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Writing Competency Guide

The Rio Salado College Writing Competency is as follows:

On a written assignment, the student will demonstrate the ability to 1) generate relevant and sufficient content; 2) organize his or her thoughts coherently; 3) adhere to the conventions of correct mechanics and sentence structure; and 4) use correct terminology and rich vocabulary in the fulfillment, at the college level, of his or her writing assignments.

These resources are designed to help you do just that.

Frequently Asked Questions About Writing Assignments

Find answers to questions about how to plan and execute a paper on any topic.

What  am I supposed to write about?

Topic and Purpose

  • What kinds of topics are appropriate for college-level writing?
  • Where can I find ideas?
  • What common problems do writers have with selecting a topic?


  • What goes into an introduction?
  • What should an introduction look like?
  • What common problems do writers have with their introductions?


  • What goes into the discussion or body of the paper?
  • How should I organize the material in the discussion?
  • What should the discussion look like?
  • What common problems do writers have with the discussion section of their papers


  • Why is it important to have a conclusion?
  • What should the conclusion include?
  • What common problems do writers have with their conclusions?


  • What errors should college writers always check for?
  • What are the format requirements for the paper?
  • What is the criteria sheet for?

Topic and Purpose

What are you supposed to write about?

  • Your course materials will clearly spell out the subject (or your choice of subjects) for your paper.
  • They'll also explain what your purpose should be - what your paper should accomplish. It's very important that you understand exactly what you are expected to do. Make sure you're clear about that - ask questions if you need to.
  • Writing competency assignments (or papers in almost any course) usually require you to do one of two things:
    • They might identify an important piece of course information (or give you a list of choose from) and ask you to explain and clarify that idea or concept. Or,
    • They might ask you to consider an issue, problem, or situation, formulate your own opinion about it, and defend your position.
  • With the first kind of assignment, your purpose is to demonstrate that you understand the information fully and can discuss its details with convincing expertise.
  • With the second kind, your purpose is to show that you can think intelligently about the topic, come to a considered opinion about it, and clearly share that point of view with a reader.
  • Note: In most courses, the topic and purpose for the paper is presented in the assignment itself and then described again in the criteria sheet that will be used to grade your paper. Be sure to read study each of these very carefully.

Introduction: Function

What goes into an introduction?

As a rule, all formal papers require an introduction. This is usually a paragraph of three or four sentences in which the writer establishes contact with the reader and gets him/her ready to hear the message of the paper. Successful introductions do these things:

  • They create a sense in the reader that this paper is going to be interesting and informative.
  • They give the readers any background details they might need to recall or learn in order to understand the topic or issue.
  • They clearly announce the subject of the paper, either by specifically naming the information the paper will clarify or by stating the opinion the paper will explain.
  • They make the purpose of the paper obvious-that it will either (1) demonstrate the writer's understanding of the topic or (2) state and defend an opinion.

Introduction: Format

What should an introduction look like?


In an average length paper (two to three pages), the introduction will probably be just the first paragraph. Here's an example of an introduction that meets general expectations: 


  • Uses an opening quotation to gain the reader's interest.
  • Gives some background information.
  • States the writer's opinion.
  • The opinion statement here explicitly states the purpose; the writer will show that many natural disasters cannot be controlled and that we will continue to suffer their effects.

 "Complacency . . . has put us on the brink of disaster" (Fisher 18). We like to think that we can control our world and that our expertise will keep us safe. Certainly, we have achieved success in building dams, driving off wild beasts, and spraying bugs. However, believing that we have protected ourselves from every natural threat is a dangerous miscalculation of our knowledge and our skills. Such confidence in our ability to control the environment is foolish. We will regret such arrogance when the next drought cycle occurs or a hurricane approaches.


Introduction: Common Problems

What common problems do writers have with their introductions?

  • They assume the reader already knows what the assignment was. Perhaps he/she does, but the paper should stand on its own; any reader should be able to make sense of it. Don't sound like you're just "answering the question"; make sure any reader would understand what you say.
  • They assume the reader knows something about the topic. If it's a general subject, that's a fair assumption, but some frame of reference will still be helpful. (The reader's experience with the same subject might be quite different from the writer's.) When the topic is not generally known, giving background information is essential, or the reader may be confused or completely lost.
  • They assume that since the main reader is an instructor who already knows about the subject, they don't need to "prepare" him/her to read about it. This is probably true, but do it anyway. Think beyond the class you're taking-think of writing a college paper as preparation for working in the field you're studying.
  • They make a statement of fact in a paper that requires a considered opinion. In other words, they misread the assignment. If you are asked to offer your own opinion on a topic (to state an original thesis), be sure that your point of view shows. While some assignments may ask you to explain accepted concepts or ideas, most are likely to ask you to consider an issue, problem, or situation and write a paper that offers and defends your own point of view. 

Discussion (Body): Function

What goes into the discussion?

This is the section of the paper in which you offer the evidence to support what you said in the introduction. If the purpose of your paper is to explain an important idea or concept from course content, then your discussion should present details that clarify the point. If the purpose of your paper is to explain and defend the opinion you have formed after studying an issue or problem, then your discussion will present details that convincingly back up your position.

Discussion: Organization

How should I organize the material in the discussion?

  • First, you should divide your material into its obvious parts. What are these parts? Are they components or pieces into which your subject just naturally seems to fall? Are they examples of how your topic behaves or operates? Are they reasons why you believe your opinion is true? Make a list of these parts.
  • Then make a plan for discussing these parts, one at a time. Most often, you would plan to write a separate paragraph about each part, although sometimes you might combine two or three minor parts into one paragraph. Decide that before you think about how you'll order them.
  • Next, decide on the order that makes the most sense: there might be a chronological sequence in your material that you should follow. Or, if you will be giving examples or offering reasons to support a point, are your examples or your reasons equally important? If they are, the order might not make a difference. If they are not equally important, think about whether you should discuss the most important one first and then the rest-or if you should start with the less important examples or reasons and end with the most important. Use whatever order seems best for your topic, but be sure to make a few notes planning it so you won't forget and start jumping around when you write.

Discussion: Format

What does a good discussion look like?

  • Generally, each part of your discussion should consist of one paragraph of five to eight sentences. That's usually long enough to include all the necessary details. The break between your paragraphs will let the reader know you've finished one part of the discussion and are moving on to the next.
  • Sometimes the criteria sheet for your assignment suggests how many paragraphs you should use in your paper. If your course includes a criteria sheet that does so, be sure to follow its directions. Suppose, for example, that my assignment asked me to back up my opinion with two important points. How might I support the idea that we'll come to regret our attitude toward the natural world? As I think about it (and as my example introduction suggests), I find two major areas that humans think they can deal with but really can't (at least, not yet): first, the deviations from "normal" that regularly occur and second, the occasional disastrous events that strike. So, I might support my opinion with these points:
    • Although we try to "fix" problems, nature still prevails. Details and examples: We can't fully sprinkle or irrigate crops sufficiently, save homes from mud slides or forest fires, stop aging or prevent all diseases, or eliminate destructive behavior. (I would discuss these one at a time, explaining how our attempts fall short.)
    • Although we can forecast and warn, natural disasters continue to overwhelm us. Details and examples: We can only warn people against approaching hurricanes and tornadoes, predict the likelihood of volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, research treatments for new diseases. (I would discuss these one at a time, again explaining how our attempts can't eliminate the destruction.)
  • Each of these paragraphs would be seven or eight sentences long, explaining in detail what we try to do and how effective (or not) our attempts are.

Discussion: Common Problems

What common problems do writers have with the discussion section of their papers?

  • They don't follow directions. If the assignment asks you to demonstrate your understanding of an idea or concept from course content, your instructor will be expecting a discussion that presents and fully discusses all the important information about it. If, on the other hand, the assignment asks you to consider an issue, formulate an opinion about it, and present and defend that opinion, be sure to do that. If you merely repeat well known information in response to an assignment that asked you to state and defend your own opinion, you will not earn many points. Also, if your assignment asks you to consult certain sources, be sure your reader will know you did so. Mention the sources in your discussion.
  • They don't present sufficient specific content. It's not enough to just state something; you must also explain what it means. Doing so requires you to give details-perhaps about what something includes, how or when it occurs, what it's connected to or affected by, etc. Be sure to discuss these details fully, too. Yes, your instructor is undoubtedly an expert on the topic, but that doesn't mean you can shortcut your discussion. Show him or her that you understand it, too. (This is not an invitation to rattle on, but don't be too brief.) Also, be sure to make your details as specific and concrete as you can. Be very careful not to fall into the trap of just rewording a thought: the same thing said in different words isn't necessarily more understandable. Instead, get down to specifics. (One good example can be worth a whole paragraph of general comments.)
  • They digress. Good writing must be unified, meaning you must stick to your point. Don't let unrelated materials slip into a paragraph. One idea may remind you of something else, but that doesn't necessarily make the "something else" appropriate for your paper. Keep a strict focus. Also, include only the most relevant information. Don't use unimportant ideas; they may not be true digressions, but they won't add anything worthwhile to your paper.
  • They don't keep their focus clearly on the topic. Instead, they fall into a conversational tone and address the reader as "you." It's best to avoid the word "you" in a paper. (These materials use "you" because they're giving advice directly to you, the student writing a paper. Your purpose and audience are different.)

Conclusion: Function

Why is it important to have a conclusion?

The conclusion rounds out the "package," giving it a sense of completeness. Without it, the paper would just stop, leaving the reader in the middle of things and wondering what the ideas all add up to. Also, the conclusion is a valuable opportunity for the writer to show or imply the thoughtfulness that has gone into the work and emphasize the importance of the ideas it presents.

Conclusion: Format

What should the conclusion include?

  • A conclusion usually reiterates the main point made in the paper, thereby reminding the reader about its purpose and implying that it has been successfully accomplished.
  • Also, a conclusion usually adds a closing comment that is intended to leave the reader feeling impressed or at least informed.
  • In a paper of medium length (four to seven paragraphs), the conclusion would be a separate paragraph of two or three sentences.
  • In a very short paper (two to three paragraphs), one sentence could serve both of these functions. In that case, the conclusion would probably not be a separate paragraph; instead, it would be attached to the end of the last part of the discussion section.
  • In a longer paper (five or more pages), the conclusion may also sum up the main points made in the paper. While this kind of summation is not necessary in a short paper, this kind of reminder in a longer paper can help the reader pull the ideas together and be more prepared for the closing comments.
  • A conclusion for my paper about humans vs. the natural world might look like this: restated main point, emphatic closing sentence. "To believe that we are in control-that we can redesign the environment around us-is ludicrous. If we want to survive, we'll have to recognize how insignificant we actually are and then learn how to cope with the reality of the natural world. It may not be the world we want, but it's the only one we have."

Conclusion: Common Errors

What common problems do writers have with their conclusions?

  • They include ideas that were not mentioned in the paper. The rule is "no new ideas." If you didn't mention it in the paper, don't include it in the conclusion. The conclusion should only wrap up what exists, not start something new.
  • They don't re-emphasize the paper's main point. While it would sound repetitive if you worded this statement exactly as you presented it in the paper, you should still remind the reader of your point in different words. Be sure to do that.
  • They don't take advantage of the opportunity to make a memorable final statement. The last sentence in your paper is probably what your reader will remember best: make it memorable; make it impressive (don't overdo either of those).


Editing for Correctness

Since this is not an English class, do I have to worry about my sentences?

Yes, you do. In all communication, you need to show that you can use your own language competently. Even if English is not your first language, it's the language in which you are seeking an education, so you need to commit yourself to doing it well. Educated people will expect it of you; employers will demand it.

  • Check your sentences. Carefully. Make sure that each one expresses a complete thought. Did you know that most incomplete sentences (sentence fragments) are really punctuation errors? "I lost several points on my paper. Because I didn't proofread it." This example is actually one sentence punctuated as two. The other most common error is the "run-together" ("run on") sentence, in which a comma is used to join two clauses as in this example: "I planned the evening carefully, I never expected this to happen." This sentence would be correct if it used a semicolon instead of that comma or if it used a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.) along with the comma. A comma alone is not a strong enough mark of punctuation for this situation.
  • Is spelling important? Absolutely. It always was, but now the ease of using spell checkers means there's no excuse for misspelled words. You can expect some instructors to lower your grade. You're also responsible for catching errors that your spell checker can't: for instance, don't confuse common words such as affect/effect, its/it's, or there/they're/their. Typos will always occur, but do your very best to find them.
  • Is usage important? Yes, indeed. Make sure your pronouns are correct. Use "he," "they," etc. for subjects; "me," "her," "them," etc. for objects as in these examples: She and I are here; they did it for her and me. (You'd never say "he did it for I," so don't say "for him and I.") Also, make sure your verbs and pronouns match their subjects: "Every writer has his or her priorities." If you don't like using both pronouns, reword the sentence with a plural subject: "All writers have their priorities."
  • What about vocabulary? In your paper, it is important that you correctly use the technical terms appropriate to the subject. Your instructor will expect you to demonstrate that you are familiar with this vocabulary and can apply it accurately. As far as general vocabulary is concerned, remember that English prefers direct, clear statements, so don't try to impress your reader with inflated language or exaggerated expressions.

For more help with mechanics, consult the OWL's (Online Writing Labs) available through Rio's Electronic Library, check out Webcom's Grammar Site, or consult any English handbook.

Format Requirements

What are the format requirements for the paper?

  • The paper should be typed (word-processed) and double-spaced, with black print (11-12 point) on white paper. (If typing is a problem for you, please discuss a solution with your instructor).
  • Use no oversized or fancy fonts.
  • If requested, include a cover sheet. Usually, you are expected to present the title of the paper (do not underline it or use quotation marks), your name, the title and number of the course, your instructor's name, and the date on the cover sheet. If your assignment includes a criteria sheet, the cover sheet requirements will be spelled out there.

Using a Writing Competency Guide

What is the rubric sheet for?

If your assignment includes a grading rubric or a criteria sheet, you can see exactly what is expected in your paper and know how it will be evaluated. You should use this information as a checklist to make sure your paper meets every expectation. Don't lose points by failing to meet any of the specified requirements.

Writing Competency Rubric
Rio Salado College

On a written assignment, the student will demonstrate the ability to 1) generate relevant and sufficient content; 2) organize his or her thoughts coherently; 3) adhere to the conventions of correct mechanics and sentence structure; and 4) use correct terminology and rich vocabulary in the fulfillment, at the college level, of his or her writing assignments

4 = High level excellence in evidence of writing ability and performance at the college level
3 = Demonstrable, competent, expected evidence of writing ability and performance at the college level
2 = Minimally acceptable, inconsistent evidence of writing ability and performance at the college level
1 = Poor, unacceptable evidence of writing ability and performance at the college level


Content 4. Maintains clear, obvious purpose
3. Contains purpose but not consistently clear or obvious
2. Presents a purpose that is confused, general, or vague
1. Does not present a unifying purpose
Organization 4. Maintains clear and obvious organization
3. Uses a suitable organizational plan
2. Unclear organizational plan
1. Does not present an organizational plan
Sentence Structure and Mechanical Errors 4. Uses correct, varied sentences with few, if any, errors in mechanics, grammar, syntax or spelling
3. Uses sentences that are usually correct but sometimes awkward with some errors in mechanics, grammar, syntax or spelling
2. Uses sentences that are often incorrect and are difficult for the reader to understand with multiple errors in mechanics, grammar, syntax, or spelling
1. Uses sentences that are incorrect and are impossible for the reader to understand with many errors in mechanics, grammar, syntax, or spelling
Language  4. Uses language effectively, with a consistent and appropriate tone for the intended audience
3. Uses language that is adequate but occasionally unclear
2. Uses language that is sometimes inadequate and unclear
1. Uses language that is inadequate and unclear