Five Sure-Fire Strategies for Becoming a Better Writer in College
June 8th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
What often causes more anxiety for a college student than studying for a test? It’s being given a written assignment to complete. For some students, facing a blank page with only a topic to write about can cause stress and lead to procrastination, resulting in a poor final outcome. Students with under-developed writing skills will either address the challenge by treating the paper as an opinion piece or research document, or worse, resort to plagiarism. Whether you need to fine-tune your writing skills, get better grades, or work towards becoming a professional writer, there are five strategies you can implement now to improve your work product.
Develop a Strategy
Before you begin the writing process, you need to develop a project management strategy. No matter what level of complexity your assignment involves, the best papers submitted by my students were the result of a carefully planned approach. This means that you need to allocate time for each step of the process. For example, if you have seven days to complete the paper, don’t wait until day six to begin. Start on the first day by reviewing the assigned course materials, using a calendar to block out times that you can work throughout the week, and write down your initial ideas.
Columbia University encourages students to “plan a start and an end time for writing” as this will help you avoid procrastination. This is a very effective strategy as it will cause you to focus on the task at hand and make a conscious effort to begin writing. You’ll also need additional time scheduled as the process itself consists of more than formulating a written response and you aren’t going to produce the final paper in one sitting or with one attempt. You need time allocated to conduct research, organize your notes, brainstorm ideas, process and analyze the information and ideas you’ve gathered, and then write, edit, and re-write your paper.
Write with a Purpose
Too often the students who do not produce an effectively written paper have not expanded their thoughts beyond research gathering. Unless the assignment instructions state you are to complete a research paper, college level writing involves more than collecting information from your sources and inserting that information into your paper. In my post, A Guide for Effective Academic Writing and Research I talked about the need to establish your own perspective of the required topic. As you process the assignment instructions and search for information, consider the development of your voice. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to begin the process:
• What is it that I want to say about this thesis?
• What are my thoughts about the topic after I have read more about it?
• Why is this topic important to me, this assignment, and my course?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses associated with this topic?
The purpose for developing your voice is to create a meaningful thesis statement, which is required any time that you want to present an argument or make a persuasive statement. The Purdue Online Writing Lab indicates that “the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on and if your thesis is something that is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact then there is no reason to try to persuade people.” You can also think of the thesis statement as the central idea to build your response around and this will help you develop an effective outline. You can start your paper by introducing the subject or topic, then present your main idea or thesis, and proceed to support it through critical analysis.
Master the Mechanics
The mechanics of a written paper involves what should be the most obvious requirement for every assignment, including the use of proper spelling and grammar. I’ve noticed that when students get in a hurry they aren’t as diligent in checking the basic mechanics. If there are numerous errors this can cause a distraction for the reader and lessen the impact of the overall writing. In addition, writing mechanics includes how the paper is written and the word choices used. Students often resort to the use of clichés with their written work because they believe it is a generally understood way of thinking. For example, a common cliché used is “thinking outside of the box,” which has little significance any longer in written work as the phrase has been so widely over-utilized. Many students struggle to explain that phrase differently when I ask them to provide a definition of its meaning.
Another area that students often struggle with in their written work is the use of sources. Most instructors expect that their students will find credible academic sources that support the development of their analysis. Too often students over-utilize sources to complete their responses rather than provide an own analysis supported with research. The result is a paper filled with direct quotes and little original thought. The purpose of college-level writing is to demonstrate critical thinking and analysis of the subject, occasionally supported by information from sources. When I’m reviewing an assignment I would rather read more of your analysis than quotes provided from sources. If you include information that you have paraphrased from your sources (with a properly formatted in-text citation), this demonstrates an ability to work with the information instead of simply using the information.
Practice Makes Perfect
To become a better writer, take time to practice writing. This applies to assignments you are currently working on and writing as a general hobby. For class papers, be sure to budget enough time for writing and re-writing. Dartmouth College Writing Center recommends that students print a copy of their paper as part of the review process as “studies have found that many people miss problems in their papers when they are reading from the computer screen,” and “having a hard copy of your paper will not only help you to see these problems, but it will give you space in the margins where you might write notes to yourself as you read.” As you read the paper, if you find something that seems unclear try to improve the clarity by rewriting that sentence or paragraph.
You can also develop your writing skills by making it a practice to write often. If you have a journal you can use that to learn to gather your thoughts and ideas. If you have an online blog, use that as a method of learning how to connect with an audience. In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, 10 Easy Steps to Becoming a Writer, an important suggestion was made to “read everything you can get your hands on.” How does reading improve your writing? As noted in this article, “the act of reading actually expands your brain.” You will learn the importance of creating a well-defined structure, writing to a specific audience, utilizing proper mechanics, and it may likely increase your vocabulary.
Find and Use Resources
The last sure-fire strategy that I recommend for students is to take advantage of numerous online writing resources that are available at no cost. Check with your school to learn more about the resources provided as most schools offer writing resources and services. The following is a list of online sources that students frequently find helpful:
• MEAL Plan: As explained by the Northcentral University Writing Center, this is a method that will help you “understand how to craft clear and effective paragraphs.” This acronym stands for Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Link.
• Figment.com Figment connects writers to professional writers and published authors who conduct online Q&A sessions, live chats and blogs.
• EnglishPage.com This is an online writing reference that provides free tutorials and dictionaries for adults who are learning English as a second language
• Maricopa Community College has an extensive list of resources: Web Links for Writers
• OWL: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab This is one of the most popular websites that educators recommend for academic writing resources.
• Writer’s Handbook, created by the University of Wisconsin, Madison Writing Center. This website provides resources for most types of writing assignments.
• Guide to Grammar and Style by educator Jack Lynch. There are resources, a list of recommended reading, and links to other helpful websites.
Becoming a good writer in college requires time, effort, and continued practice. Whether you are an undergraduate student or graduate student, it is never too late to work on the development of your writing skills. As you learn to improve your writing, you’ll find that it also strengthens other aspects of your academic work, including your class discussions and presentations. Put writing on your self-development list and make it a priority as it is a necessary academic success strategy.
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