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How should new university students approach their first essay? Do professors really expect students to do all the readings? What exactly is APA Style? Simon Fraser University (SFU) Education lecturer Joel Heng Hartse has answers to these questions. His short survival guide to university reading and writing can help new academic writers overcome their fear of long papers. 

TL;DR: A Very Brief Guide to Reading and Writing in University—the acronym stands for “too long; didn’t read”—published this week by UBC Press, is a brief book, designed that way to encourage students to actually read it.

The book evolved from the sudden shift to online instruction in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as Heng Hartse was teaching Foundations of Academic Literacy, a first-year writing course at SFU. The course has been delivered to thousands of students since its inception in 2007. Appreciating the challenges new students faced, along with adapting to remote learning, he wanted to share a direct, no-nonsense and friendly approach to undergraduate studies. The book’s quick, simple chapters help with issues like identifying the audience, creating an outline, getting a handle on grammar and sentence structure, quoting a source and writing a strong conclusion.   

As a researcher, Heng Hartse is interested in academic writing and publishing in light of the globalization of English and the internationalization of higher education—his current SSHRC-funded study looks at how and why a small number of international undergraduates seek paid private assistance with writing and other academic work. He also recognizes that over half of the undergraduate students at SFU speak an additional language, and hopes to demystify university writing by publishing what he calls “the world’s shortest writing textbook.”

TL;DR: A Very Brief Guide to Reading and Writing in University is available at bookstores across Canada, and as a free open access download from the UBC Press On Campus series.

We spoke with Heng Hartse about his new book.

Tell us more about why you decided to write this guide.

I didn’t want to make my students to buy a textbook in 2020, because some of them couldn’t even leave their home countries, let alone make a trip to our bookstore. I tried to strip my class down to its bare essentials, but I found there were still things I wanted to explain to students in ways that didn’t work very well over a Zoom lecture, so I set out to write the world’s shortest writing textbook.

I started writing it chapter-by-chapter for my FAL X99 students, and it seemed to be helpful to them, so I approached UBC Press with the idea and they were interested. Originally, I wanted every chapter to only be a single page long, but that gradually expanded. My goal was to write in a direct, no-nonsense, friendly, informal way, and to be honest about what I see as important for succeeding in first-year writing courses and the early stages of undergraduate programs generally.

If the essay assignment feels overwhelming, and a student is not sure how to begin, what is the very first thing they should do?

Students need to see themselves as researchers of their own academic contexts. The first step is always to carefully read the syllabus and the assignment, but I always recommend that students schedule a one-on-one meeting with their professor or teaching assistant (TA) to really get a deeper understanding of the requirements and expectations of a writing assignment. It’s not enough to just rely on the habits you might have picked up in a high school English class, or when you were preparing to write the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or another English language test—you need to be an active ethnographer of the new academic culture you find yourself in. My goal is to empower students by giving them the tools to do this: ask your professor about their expectations, look for examples of successful writing in your discipline, read a variety of types of texts and try to understand how they do what they do.

What prompted your interest in all things related to language?

I think I can trace it back to my mother writing down stories I would tell her before I could read or write myself. Seeing those things written down gave me a strong sense that I was or could be a writer. As a child I always loved puns and double meanings, poetry and songs, and the playfulness and expansiveness of what you can do with words. I remain fascinated by what seems like a uniquely human capacity to make symbolic meanings, and it has led me to intellectual interests and pursuits in fields like applied linguistics, rhetoric and composition, sociolinguistics and education.

What about using generative artificial intelligence (AI) programs to assist with papers? What are your thoughts or recommendations? 

This is a big question! At the most basic level, I don’t believe that what generative AI does can be construed as “writing,” which I take to be an activity that is driven by the human capacity to think, reason and make meaning. Most of the times I’ve seen students use generative AI to try to write parts or all of their papers, it’s fallen flat. I can always tell the sections that are AI-written, because although they may look grammatically correct, they are lifeless compared to the places where students are working through their own ideas. Every instructor needs to figure out their relationship to these things individually, but for the most part the main way I use AI in my writing classes is to show students how bad these programs are at producing texts that meet the expectations of the types of writing I assign.

A question on every student’s mind: Does my professor really expect me to complete all the readings? Any tips for efficiently completing long reading assignments? 

Don’t tell anyone I said this, but sometimes you can get away with just reading abstracts, introductions, conclusions and skimming headings. In all seriousness, though, I always recommend breaking readings up into smaller, more manageable chunks, and annotating as you read. I tell students to try to write down what they see as the main idea or takeaway from each paragraph or series of paragraphs in just a few words—less than a complete sentence—to help them consolidate what they’re learning, which also helps them prepare to summarize or respond to texts without relying too heavily on the writer’s original language and getting into accidental plagiarism territory.

You are currently conducting a SSHRC-funded study on the growing prominence of for-profit companies offering academic services to students. Can you tell us about the study?

The project is a partnership between SFU, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria and looks at the increasing role of private companies offering what we refer to as “private academic support services,” or PASS. This can include paid academic tutoring, exam preparation, proofreading and even practices like completing academic work for students. Many companies directly target international students for whom English is an additional language. Although these services have become readily available, they seem to exist in an ethical grey area that is little understood by those of us who work at universities, so our survey and follow-up interviews aimed to delve into the student perspective.

So far, our study has found students engage these services for a variety of reasons—for example, to learn difficult concepts in their native language or as a way for international students to level the playing field (or indeed sometimes out of desperation). I’ve also made my own observations on how students feel about enlisting help—sanctioned or unsanctioned—with assignments as part of the Academic Integrity course I teach.

For more information about my study, please visit


To learn more about Heng Hartse’s research and to purchase or download his new book visit:

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