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Writing Guide

See also: - writing guide represents professional step-by-step tips how to write good essays, term papers and even dissertations.


This guide is meant to assist students with the mechanics of writing assignments and studying at home. Like many publications of Henson College, it will be revised regularly, so please let us know which parts of it are most and least useful to you.

Please pay particular attention to the section on "Avoiding Plagiarism." Every year students suffer penalties because they have handed in assignments containing other writers' work without giving proper recognition to the writer. In some cases, this has happened because the student simply did not know the standard academic practices to follow. Because it is such a serious academic offence, students must make themselves aware of the definition and consequences of plagiarism. Fortunately, it is very easy to avoid making this error.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is one of the most serious academic offences a scholar can commit. It is also, unfortunately, much more widespread than many of us realize. While some students plagiarize with conscious intent, others do it without realizing they are doing anything wrong. In either case, assignments containing plagiarism cannot be accepted by Henson College for marking.

To put it simply, plagiarism means taking someone else's words or ideas and presenting them as if they were your own. This is not only discourteous to the original writer, it is dishonest to your reader, and unethical in general.

Generally, whenever you use more than two or three words in a row that you know to be another writer's, you must give that writer credit for having thought of them first. Furthermore, changing a few words, or the order of words in a sentence, does not make it your own; you must still cite the original source.

Even your course modules should be considered another writer's work. If you use a sentence or part of a sentence from one of your modules, you must enclose it in quotation marks and provide a reference. Try to use your own words to show, not only that you read and understood the module, but that you are able to use its information to make statements of your own. However, you must still acknowledge, by using a footnote or an endnote, the thoughts or ideas found in the course material that you wish to use in your assignments.

There are a number of acceptable methods for citing sources. One of the most common is to use footnotes, as described in Section 9.2 (link) of the Student Regulations. Please keep it in mind that the College imposes penalties for plagiarism (link to Plagiarism, Section 2.4 in the Student Regulations).

If you are unsure of how to cite a source, contact your course instructor.

Tips on Writing Assignments

(This section is adapted and reproduced with permission from The Open Learning Fire Service Program, 1750 New York Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.)

Much of your course work involves absorbing knowledge--you help to make it "your own" when you write about what you have learned.

Putting your thoughts down on paper requires you to think through the material --to weigh and consider what you have learned and to organize the information into a coherent whole. Writing requires clear and logical thought; it is a vital part of the learning process.

Most people, even professional writers, find writing difficult. Sinclair Lewis, the American novelist, once wrote: "Writing is just work --there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or write with your toes--it is still work." If you find yourself seated at your desk, facing a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, be comforted to know you aren't alone. The strategies outlined in the next few pages may make writing easier for you.

The writing process can be divided into three stages: pre-writing, writing, and editing. Let's look at each of these stages in turn.


(1) Read Assignment

The pre-writing stage should begin as soon as you sit down with your course. Before you start the assigned reading for a module, read over the written assignment questions provided in your module. Be sure you understand exactly what the questions ask and keep them in mind when you read the pertinent course material. As you go through the module, you may want to underline or write down notes on information relating to the questions. By reading the material with the questions in minds, you are one step ahead in writing your answers.

(2) Type of Response

Once you have finished reading the relevant material, you are ready to tackle the written assignment directly. Re-read the question carefully and decide what type of response it requires. Let the question help you organize your response: it may require a descriptive answer, an analytical response, or perhaps a combination of the two. Look at the following example question.

Q. Find out the kinds of apparatus operated by the fire district in which you live or work. If you could change the configuration without increasing the capital invested, what pieces of apparatus would you select? Why?

To answer this question, first describe the kind of apparatus used. Next, use your analytical skills to make and defend your judgement.

(3) Gathering Information

After you have determined what type of response the question requires, begin gathering your material. The first part of the question requires that you go outside your course modules and textbook to gather information on the fire apparatus in your district. Once you have acquired this data, proceed to the analytical phase of the assignment. Re-read the relevant underlined sections of your text and/or notes. You should always include the source of the information.

Begin "brainstorming." Write down all the ideas on the subject that come to mind, including those you've noted or underlined in your text. Don't bother to list points in order; simply write down the ideas as fast as they come to you. At this stage, you are merely gathering data.

(4) Organizing Your Thoughts

Once you have collected your thoughts, you are ready for the next stage: organizing. You need to group and categorize your ideas. Suppose you were trying to convince a friend of the benefits of full-time employment. After "brainstorming" for a few minutes you came up with the following list:

To make your case as effective as possible, give shape to these points by categorizing or grouping similar items under general headings. See the following outline:

Advantages of Working Full-time

  1. 1. Job security
  2. 2. Fringe benefits
    (i) Liberal leave policy
    (ii) Life insurance, health, and retirement programs (iii) Credit union membership
    (iv) Tuition reimbursement possibilities
  3. 3. Possibility for Advancement

Notice how easily the eye follows the categorized list. The material is absorbed quickly because the writer has grouped the items in an orderly way and, in the process, has distinguished between major and minor points.

The usefulness of outlining is often questioned by inexperienced writers. They view the outline as just another unnecessary step in the already lengthy writing process. Most professional writers, on the contrary, believe that the outline ultimately saves time. Once you have worked out a plan for your paper, you know, in essence, what you are going to say. You have a plan of action for your paper. It is a guide that will prevent you from going off on tangents. Flaws in logic are much easier to spot in a one-page outline than they are in a four-page paper. Outlining gives you control over your material.

(5) Thesis Statements

The essence of your paper--your purpose in writing it and the overall point you wish to make--should be stated clearly in the first few sentences or thesis statements.

Many of your assignments will require that you organize your answers in thesis statements. Take, for example, the following assignment question.

Q. How does strategic planning assist the fire chief with budget planning?

By the time you have completed gathering information and outlining phases, you should be able to sum up your conclusion in a concise thesis statement.

A. Strategic planning assists the fire chief with budget planning in the following ways. [You fill in the blank]

Other assignments--those basically descriptive in nature --will require a slightly different approach. Instead of writing a thesis statement, you need to compose a sentence that outlines what the paper will cover. Remember, when your assignment is descriptive rather than analytical, a thesis statement is inappropriate. Descriptive assignment questions require a direct purpose statement, as in the example below.

A. My purpose in this paper is to outline a budget process for the Dieppe, New Brunswick Fire Department.

In summary, the pre-writing stage of the writing process involves three steps:

  1. gathering information
  2. organizing the information into an outline
  3. writing either a thesis or direct purpose statement.

Once you have completed these three steps, the hardest work is behind you; you now have a plan and can concentrate on the actual writing of your paper.


Your job as a writer is to communicate your ideas to the reader. Communicating--whether verbally or in writing--is always difficult. It is especially difficult for the writer, because, unlike a speaker, he or she does not have the benefit of instant feedback. If you are explaining something to your supervisor and a puzzled look crosses his or her face, you pause for a moment and further clarify your point. The writer does not have that luxury; you make the point clearly the first time around or the reader may get lost.

For writing to be clear, it should be concise. But conciseness is not necessarily synonymous with brevity. Certain subjects require detailed discussion. Depending on the topic discussed and the amount of detail needed, a five-page letter could be concise and a one-paragraph letter wordy. The concise writer makes every word count. Write simply, directly, and avoid pretentious, jargon-filled sentences.

Franklin D. Roosevelt hated pompous language; he was so annoyed by the following memo that he rewrote it and sent it back to the author. The memo described what federal workers were to do in case of an emergency:

Such preparation shall be made as will completely obscure all federal and non-federal buildings occupied by the federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by blackout construction or by termination of the illumination.

F.D.R.'s revision:

Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and, in buildings where they can let the work stop for awhile, turn out the lights. [Reprinted from Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.), pp. 38-39.]

When you write, don't allow yourself to get caught up in a web of words. Write naturally, directly, and concisely.

As you prepare your written assignments, it may help to organize your material into three categories: introduction, body, and conclusion. Let's discuss these elements in more detail.

(1) Introduction

In an introduction, a writer usually introduces the topic to be discussed, perhaps limiting it or commenting on it, and then includes the paper's purpose or thesis statement.

Sometimes thesis statements preview the main divisions of the paper. Read over the following introductory paragraph from a paper urging federal aid for animal communication research:

Men talking to dolphins, chimpanzees using sign language and coloured plastic shapes to communicate, and a gorilla "talking" through a computer--all these events have been possible through the dedication of people who believe communication with animals is part of man's future. However, animal communication research needs government subsidy in order to continue and expand. This is an important area of research because the teaching techniques can be applied in other areas, and because there may be valuable spin-offs developed from the research as it progresses.

Notice how the author introduces the subject and then leads down to the paper's three-part thesis. The three points serve as the major divisions of the paper. For some of the assignment questions you are asked to answer, such a thesis preview statement would be appropriate. Take, for example, the following question:

Q. What are the management functions involved with the implementation of an effective fire prevention program?

In your opening paragraph, you would introduce the subject, mentioning the importance of management in implementing an effective fire prevention program. You would then conclude the paragraph with a statement identifying the major management functions involved with the implementation of an effective fire prevention program. The last statement would serve as a preview thesis statement with each of the functions mentioned serving as major divisions of the paper.

Writers usually do not submit outlines with their papers; instead, they use the outline as an aid to help them write. A thesis statement, especially one that previews the paper, prepares the reader for what is to follow; it warns the reader to look for certain things. It ultimately adds clarity.

(2) Body

Once you have decided on the paper's main point, worked out a logical structure, and composed the introductory paragraph, you are ready to compose the meat of the paper.

Paragraph Divisions

Think for a moment why paragraphs are needed to develop a paper. If you have ever tried to read an unparagraphed two- or three-page essay, the reason is very clear. Paragraph divisions help the reader see the structure of the paper. They tell the reader where a new thought begins.

A paragraph should meet certain requirements. It should be unified, developed, and coherent. Let's briefly discuss the elements of effective paragraphs.

(i) Paragraph Unity

A paragraph should be unified and should stick to one idea. If, in a given paragraph, a writer is discussing management function B, all the sentences in a given paragraph should relate to management function B.

(ii) Topic Sentence

A topic sentence is a statement, usually placed at the beginning of a paragraph, that describes the information the paragraph will contain. The topic sentence directs the reader and tells him or her what is coming. The rest of the paragraph contains details or supporting material relating to the topic sentence.

Look at the following sample paragraph:

I'm sending you three books on Fire Prevention Technology in response to your request for information. [Topic Sentence] I've inserted book marks and a quotation to help you find passages that seem to answer some of the specific questions you raised. I have also enclosed more detailed information on some of the experimental equipment described in these passages. I hope the books help. [Supporting Material]

The topic sentence [the first sentence] tells the reader what to expect. The remainder of the paragraph contains explanatory details and supporting material sentences.

As we've mentioned, paragraphs contain the meat of your essay. They develop the points made in the paper's thesis. If you are writing a short, five-paragraph essay (introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion), the three body paragraphs will very likely correspond to the three major points in your outline. In a longer paper, each minor division in your outline should be divided into several paragraphs. Whatever the case, make sure each paragraph clearly relates to the paper's purpose and thesis. Don't allow extraneous material to creep in.

(iii) Paragraph Development

The paragraph's topic sentence must be developed and supported in the rest of the paragraph. Be suspicious of two- or three-sentence paragraphs. Read the following description of safety ladders:

afety ladders are potentially dangerous. [Topic sentence] For example, they might not be adequately attached and might pull out when a person is climbing down on them. Balancing on them is also difficult. In addition, the ladder might be made of materials that provide further hazards.

The topic sentence is clear; it tells the reader what to expect. The remainder of the paragraph, however, fails to do its job. Each of the three supporting points needs to be further developed. Read the last sentence. If you bring up the point of hazardous ladder materials, you have the responsibility of explaining it. Paragraphs must do what their topic sentences obligate them to do.

(iv) Paragraph Coherence

In addition to being unified and developed, the sentences in a paragraph must stick together and blend smoothly. Use of transitional or bridging words and phrases is perhaps the easiest way to achieve this smoothness. Recall the paragraph on the danger of safety ladders. It was underdeveloped and unsatisfactory. The sentence did, however, stick together through the use of transitions, i.e., `for example', `also' and `in addition'.

Look at the following passage:

Let the question help you organize your response. For example, the question may require a descriptive answer. The following assignment requires such an approach.

Find out the kinds of apparatus operated by the fire district in which you live or work.

The underlined transitional phrase ties the sentence together; it enables the reader to see the relationship between them. Be sure to provide connecting links for your readers in your own writing.

(v) Connectives Between Paragraphs

As sentences within a paragraph should be transitional, so should paragraphs. You should lead your readers from one paragraph to another by reminding them how each paragraph relates to your thesis. Certain words, such as `first', `second', and `finally' are connecting words that aid paragraph transition. You can use a point made in the preceding section of your paper and then introduce the upcoming subject matter. See the introductory sentence in this paragraph as an example of this technique. Whatever technique you use, remember that in order to have a coherent paper, your paragraphs and sentences should run smoothly.

(3) Conclusion

The conclusion of a paper serves an important function. Just as the introduction adds clarity by telling the reader what is to come, the conclusion restates and sums up the points made in the paper. Be sure to include a concluding paragraph in each of your assignments. Never introduce new or unsupported material in a conclusion.

(4) Key Writing Elements

Throughout your written assignment, you need to keep several general writing principles in mind. Pay special attention to these key elements of correct writing: use of sentences and words, spelling, subject/verb agreement, sentence fragments, and punctuation with commas and semicolons. As a writer, if you want readers to pay attention to what you say and to take you seriously, follow conventional usage practices.

(a) Sentences and Words

Scrutinize the words you use. Be sure you say exactly what you mean. Avoid abstractions and use specific, concrete terms. If appropriate, use `hammer' instead of `tool', and `factory' instead of `facility'. Remember that a writer, unlike a speaker, does not get instant feedback from an audience; you must say what you mean the first time. There isn't a chance later to add a clarifying word or phrase to help the reader understand your meaning.

(b) Spelling

Misspelled words annoy readers. You should own a dictionary and get into the habit of checking every word you are not sure of as you write and read. In addition, keep a list of problem words and review the list periodically. Though you should spell-check your work religiosuly after every completed draft, do not rely on it as it has a limited dictionary and cannot differentiate between words such as `there' and `their'.

(c) Subject/Verb Agreement

Subject/verb agreement means making sure that the subject and verb in a sentence agree; that is, a singular verb agrees with a requires a singular subject.

Wrong: The firefighters was here.

Correct: The firefighters were here.

The preceding error is easily spotted. When the subject and verb are separated by an intervening phrase or clause, the error is less easy to spot.

Wrong: A survey of federal employees in the country's five largest cities are being conducted this week.

Correct: A survey of federal employees in the country's five largest cities is being conducted this week.

`Survey' is singular and requires a singular verb. Don't be fooled by the plural `cities' which precedes the verb. `Cities' is not the subject of the sentence and doesn't influence the verb.

(d) Sentence Fragments

Always write in complete sentences. To clarify this point, as well as the punctuation rules that follow, a few terms need to be defined.

(i) Phrase: A group of words without a subject and a finite verb.

"in the house"
"the girl"
"running fast"

(ii) Independent Clause: A group of words with a subject and verb which can stand alone.

Example: "The firefighter put out the fire."

(iii) Dependent Clause: A group of words with a noun and verb that is joined to the main clause by a subordinating conjunction such as "because", "since", or "when", or by a relative pronoun such as "that", "who", or "which".

Example: "after the alarm sounded..."

The clause "after the alarm sounded" does have a noun and verb, but it cannot stand alone. It doesn't satisfy the reader's sense of completeness and hence must be attached to an independent or main clause.

Example: "After the alarm sounded, the firefighter put out the fire."

Here are some examples of sentence fragments:

"After the alarm sounded." As has been pointed out, this dependent clause must be attached to an independent clause.

"Knowing we didn't have much time to extinguish the fire." This dependent clause must be attached to an independent clause.

"Climbing down the ladder." This phrase must either serve as the subject of a verb or be incorporated into an independent clause.

(e) Punctuation

Only the most common punctuation problems are mentioned here. For a detailed discussion, consult a handbook.

(i) Comma

Use a comma to separate an introductory word, phrase, or clause from the rest of the sentence.

Example: "As the ship sailed into New York Harbour, we saw the Statue of Liberty."

Use a comma between independent clauses separated by the coordinate conjunction, (and, but, for, or, nor).

Example: "I questioned all the neighbours, but no one had seen the suspected arsonist."

Use a comma between items in a series.

Example: "I saw a fire truck, an ambulance, and a police car speeding to the fire."

Use commas to set off nonessential information.

Example: "The explosion, which made the loudest noise I ever heard, killed five people."

(ii) Semicolon

Use a semicolon between independent clauses not joined by coordinate conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor).

Example: "The firefighters were on the scene a few minutes after the alarm sounded; they quickly put out the blaze."

For a much more detailed discussion of writing assignments, you should consult Communications I: Study Skills. This course fully prepares you for the standards required in all subsequent courses.


Assignment Checklist

The editing process is extremely important for clear writing. As you edit, scrutinize your writing to find errors and flaws in logic, wordy sentences, or faulty punctuation. If possible, let your first draft sit for a day or two (or at least overnight) before revising. Keep the following checklist in front of you as you revise:

  1. Content
    (a) Is the subject developed adequately?

  2. Organization
    (a) Does the whole essay have
    (i) An introduction with a clear purpose or thesis?
    (ii) A clear, over-all organizational plan?
    (iii) Adequate transitions between paragraphs?

    (b) Are the paragraphs
    (i) Organized around clear topic sentences?
    (ii) Coherent?
    (iii) Adequately developed?

    (c) Are the sentences
    (i) Concise?
    (ii) Clear and direct?

    Check for the following errors. If you are not familiar with the terms, consult a handbook.

  3. Grammar
    (a) Failure in agreement
    (i) Between subject and verb.
    (ii) Between noun and pronoun.

    (b) Dangling or misplaced modifier.

    (c) Shift of person or verb tense.

    (d) Vague or ambiguous pronoun reference.

  4. Punctuation
    (a) Sentence fragment.
    (b) Fused or run-on sentences.
    (c) Comma errors.
    (d) Inappropriate use of apostrophes.
    (e) Capitalization.
    (f) Typographical errors.