English Composition Guidelines

Steven C. Lam
UCLA, Academic Advancement Program
This material was created to help you through the writing process. Feel free to use it as a guide and expand on it as you see fit. In addition, I recommend Diane Hacker’s Handbook for Writers (available in the Ackerman bookstore) as a reference.

Before you begin:
1) Realize that procrastination is the biggest problem for most students. Therefore, set a plan of action for yourself, but leave enough time should unexpected events occur (e.g. computer problems, lost disk, printer won’t print, etc.)

2) Save your work often and save in more than one place.

3) Fearful of a long term paper? From my own experience, a paper is usually half done after I have written a thorough outline. I already have a skeleton to work with.

4) Remember: writing is a process. Unless you are endowed with a flair for perfect writing on the first draft, you will probably need 5 or more drafts to ensure a solid and coherent paper. (I remember having to revise a 1 _ page personal statement 10 times with 7 different readers before it was considered solid for submission)


Preparation work:
1) Actively seek advice from your teacher to help narrow down your focus BEFORE you begin the writing process.

2) Search for available resources:

a. Class text, library, internet pages, exhibits, etc.
b. Seek out scholars in the field when possible. Conduct interviews. (Save 10-15 minutes after the interview to re-write your notes as details might be forgotten later on.)
c. Separate the more academic primary sources from the secondary sources and keep track of citations because you may need them in your paper. (Consider using index cards to write down quotes, page numbers, and a sentence stating the relevance of the quote to your paper. The quotes should be at your fingertips when you need them)

3) Discuss your project with peers. Your classmates are important resources and will be able to give you constructive feedback.


1) Make a schedule, a plan of attack, for yourself. Set due dates but remember that everyone procrastinates so leave yourself extra time to meet deadlines.

2) Set out 10-15 minutes to freewrite about your chosen topic. Remember to write continuously and do not stop. The purpose here is to spark new ideas that might surface without you having to make it happen.

3) Formulate a thesis or a question that you want to answer in your paper. Ask yourself if this question is focused and answerable within the timeframe of the class or the maximum number of pages allowed.

4) Use either a flow chart (as in scientific lab flow chart) or a mapping diagram (start with your topic/thesis/focus in the center and branch out to subtopics/evidences/analysis) to track your ideas and integrate supportive evidences. 5) Create an outline. You may choose to head off the outline with your thesis (let’s call it Roman numeral I). Consider adding a few alphabets after "I" to include other pertinent information to the introductory paragraph. Continue using other Roman numerals to address subtopic that relate to your thesis. Use letters after the numerals to address evidences, citations, and explanations of such examples, analysis, and transitions. Don’t forget a conclusion. By the time that you’ve completed the extensive outline, the skeleton of your essay is already there. Just put them into sentence form now.


Writing the essay/paper:
1) When you sit at the computer for the first time, do not expect perfection. Remember that you are writing a first draft and you will have plenty of time to revise it afterward. Follow your extensive outline and just write. Don’t stare at the blank screen trying to search for the perfect word or phrase. You will not have anything to correct if you do not put anything down. Use a 10-12 point font size, if this is not already specified by your instructor.

Advice #1: Use simple, understandable language. You don’t have to flower your essay with inserted big words, unless you know their exact meaning and are comfortable with them. Other wise your word choice might sound contrived.
Advice #2: It is always helpful to read what others have written in your field. Those writings will give directions, spark ideas, and provide sample styles for you.

2) The title- Be original. Avoid: "essay #1" or "Beethoven’s music." "essay #1" can apply to anything and what’s so special about Beethoven’s music? The title should give the reader a clue of what to come. Be creative. Think of what the title "GATTACA" meant to the movie.

3) The introductory paragraph- Keep in mind that the readers’ frame of mind is not yet focused on your topic. Draw them in with background information or a interesting hook and gradually lead to them to your thesis (one-half of the bowtie effect). Your thesis controls the rest of the paper and should answer three things:

a) What- What you are trying to prove/argue/illustrate.
b) How- How will you do so? By what mean? With what evidences?
c) Why- Why is this topic worth exploring? Its relevance to society?
The thesis should not be a statement of observation but rather
an argument.

4) Body paragraphs- Every paragraph should relate back to the thesis by being subtopics to that argument.

a) Provide a topic sentence that controls each paragraph.
b) Cite your evidences. If your evidences are not self-
explanatory, take time to explain them.
c) Analyze your examples. This is the most important part of the paper because how you analyze and discuss the relevance of your evidences will either strengthen or weaken your main argument (thesis).
d) Do not forget to link the idea of one paragraph to the next with a transition sentence. You can either do this at the end of the paragraph or at the beginning of the next paragraph.
(You do not have to adhere to the order above.)

5) Conclusion- This is NOT A REHASH of the introductory paragraph.

a) Here is an opportunity for you to address the "Why" part of your thesis.
b) Remind the reader of the major points you’ve made in the paper.
c) Take the reader from a focused point of view back to a broader perspective if you wish (the other half of the bowtie).
d) Like a good movie, leave the reader with a question after they have read your paper.

6) Before you turn in the first draft:

a) Use spell check
b) Print out a copy of your paper and read it out loud to yourself. Listen to the logic of your paper. Correct what is needed.
c) Have some one critique it.
d) Leave it overnight and return to it the next morning. You’ll be surprised at how many mistakes you can catch.


1) Recommendation: the more revisions you do, the better off your paper will be.

2) Seek out your teacher’s office hours to go over the content of your paper (preferably a week before a draft is due).

3) Use your peer as a resource. Some classes will hold peer review sessions so take advantage of it by coming in with a solid draft. Have other friends critique your paper and ask them not to be timid with their comments. Ask inquisitive and specific questions about what they liked or didn’t like about your paper.

4) Don’t merely correct grammar mistakes and address problematic areas suggested by your editor. You have got to apply those lessons to other areas that the reader might have missed.

5) Don’t be afraid to cut out paragraphs/sections that don’t make sense. I know that it is difficult to delete sentences that I constructed and thought highly of, but if they don’t serve a purpose, I have to get rid of them.

6) Address more global problems with coherence and logic first before you tackle the local problem of syntax and grammar.

7) Repeat step #5 of the under the "Writing" section.

8) Ask yourself when you revise (keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list):

a) Does the logic of my paper flow?
b) Any flaws in my reasoning? Any contradictions?
c) Is my paper a mere plot summary of a story/article/text?
d) Do all of my paragraphs relate to my thesis?
e) Do my sentences flow from one to another?
f) Do I have good, logical transitions?
g) Did I include adequate analysis for my examples?
h) Are my sentences all long, all short, or are they a variety of both?
i) Subject/verb agreement?
j) Did I avoid the passive voice?
k) Did I avoid using the same word twice in a given sentence?
l) Did I avoid starting a series of sentences with the same word?
m) Punctuation used correctly?
n) Did I avoid unnecessary quotation marks, bold fonts, or italics to draw attention to a point?
o) Did I follow the requested essay format (page #, cover page, ect.) ?