My Personal Tips for Success in Writing Seminar

Even before stepping foot on campus, I had already heard of the challenges that came with the Writing Seminar, the first-year writing requirement. Students are able to rank by preference several Writing Seminars covering different topics, which have included topics such as WRI 116: Sustainable Futures and WRI 159: Gray Matter. In each of these Writing Seminars, students develop their writing skills through a research focus, writing three research papers throughout the semester. As Writing Seminars are such a widely discussed topic for first-years and there is an abundance of advice from juniors and seniors floating around, I wanted to write a more detailed article specifically about what I did to learn how to write.

Picture of the flowchart I created for my R2; tip #3, use whiteboards!

What exactly does it mean to learn how to write? Writing Seminar teaches a certain writing style that is catered to prepare students in writing strong academic papers, whether in their future classes, their junior papers, or their senior theses. I didn’t have much experience in writing academic papers prior to coming to Princeton, as I was taught to use a 5 paragraph essay formula for practically any essay.

The assignments in each Writing Seminar are structured in a total of 3 drafts and 3 corresponding revisions labeled as D1, D2, and D3 for the drafts and R1, R2, and R3 for the revisions. Due to the intensity of the writing and opportunity for practice, many students experience immense writing growth from their D1 to their R3 paper. For the R1, the prompt is more limited and sources are given to you, whereas with the R2, you are given more freedom for the topic and only some sources are provided. By the R3, you are expected to write a research paper entirely on a topic of your choice and conduct the necessary research to support your paper. The main distinction between the different papers is that the R1 is 3-5 pages long, the R2 is 6-8 pages, and the R3 is 10-12 pages long and you have increasing flexibility with essay topics with each paper. These increasing lengths are meant to parallel both the flexibility in topics and sources as well as the writing techniques that are learned throughout the year.

It wasn’t hard to realize why Princeton required first-years to take a Writing Seminar. On the first day of Writing Seminar, we spent the beginning of class discussing how we were taught to write. Almost everyone in my class responded with the 5-paragraph formulaic essay style with a thesis, paragraph topic sentences, and conclusion paragraphs. This is a common structure taught in elementary through high school that simplifies the writing process that helps students transition from summaries to essays based on generating analysis.

Example of a formulaic essay style

  • Introduction + Thesis: I’m arguing about something because of reason 1, reason 2, and reason 3.
  • Body Paragraph 1 + Topic Sentence 1: I’m arguing about something because of reason 1. 
  • Body Paragraph 2 + Topic Sentence 2: I’m arguing about something because of reason 2. 
  • Body Paragraph 3 + Topic Sentence 3: I’m arguing about something because of reason 3. 
  • Conclusion: In conclusion, the topic I’m arguing about is something because of reason 1, reason 2, and reason 3.

Coming into my writing seminar, WRI 113 Craft of Authenticity, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but we quickly hit the ground running (or writing), and I was beginning to work on my D1 within the first two weeks of school. Craft of Authenticity had a more hands-on aspect to it compared to some other writing seminars, mostly for the R1, as we had to create a crafts project that would serve as the focus of our essay. I personally wrote about the juxtaposition of machine-drawn art versus hand-drawn art. The R2 topic was on Etsy supported by a choice of articles from a variety of sources. The R3 had an open-ended topic related to a craft. For the R2, I wrote about Etsy greenwashing investors through misleading Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) reports. For my R3, I wrote about film tourism through the audio-visual components of Weathering with You, an animation by Makoto Shinkai.

I learned a lot through my Writing Seminar; here are a few of my personal tips to guide you through yours.

  1. Writing Lexicon is your best friend

If I’m being honest, I probably didn’t understand the terms on the Writing Lexicon, a document of all the writing terms you need to know to write your essay, until I began writing my R2. Every student in Writing Seminar is given a Writing Lexicon at the beginning of the year, and you go over the terms in class and the writing conventions attached to them. It was extremely helpful to just have the Writing Lexicon out for reference while writing to remind me of certain terms. For example, some terms I found incredibly helpful were orientation (italicize orientation), which helps encapsulate the knowledge the reader needs to know in the introduction to understand the rest of the paper; motive, to validate the need for such a research paper; and to write in a scaffolding structure, which was helpful to remind me to build upon my points, rather than fall back on the formulaic essay structure I was taught. I would take some time before writing to go through the Writing Lexicon and write out the essential elements of your paper such as the thesis, motive, and identifying strong evidence and analysis to pair.

  1. Writing Center, Peers, and Professors

The Writing Center is extremely helpful mostly in terms of being able to talk to someone to walk through your ideas with and make sure you are writing in a way that builds upon the rest of your arguments. At the beginning of your appointment, some Writing Fellows will have you put your paper or ideas into an outline of what you think each paragraph is saying or write your thesis in the form of a magic thesis statement.

Magic Thesis Statement: By looking at _____, we can see _____, which most readers don’t see; this is important because _____.

I remember having come up with many strong ideas regarding my papers, which translates to stronger writing because I was able to talk through my sequence of ideas and ensure that I had the building blocks to write a strong paper.

Your peers and professors will also offer feedback for every draft, so make sure you utilize the feedback to improve your revisions. What I found to be the most helpful was to talk to my professor. Before many of the revisions that I made, my professor was willing to meet with me almost every day, and I utilized the time to walk her through everything that I was thinking. She then offered suggestions on directions I could take and how to make connections across sources and ideas. Your professor is one of your greatest resources, as they are the only people that can provide feedback on the content of your paper outside of the feedback transition period from drafts to revision.

I’m extremely grateful to have had such great resources at my disposal as they were instrumental in helping me write strong papers. You can take advantage of these resources as well!

  1. Use whiteboards

I’ve never used a whiteboard more than I did when I was in Writing Seminar. I constantly had information in my head and struggled to formulate concrete ideas, which made dumping it all on a whiteboard ideal as I could visually see what I was working with. My biggest writing improvement was the jump from my R1 to my R2, as I believe that this is where I realized how to structure my ideas in a scaffolding manner, ideas that build upon each other that drive the reader towards the main argument. As you can see in my flow chart at the top of the article, I had three main ideas built upon each other and were supported or situated by several other sources. Whiteboards make it easy to brain dump anything you might be thinking, which could be how you find really strong ideas, and also turn your essay into a visual chart to allow you to better walk your reader through your line of reasoning, evidence, and analysis. 

  1. Understand your position as a writer

Finally, there was a source that we call “The Gaipa Reading” which was supplementary material meant to teach us how to gain authority as a writer. This reading helped me understand my position as a writer and how to approach writing in a way that presented the readers with the current scholarship (here’s what is currently out there) and walked them through how I arrived at my argument (here’s what I think based on these sources). This was especially helpful in using the “piggyback” method, which was to ride off the authority of other authors by utilizing and building off of their sources. This writing method made a critical difference between my R1 and R2 because I understood why I needed to make a shift from writing arguments based on “logic” or ones that “made sense” from a readerly perspective to arguments fully supported by more credible experts in a field. Learning to do this is essential to learning “how to write”.

  1. Final Thoughts

I remember it being a very challenging process, but I find that my writing is monumentally better than when I first came to college. Remember that the resources you need are always around you. You just need to learn to take advantage and make the most of them. Good luck with everything and wishing you the best! 

— Shannon Yeow, Engineering Correspondent