When talking about writing, instructors may use terms that are unfamiliar to you, and they may not always explain what those terms mean. For that reason, we have put together a short list of terms and explanations to help you figure out what your instructors are actually talking about. It is sometimes helpful to discuss these terms in relation to one another. For this reason, terms are often grouped for discussion. The alphabetical index below includes individual terms to help you find what you're looking for more easily.

Critical Thinking
Annotated Bibliography
Informed Opinion
Rhetorical Situation
Thesis (Statement)

Analyze/Analysis/Critical Thinking: This is what your instructors want you to do. They want you to think about what you are hearing in class and reading in your textbooks. They want you to question it. They want you to think about it from different perspectives. They want you to weigh both sides (if there are sides involved; of course, there may be more than two sides). The assumption here is that only by thinking about something deeply and critically can we truly understand it.

Annotate: When you read to analyze, understand, or interpret, annotation can be a useful tool. To annotate a text, you read slowly and carefully, asking yourself the important who, what, how, why questions. You also circle, underline, or highlight anything that you find significant or confusing, and you write your questions and comments in the margins. When you cannot mark directly on a text, use a separate sheet of paper or a computer document.

Annotated Bibliography: There’s that “annotate” word again. If you’ve already read the definition for “annotate,” then you know that it’s about understanding a text by questioning and note-taking. An annotated bibliography is similar in that it’s a preliminary list of works you’ve read and carefully considered and, therefore, plan to use while writing a paper of your own. In addition to the basic name, title, and publication information you give in a normal bibliography (also often called a reference or a works cited), you will add a couple sentences that summarize and/or evaluate the sources’ main arguments and, often, show how they relate to your own paper or argument.

Argue/Argument/Counterargument: Most of us think of an argument as a loud, angry disagreement. In academic terms, though, arguing is usually a good thing. How can that be? Well, a good academic argument is respectful and carefully considered. It is based on facts and logic. Most academic arguments allow for the possibility (in fact, the probability) that the other person has something meaningful to say. You might not agree with the other side of the argument (called a Counterargument), but you don't simply dismiss it. A good argument acknowledges and considers counterarguments. Arguing is how scholars resolve issues and discover new truths, meanings, or negotiations.

Critique/Critical/Critical Thinking: No, you're not seeing things: "critical thinking" showed up in the entry for “Analyze” too. That's because analysis and critical thinking are pretty much the same thing. As with argument, criticizing someone or something is often seen as a bad thing. That's because we usually aren't very nice when we do it. However, in the academic world, criticizing an idea -- critiquing it -- is an important part of the learning process. Things (ideas, even people) are rarely perfect. A thoughtful critique of an idea can help us to make it a better idea.

Editing/Proofreading/Revising: These terms are listed together not because they all mean the same thing, but rather for exactly the opposite reason: to point out how they differ. You will decide which of these techniques to use based on the stage of the writing process you are in (of course, your teacher’s requirements can also be a deciding factor). Revising is usually done after you’ve written a first draft. It focuses on large-scale issues such as organization, idea development, and audience. Editing is usually done as you’re preparing the final draft. It focuses on smaller-scale concerns such as word choice, transitions, wordiness, topic sentences, introductions, and conclusions. Proofreading is reserved for the final draft. It deals mainly with grammar, usage, and mechanics. Although you usually should not move on to editing and proofreading until you are certain you have done any necessary revising, you may find yourself bouncing back and forth between these techniques throughout the writing process.

Opinion/Informed Opinion: You are probably used to people talking about opinions. People often say, "That's just your opinion." (Notice how throwing that "just" in there says a lot about how little we think of that opinion.) Anyone can (and usually does) have an opinion. An informed opinion, on the other hand, is rarer and, therefore, more valuable. Informed opinions are what your instructors are looking for. They want you to research and think critically about what you learn and then give your opinion, which, by dint of your reading and research, is now an informed opinion. People may still disagree with your informed opinion (after all, opinion of any kind is still different from fact), but they should at least respect your opinion because they know you're not just giving them an emotional reaction about something.

Paraphrase/Quote/Summarize: Again, these are terms that are often confused, but are actually very different. When you quote a source, you use someone else’s exact words and enclose them in quotation marks to show they are borrowed. When you paraphrase, you use roughly the same number of words to put someone else’s words into your own. (A good paraphrase will differ from the original text in both vocabulary and sentence structure.) When you summarize, you put someone else’s words into your own, but use fewer words, sentences, or paragraphs than the original. In all of these cases, you will need to cite the source from which you are borrowing language or ideas.

Proposal/Prospectus: Both of these terms refer to a type of short plan often used as the first step of writing a research paper. In both, you offer a brief description of the questions, materials, and methods you will use for your research project. Often, teachers will give you specific guidelines to follow when writing either a proposal or a prospectus. Generally, you will introduce your topic, give the main questions you are trying to answer in your research, and offer some possible sources you will use to conduct your research.

Rhetoric: This is a fancy word used to refer to a way of communicating (most often talking or writing) about something or the study of how people communicate. In the media, this word is most often used in a negative way to describe a lot of yelling and posturing about a subject. Often, public rhetoric is uninformed and one-sided. In the academic sense, though, rhetoric is a good thing. If you are skilled at rhetoric, you know how to effectively communicate a message.

Rhetorical Situation: This refers to the situation you are in when you write and deliver an argument or text. Anything you write, from a friendly email to a college essay to a newspaper editorial, is written within some kind of rhetorical situation. There will always be a purpose, an audience, a stance, a genre, a medium, and, very often, a design for you to consider. Different rhetorical situations call for different kinds of writing, layout, and delivery. Basically, all the things you should consider before you write or speak constitute the rhetorical situation.

Thesis (Statement): When someone asks for the thesis of your paper, they’re really asking you to sum up your argument or main idea in one (or sometimes a few) sentence(s). In addition to stating the main idea, thesis statements should be debatable – you’re not simply stating a fact; you’re making a statement about that fact that someone else might disagree with. Your thesis also presents a sort-of blueprint for the rest of the paper, outlining the order in which you will present your evidence, anecdotes, or other supporting details to convince readers that you have a coherent argument. Finally, a thesis should be relatively specific – relative according to the length and scope of your paper.