. Since this sentence is so obvious, it leaves little room for our writer to defend it and it does not give them much to work with as they begin to develop the body of their essay.

Thesis 2: Cathy likes the color blue, because she is found wearing blue pants in every scene in the book.

In this revised example, the thesis statement is less obvious and more defensible. The reader is inferring that, as Cathy is shown wearing blue pants frequently, she must like the color blue. This is something that would not have been stated directly in the novel, and the writer is identifying it as something significant.

There is only one problem. This thesis statement does not pass the “So What?” test. When reviewing this thesis statement, readers can understand that Cathy wears blue pants and possibly likes the color blue, but the writer has provided no indication of the significance of this data. This allows readers to ask “So What?” or “Why does it matter if Cathy likes the color blue?”, showing that the thesis statement needs further development. The writer needs to identify the significance of Cathy and her choice of blue pants for the reader, as this is something that they would address and defend within their essay.

Thesis 3: Cathy tends to wear blue pants because of her deceased mother’s affinity for the sea.

While it could still benefit from further development, the third thesis statement shows the most promise. In this thesis statement, readers can observe that Cathy wears blue pants, but they are also shown why Cathy wears blue pants, and the writer has begun to develop their reasoning and analysis here. They have started to answer the “So What?” question posed when considering the second example, but they would want to push a bit further here to fully illustrate the importance of this topic and to begin to show where they are going in their essay.

 Thesis Statement Tips:

  • When constructing your thesis statement, first determine the type of assignment. An analytical paper will have a different approach (and a different thesis) than an argumentative paper! Make sure that your thesis is in line with your assignment.
  • Thesis statements should be specific! Your thesis statement should only include ideas or points that you will cover in your paper, and you should be able to support these points with specific evidence.
  • Thesis statements should appear in the first paragraph – or introduction – of your essay. In some cases, placing your thesis statement as the last sentence of your introduction allows it to function as an effective transition from that introduction into the first body paragraph.
  • You can always change your thesis! As you are writing and researching, your approach to your topic may change and it may be necessary to revise your thesis statement accordingly. This is okay!


APA Style & In-Text Citations

In APA style, outside information is cited within a text using an author-date citation system, where the writer includes the author’s (or authors’) last name (without suffixes, such as Jr.) and the year of publication. As the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010) explains, “[t]his style of citation briefly identifies the source for the reader and enables them to locate the source of information in the alphabetical reference list” (p. 174) at the end of the text. Any source used within the text must be referenced with an in-text citation in the text itself, and a full citation in the reference list.

Writers have different options when including in-text citations. While the author’s last name and the year of publication must appear where the source is used, writers can integrate this material in a variety of ways. For example:

Among epidemiological samples, Kessler (2003) found that early onset social anxiety disorder results in a more potent and severe course. …The study also showed that there was a high rate of comorbidity with alcohol abuse or dependence and major depression (Kessler, 2003).

In the above example, the writer included their in-text citation in two different ways. First, they note the author’s last name in their initial sentence to introduce the source that they are incorporating. The year, in parenthesis, then appears after the author’s last name. At the end of their paragraph, they include a paraphrase from the same source, but they do not include the author’s last name as part of the sentence itself. In this case, both the author’s last name and the year must appear in the parenthetical citation.

When a writer is included a direct quotation (as opposed to a summary or paraphrase of the information from the source), they need to include the author’s last name, the year of publication, and the page number/s where the quoted material appears in the source. The parenthetical citation containing the page number must directly follow the quote itself, while the other information may be included in different areas. For example:

Confusing this issue is the overlapping nature of roles in palliative care, whereby “medical needs are met by those in the medical disciplines; nonmedical needs may be addressed by anyone on the team” (Calaski & Chaitin, 2006, p. 112).

In 2006, Calaski & Chaitin discussed the overlapping nature of roles in palliative care, noting that “medical needs are met by those in the medical disciplines; nonmedical needs may be addressed by anyone on the team” (p. 112).

Calaski & Chaitin (2006) commented on the overlapping nature of roles in palliative care by explaining that “medical needs are met by those in the medical disciplines; nonmedical needs may be addressed by anyone on the team” (p. 112).

In the first example, the writer does not mention the authors’ last names in the sentence, so they must include the authors’ last names, the year, and the page number where the quoted material appeared in their parenthetical citation –(Calaski & Chaitin, 2006, p.112). In the second example, the writer includes the authors’ last names and the year in the sentence itself, so they need only include the page number in their parenthetical citation – (p. 112). In the last example, the authors’ last names are included in the sentence, and the year follows. The parenthetical citation noting the page number should always appear directly after the quoted material.

Notes on APA style in-text citations:

  • When using a long quotation (of 40 or more words) the quoted material should be included as a free-standing block of text, and the writer should omit the quotation marks. The block quotation will begin on a new line, and it should be indented ½” from the left margin (like beginning a new paragraph). Each line of the quoted passage is indented.
  • When using a work with multiple authors, follow these rules:
    • Two authors: cite both names every time the reference occurs in the text.
      • Example: (Smith & Carter, 2005, p. 12)
  • Three, four, or five authors: cite all authors the first time the reference occurs in the text. In subsequent citations, include only the last name of the first author followed by “et al.” and the year.
    • Example: First: (Kisangau, Lyaruu, Hosea, and Joseph, 2007, p. 10)
    • Example: Subsequent: (Kisangau et al., 2007, p. 10)
  • Six or more authors: cite only the last name of the first author followed by “et al.” and the year in the first and all subsequent citations.
    • Example: (Davis et al., 2012, p. 20)
    • Writers should not omit citations embedded within the original material that they are quoting.  It is not necessary to include the additional source within the list of references (unless the noted source is used as a primary source elsewhere in the text).
      • Example: “In the United States, the American Cancer Society (2007) estimated that about 1 million cases of NMSC and 59,940 cases of melanoma would be diagnosed in 2007, with melanoma resulting in 8,110 deaths” (Miller et al., 2009, p. 209).
      • Many electronic sources do not provide page numbers. If paragraph numbers are visible or available, use them in place of page numbers, using para instead of p. – (para. 4).
      • Chapter 6 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association includes more information and examples for different writing and citing situations.


MLA Style & In-Text Citations

In MLA Style, outside information is cited within a text using an author-page number citation system, where the writer includes the author’s (or authors’) last name and the page number where the information appeared in the publication. As the “Documenting Sources” chapter in A Writer’s Reference notes “MLA recommends in-text citations that refer the readers to a list of works cited. A typical in-text citation names the author of the source, often in a signal phrase, and gives a page number in parentheses. At the end of the paper, a list of works cited provides publication information about the source” (Hacker and Sommers 388-89).

The above quotation from Hacker and Sommers would correspond with the following Works Cited entry:

Hacker, Diana and Nancy L. Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.

Any source used within the text, whether included in the form of a quotation, summary, or paraphrase, must be referenced with an in-text citation in the text itself, and with the corresponding full citation in the Works Cited list at the end of the text.

As Hacker and Sommers discuss in A Writer’s Reference, there are different ways that writers can include this citation information within the body of their writing. First, writers can choose to include the author’s name in a signal phrase. A signal phrase is a phrase, clause, or sentence that introduces a quotation, paraphrase, or summary. Including the author’s name in a signal phrase prepares readers for the source and allows writers to include only the page number in the parenthetical citation. For example:

Frederick Lane reports that employers do not necessary have to use software to monitor how their employees use the Web: employers can “use a hidden video camera pointed at an employee’s monitor” and even position a camera “so that a number of monitors [can] be viewed at the same time” (147).

Since Frederick Lane is the name of the author, and the writer has used his name in the signal phrase within the actual sentence, only the page number is included in the parenthetical citation. If a signal phrase does not name the author, then both the author’s last name and the page number need to be included in parentheses at the end of the sentence; no punctuation is needed between the author’s last name and the page number. For example:

Companies can monitor employees’ every keystroke without legal penalty, but they may have to combat low morale as a result (Lane 129).

In the previous example, the writer chose not to include Lane’s last name within the sentence itself, so both the last name and the page number must appear in the parenthetical citation. Often, the author’s name is used in the signal phrase when information from the source is first included – and many writers also incorporate the title of the publication as well. In subsequent references, writers can choose between the above examples according to their preference.

MLA Style in-text citations differ slightly when dealing with sources with no known author or page number. When dealing with a source without a known author, use the complete title when referencing the source in a signal phrase, and use a shortened version of the title when referencing the source in parentheses. For example:

According to the article “10 Minute Vegetable Chili,” not only is the dish delicious and vegetarian friendly, it is also “healthy and super easy to make” (3).

Vegetable chili, a delicious and vegetarian friendly dish, is “healthy and super easy to make” (“10 Minute” 3).

When dealing with a source without a known page number, such as a Web source, do not include the page number in the parenthetical citation. If using a PDF of an article available through a website, use the page number included in the PDF. If a source does not have page numbers but does include numbered paragraphs (“par.” or “pars.”) or sections (“sec.” or “secs.”), use these in place of the page number in the parenthetical citation. For example:

As a 2005 study by Salary.com and American Online indicates, the Internet ranked as the top choice among employees for ways of wasting time on the job; it beat talking with co-workers – the second most popular method – by a margin of nearly two to one (Frauenheim).


As Jacobs explains, “[t]he stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet” (par. 2).

Notes on MLA Style in-text citations:

  • When including a quotation in the text, it will appear as either a long quotation or a short quotation.
    • A long quotation is any quotation that is longer than four typed lines of prose (most standard writing) or three typed lines of verse (plays, poems, song lyrics, etc.). Set off long quotations by indenting and double-spacing the entire quotation. Quotation marks are not needed, but an in-text citation should follow.
    • A short quotation is any quotation that is shorter than four typed lines of prose or three lines of verse. Short quotations are included as a part of the original sentence, with the quoted material surrounded by quotations marks and an in-text citation at the end of the sentence.
  • When using a work with multiple authors:
    • Two authors: Name the authors in the signal phrase or include their last names in parentheses.
      • Kizza and Ssanyu note… (2).
      • (Kizza and Ssanyu 2).
    • Three authors: Name the authors in the signal phrase or include their last names in parentheses, separating their last names with commas.
      • Alton, Davies, and Rice… (56).
      • (Alton, Davies, and Rice 56).
    • Four or more authors: Name all of the authors or include only the first author’s name followed by “et al.” The format that you use should match the format in your Works Cited entry.
      • (Blaine, Martin, Smith and Springer 35)
      • (Blaine et al. 35)
  • Sometimes, an organization or corporation may be the author of the source. Name the organization or corporation in the signal phrase or parenthetical citation.
    • According to a 2001 survey of human resources managers by the American Management Association…. (2).
    • According to a 2001 survey of human resources managers… (American Management Association 2).

The Five Paragraph Essay

The five paragraph essay is a classic format for composition. While the five paragraph essay is not the only format for writing an essay, it is a useful model to keep in mind, as it can help in many writing situations, like in-class essay writing, essay exams, or essays with shorter page requirements.

The five paragraph essay format includes:

  • An introduction
  • Three focused body paragraphs
  • A conclusion

Imagine, for example, that you are asked to write an argument essay where, in two pages, you must present your argument with three supporting points. A five paragraph essay format is a great technique to employ in this situation. Here’s why:

  • 1st Paragraph: Introduction: First, in the introduction, you can generally introduce your topic to your reader, moving into your thesis statement, which will contain the basis for your argument and some indication of the direction you are going in. Here, you can work on getting your reader interested in the topic (by beginning generally) and then transition them into your specific argument (by moving them into a strong thesis statement).
  • 2nd Paragraph: First Body Paragraph/First Point: In this first body paragraph (but remember, this is your second actual paragraph), go into the strongest point. In this case, we would use this paragraph to discuss and develop the strongest point in support of our argument. The first sentence of this paragraph, the topic sentence, will identify this point for the reader. Then, we want to fill in the details and use examples (from research, etc.) to support the point. Finally, the last sentence should start transitioning the reader into the next paragraph.
  • 3rd Paragraph: Second Body Paragraph/Second Point: In our second body paragraph (third actual paragraph, incuding the introduction!), we want to go into our second strongest point. In this case, we would present the second strongest point in support of our argument or position. We again would identify this point in the first sentence (the topic sentence), support it throughout the paragraph, and conclude the paragraph with a sentence that includes a transitional ”hook” into the next paragraph.
  • 4th Paragraph: Third Body Paragraph/Third Point: This is our last body paragraph, and it will present our last point. This paragraph may contain our weakest point, or the next logical point to make after the completion of the previous paragraph. Again, we would introduce this point in our topic sentence, illustrate it throughout the paragraph, and end with a sentence that transitions the reader into our final paragraph – the conclusion.
  • 5th Paragraph: Conclusion:  Our last paragraph is our conclusion. In our conclusion, we want to consider where we began in our introduction. We can imitate any introductory strategies in this conclusion to create a frame around our larger essay (ex. if we began with a question in the introduction, we might return to that question in our conclusion to create a frame). Then, we can briefly touch on our thesis and the three main points that we have made in our three body paragraphs (without just copying and pasting them!), and end our conclusion by leaving the reader with something to think about.

By following the five paragraph essay format, we have easily made sure that we have an introduction, three paragraphs in support of our main idea, and a conclusion. Each paragraph should stay focused on the topic or task identified for that paragraph. The introduction introduces, the body paragraphs develop one point as identified in the topic sentence, and the conclusion concludes, providing a wrap-up of the overall conversation. The great thing about the five paragraph essay format is that it is easy to modify for longer projects – just add in additional body paragraphs as needed!

Deconstructing the Prompt & Assignment Description

Facing your blank page or blank computer screen can often be one of the most challenging and daunting steps in the writing process. There are two things that you can do to make it easier to get started. First, brainstorming ideas about your overall topic can help tremendously! As discussed in our earlier blog post on Brainstorming Techniques, brainstorming not only helps you come up with details and ideas regarding your topic, but it can also can help you determine the structure and scope of your writing. It can also help you realize what you do and do not know, revealing areas where more research or reflection may be needed.

While brainstorming is incredibly helpful for generating ideas and finding a direction for your writing, there is one other thing that you want to keep in mind as you get started on any writing assignment: the assignment prompt and description. Usually, when students are completing a writing project, the instructor has provided a prompt or description containing details about the assignment and what the student should do to complete the assignment. Often, this is not a simple one-sentence prompt or question, but rather a paragraph or several paragraphs. Anything included in the assignment description provides information for the writer, although it may seem difficult to determine what the professor is getting at.

Before beginning a writing assignment, you want to make sure to deconstruct the assignment prompt and description. You can think about the prompt as doing two things. First, there is undoubtedly something (such as a question or statement) that asks you to take an argument or stance on something.  This shows you what type of writing you should do. For example, a question or statement posing two positions on a topic and asking you to identify with one of the positions indicates that you will want to take an argumentative approach. This is different from a question or statement that asks you to consider what you have learned from a particular reading or class activity, where a more reflective approach is in order. Paying close attention to the guiding statement or question in the prompt helps you to determine what type of writing you need to do – and this can greatly improve the focus and purpose of your writing.

Secondly, any additional material outside of the guiding statement or question is worthy of consideration as well. Any additional information that your instructor provides in the prompt is there to show you what course material (from class meetings or outside readings) that you should tie in, or what points you should make. This lets you know what you want to be sure to include in your writing assignment. For example, a writing assignment may ask you to make an argument on a particular topic in its initial guiding statement or question. In the additional material, though, the instructor may specify chapters or readings that you need to consider or include, or they may provide you with a structure to follow as you write and different points that you want to make as you progress through the assignment. For these reasons, it is incredibly important to consider all of the information in the assignment prompt or description – and not just the guiding statement or question!

If you cannot see a connection between the initial guiding question or statement and the additional material, you are not sure how to address or include everything that you need to, or you just want to make sure you are on the right track, speak with your instructor or visit the Writing Center for assistance! And don’t forget to brainstorm!

Brainstorming Techniques

Have you ever had difficulty getting started on an assignment? You might sit at your desk and stare at your pen and paper or computer for hours as you try to decide where to begin and what to write about. Brainstorming ideas can help to generate ideas for an assignment, which can help you decide where to begin and how to structure your assignment. Different students have different preferences when it comes to brainstorming – and different assignments may even require different approaches. Today, we will review some common brainstorming techniques and how to use them.


Freewriting is one of the easiest brainstorming techniques. To freewrite, you just have to write. Don’t know what to write about? Write about anything that comes to mind regarding your topic! This can help you generate ideas, decide on a direct for your assignment, and determine what you already know and what you don’t know about your topic. Some tips for freewriting:

  • Set a goal for yourself. Write for five minutes straight. Write 500 words. Just write!
  • Do not worry about your spelling, punctuation, or grammar. You can address that later!
  • Do not worry about if your sentence ‘sounds good’ or not. Get the ideas down first, and you can work on your word choice later.
  • Try to turn off your inner editor or critic. Don’t worry if you jump around; it’s all about getting those ideas out there!


Researching is another common brainstorming technique. This can be helpful if you are having difficulty choosing a topic, or if you know what you need to write about but you are having trouble picking a direction. Conducting even preliminary research can help you determine what has already been said on your topic; this can make it easier to decide what you want focus on in your assignment. Some tips when researching:

  • Keep your assignment requirements in mind. If your assignment calls for research, this brainstorming technique will help you to generate ideas and acquire possible sources for use in your assignment.
  • Know what you’re working with and what you need to do. If you need to use scholarly sources, stick to academic journals and books. If you are free to use whatever sources you would like, consider not only academic journals and books, but also magazines, newspapers, internet articles, and even films! There are even a number of documentaries on YouTube that can provide you with good information or ideas.
  • Keep track of your research! Keep a list of the information that you come across or any points that you find interesting. Keep track of any information that you may want to include in your finished assignment – this will make it easier to develop your Works Cited or References page later on!
  • Don’t just look on Google! Utilize the online library to gain access to library databases, books, and more!
  • If you are having trouble researching your topic, set up an appointment with a research librarian. They are always happy to help students navigate through the many available resources.


Clustering and Webbing can work well for more visual learners. With either technique, you draw a cluster of circles or a web of shapes and use your visual representation to help you generate ideas. Some tips for clustering or making a web:

  • Start with your main idea in the center. This main idea should represent the focal point of your assignment. It may be your research question, your overall topic, the term or concept that you were instructed to write about – whatever is at the heart of your assignment.
  • Branch out from your main idea using clusters of circles or by expanding your web. After you have developed your main idea, try to develop supporting ideas and examples. For each supporting idea or example, branch out again to include major and minor details.
  • Try to include every possible supporting point or example that you can think of and brainstorm ideas for each point. Then, when you have finished your cluster or web, go back through it. Select the points that you know that you want to write about. Eliminate the points that you do not want or need to include.
  • Use your finished cluster or web to help you structure your assignment. Arrange your supporting points in a logical manner, and use your major and minor details to help you as you write. Try to focus at least one paragraph on each supporting point (although you may need more than one paragraph in some occasions).


When cubing, you are approaching your topic from different perspectives to better see the whole picture. Cubing can be particularly helpful when you have an assigned topic or you already have an idea. The cubing process helps you to brainstorm different ways of approaching your topic, which can allow you to decide the scope and focus of your essay more easily. Tips for cubing:

  • Consider your topic from all perspectives. Ask yourself:
    • What is it?
    • What is it like or unlike?
    • What does it make you think of?
    • What is it made of?
    • How can it be used?
    • How can you support it or oppose it?
  • You could also break your topic down according to three categories:
    • The topic & its features, parts, challenges, etc.
    • The history of the topic & its evolution
    • The topic’s influences, & things the topic has influenced

    These four brainstorming techniques can help you to develop ideas and even decide on the scope and focus of your writing. Use these brainstorming techniques to generate ideas and avoid Writer’s Block! If you are having difficulty starting an assignment or you are having trouble brainstorming ideas, feel free to schedule an appointment in the Writing Center! We’re always happy to help!