Jonathan W. is pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He has taught introductory-level English courses for four years.


What Is English 101?

Introductory writing courses like English 101 are required at colleges across the nation. The class is a pillar of any school's core curriculum and polishes skills like analysis, argumentation, and communication through the written word.

The ability to investigate ideas in clear, concise language is an essential skill, not just in college, but in the workplace as well. Outlets like The Hill and Inside Higher Ed have pushed back against the narrative that liberal arts educations don't offer financial value to graduates, noting that the skills students develop in classes like English 101 have become highly desirable in the workplace.

Harvard Business Review argues that the current push to make college majors more like vocational training will rob students of the opportunity to become lifelong learners, ultimately stunting their growth as professionals.

As a teacher of introductory-level English courses myself, I can attest to the importance of these classes. English 101 prepares students for later coursework, challenges their critical thinking skills, and equips them with the tools to write about complex topics with nuance and depth.

Is English 101 Hard?

For many students, especially those who have struggled in their previous writing courses, a class like college English 101 can seem scary. English 101 teachers often assign challenging texts that students are expected to read, analyze, and discuss. Their assignments include long academic papers that may require references to a variety of sources. For students who define themselves as "bad writers," this may sound like a nightmare.

But it's important to keep in mind the benefits of this class: The syllabus is designed to help you communicate your own ideas while learning how other people think about complex topics. If you engage actively in the classroom, you'll learn how to read those challenging texts with ease, and by the time the semester ends, you'll be equipped with the tools to explain yourself not just in other classes but in the real world, too.

Before the start of class, it can be helpful to understand what an English 101 college class is not. Perhaps the biggest misconception students have entering English 101 is that it will operate like their high school English classes — this is, generally speaking, not the case.

Perhaps the biggest misconception students have entering English 101 is that it will operate like their high school English classes — this is, generally speaking, not the case.

High school English teachers are often required to shape their curricula around various standardized tests, while college English instructors are given more freedom to create courses that encourage students to explore ideas through writing. This means the kinds of writing you'll be asked to do will probably be outside your comfort zone.

It's also important to note that most colleges and universities discourage their English 101 instructors from teaching grammar, so this isn't a class that specifically sharpens your knowledge of punctuation or verb tenses, though you may still be graded for how well you conform to proper language conventions.

Ultimately, keep in mind that introductory writing classes can be a valuable experience — regardless of your major — if you're willing to put in the effort and deepen your critical thinking.

Tip 1: Essential Writing Skills

  • Concision: In your writing, focus on communicating your ideas in the fewest words possible. Too often, students stretch out every sentence in an effort to hit the assignment's minimum word count, and it shows.

    Compare these two sentences:

    "A man by the name of Bill Gates was responsible for the creation of Microsoft"
    vs.
    "Bill Gates founded Microsoft."

    Both statements communicate the same information, but one gets straight to the point. Economy of expression will make your writing more effective and easier to read.
  • Clarity: Explain your thinking clearly. Concision is part of this; extra words can clutter a sentence so much that it becomes challenging for readers to understand the point you're making. Clarity also means making sure you state your ideas plainly and logically. Practice using tools like topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph to help readers follow your thinking.
  • Organization: Free yourself from the notions that all essays require exactly five paragraphs and that all paragraphs require a certain number of sentences. Each paragraph should explore one idea, whether it's an additional point in your argument, a new concept you're explaining, or another element you're analyzing. Each idea and paragraph should also proceed logically from the previous one, even if they're making different points. For example, you might present an entirely new perspective in one paragraph, but it responds to a point you just made and therefore fits in with the logic of your paper.
  • Meaningful Writing: One thing I see often in English 101 college writing is sentences and phrases that don't carry much meaning. For example, in an analytical essay, a student might write, "The author makes a lot of different points in her essay." As a sentence, this communicates almost nothing to your reader — of course someone makes many points over the course of an essay, so saying it just takes up space. Describe specifics and avoid making generic observations.
  • Effective Introductions: Too many students have learned bad techniques when it comes to opening an essay. Perhaps the most common of these is the idea to start broad before narrowing, which leads to papers that begin with statements like "Since the dawn of time, human beings have been inventing new technologies." Instead, start with an introduction that provides specific, relevant context or — if you want to be more artful — use a quotation or reference to recent events/pop culture that connects your topic to current conversations.

Tip 2: Basic Grammar

As stated earlier, college English 101 classes generally don't focus on grammar. Studying up on some basic concepts is an easy way to give your writing a professional air (and possibly impress your instructor, too).

  • The Oxford Comma: In American English, lists of more than two items require a comma before the "and" that comes before the last item in the list. This comma is referred to as the Oxford comma or serial comma.

    Example:

    I bought an iPhone, Apple Watch, and Macbook.

  • Quotations and Punctuation: Another rule specific to American English concerns the placement of punctuation inside quotation marks. Especially when you're quoting from another source, pay attention to where you put punctuation. Even if the comma or period isn't included in the original material, it goes inside the quotation marks in your essay.

    Example:

    "I don't believe in ghosts," Freeman said, suggesting she doesn't believe in the supernatural.

  • Subjunctive Mood: One easy way to make your writing look more sophisticated is mastering the use of "were" when describing hypothetical situations. "If I/he/she were" is the technically correct construction of the more common "If I/he/she was."

    Example:

    If he were guilty of the crime, he wouldn't have a solid alibi.

  • Contractions: In speech, we often say "there's" — a contraction for "there is" — even when we are talking about multiple things. Without the contraction, you would say, "There are multiple words in this sentence." But even with the contraction, people still might say, "There's multiple words in this sentence," which would literally mean, "There is multiple words in this sentence," which is grammatically incorrect.

    It's tiny details like these that often become the pet peeves of writing teachers, who may choose to knock points off your grade as a result.
  • Comma Abuse: There are a variety of ways in which commas can be misused, so do some research about where to properly employ them. Comma splices are separate sentences mistakenly joined together by a comma. Students also like to throw commas between random words, especially before conjunctions like "and" or "or," when they aren't needed. The easiest way to learn about comma usage is to study where they appear in published pieces of writing.

Tip 3: Crafting an Academic Essay

Academic writing is a very specific style of writing that usually requires a formal tone. For many writing teachers, this formality rules out the use of contractions, slang, and the first-person point of view (i.e., sentences using "I"). Try to avoid sounding conversational in your academic writing. For example, an essay filled with sentences such as, "I don't personally agree with a bunch of the stuff in that guy's argument," will likely result in a lower grade for sounding too casual.

Your essays should also have well-defined thesis statements. A thesis statement appears near the beginning of a piece of writing and clearly communicates the argument you'll make over the course of your paper. The thesis statement serves as a guide for your reader — it helps them understand exactly what you intend to say — but it also helps you maintain focus as you complete your essay.

Everything you include in your essay — every point you make, every source you incorporate — should support the thesis statement. As you reread your assignments, look for paragraphs that don't connect specifically to the thesis: How can they be altered (or deleted) to more directly relate to the main idea of your essay?

Tip 4: Use Sources Thoughtfully

Many English 101 college writing assignments ask you to incorporate sources. It's important to make good use of sources to support your own ideas. If done properly, integrating outside sources can demonstrate to your reader that you have done your research and aren't pulling ideas out of thin air.

When doing academic research, not every source carries equal weight. Often, college English 101 instructors will require you to incorporate academic sources (research published in scholarly journals), so familiarize yourself with your school's library research databases. Beyond these sources, pay attention to issues of credibility. Avoid sources with extreme political bias or websites that don't themselves use sources.

Citing where you find your information is crucial because not properly crediting the work of others in your own writing is plagiarism. Colleges and universities take plagiarism very seriously, and students in college English 101 classes who don't provide the sources they used in writing their essays can fail those assignments or be evaluated by academic dishonesty committees, who might decide that the student should fail the entire class or even be asked to leave the school. This is true across courses — always make sure to use citations in your work!

Different courses will require different citation styles: Some English 101 college classes may ask you to cite your sources in MLA, APA, or Chicago, while others may require you to use different styles over the course of the semester. Whichever style you use, make sure that you adhere to the rules of citation, both in the text of your essay and in the bibliography at the end. Improper citation can be considered a form of plagiarism, and some instructors treat it as the same kind of academic integrity violation — with the same potential consequences — as not citing the work at all.

Tip 5: Responding to Feedback

After you turn in your essay, your college English 101 instructor will grade it and provide feedback. Pay attention to what your instructors are saying in their feedback, as it often reveals the key to getting a better grade on subsequent assignments. Look especially for big-picture concerns your instructor has: Did your essay respond appropriately to the assignment prompt? Did you communicate your ideas clearly?

Don't be afraid to start a conversation with your instructor about the feedback you received, especially if you don't understand what their comments mean. Take advantage of office hours — all instructors are required to hold them, and many of them never see a single student all semester. In office hours, your English 101 teacher can take the time to focus on you and your writing individually, talk through their comments, and provide you with concrete suggestions for how to improve your writing.

If your instructor allows you to revise assignments and resubmit papers, discussing feedback at length is especially valuable because it allows you to prioritize a set of revisions that can improve your grade.

English 101 Books

  • "They Say / I Say": "They Say / I Say" is a classic English 101 textbook assigned in classrooms across the country. It provides clear explanations of how to formulate academic writing and includes helpful templates that integrate other sources, which students can use as springboards for writing.
  • "The Elements of Style": Strunk and White's book is also a staple of the college English 101 classroom. It's chock-full of no-nonsense explanations of grammar conventions and can prove especially helpful for writers whose understanding of the technical rules of English is underdeveloped.
  • "The Norton Field Guide to Writing": This textbook is also commonly assigned in introductory writing courses at universities. The book comes in several versions, including one with a handbook at the end that breaks down common grammar mistakes with examples and explanations.

Additional English 101 Resources