Spoiler alert about college: Not every class you take will require a knowledge of math, or science, or history — but almost all of them will require a basic understanding of the writing rules of the road.
That’s fine if you have been a talented writer all your life, starting with that adorable poem about wanting to be a hedgehog that you wrote for Mrs. Anderson in the second grade. But for those of you for whom writing is a difficult task, the never-ending stream of written assignments might seem downright daunting.
But it doesn’t have to be, if you follow these five tips. And you can practice them right now, on that English assignment.
1. Before you start, determine the focus, or main idea, of your paper.
Sometimes that’s easy: It’s the same thing as the assignment. For example, it’s clear what the focus is if your assignment is to list the top three ethical concerns faced by doctors today. But many college assignments are trickier than that: They ask you to suggest one thing that made the most difference in the Revolutionary War, or to critique an essay, or to discuss how you would handle a business crisis situation. In those cases, you are determining the focus of your paper. So, write it down on a piece of paper and consult it often: one sentence with one clear thought. (“This paper is about how the entry of France into the Revolutionary War changed the course of American history.”) Now you have your paper’s spine: Everything you include — all your research, all your writing — should be comfortably attached to that spine.
2. Which means that, yes, I’m sorry, but an outline helps.
When I tell this to my students, sweat breaks out on their brows. If I were a wolf in a Jack London story, this is where I would be sensing their fear. But an outline doesn’t have to be that elaborate Roman numeral thing. It might be eight sentences that help you march, in an organized way, through your paper. Better to spend a few minutes putting your thoughts into a logical progression than to just write everything down as you think of it and expect your professor to get the gist. Pre-writing — thinking about your focus, consulting your research, then outlining your organization — yields clarity in your writing. Your teacher will thank you for it when it comes to grading.
3. And you will be doubly rewarded if you get the grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation right.
When my daughter was in middle school, she asked me to proofread a paper. When I corrected a spelling error, she uttered the immortal, “Well, that may be the way you spell it, but it’s not the way I spell it.” Now she teaches high school English, and I routinely remind her of that moment. So, first, beware of what you say to your mother. And, second, do not approach spelling, grammar, etc., as if they were debatable. There are rules. You have to know them (and you can’t always rely on spell-checking or grammar programs) and follow them. When my students write “It was there only chance to win,” I notice — and not in a good way.
4. One of the more common writing traps college students fall into — and it’s a trap that also snares people long out of college — is thinking (wrongly — insanely wrongly) that bigger words and elaborate phrases make you sound smarter.
So, “use” becomes “utilization,” and “Historians agree that the French helped Americans win the Revolutionary War” becomes “It is almost universally agreed by historians across the globe that the entry of the French into the Revolutionary War succeeded in turning the tide at a critical point in the conflict, thus securing an ultimate victory by the Colonists.” Sometimes being a scholar means you must elaborate, and you must stretch your vocabulary. But, most often, being a scholar means simplifying your language and presenting your argument in a way that engages your reader.
5. Finally, if you consider writing as a three-step process — prewriting, writing, rewriting — do not skimp on the last stage.
No writer turns in the first draft. You must rewrite — for organization, for focus, for clarity. And you have to bring a proofreader’s eye to your work. Did you spell that complicated last name two different ways? Did you fail to capitalize “i” as in “But i disagree with that idea.” (Please tell me you did not do that.) Those errors call your credibility into question. Maybe, your teacher thinks, this student is sloppy about more than capitalization.
If writing still stumps you once you are in college, you can get help.
Most colleges have writing centers providing one-on-one advice and editing help. And most professors will work with you if you talk to them early on about your writing issues.
Writing is easier for some people than others. So is drawing. So is dissecting a frog. So what? It doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be an able writer. It just means you must bring the same discipline to your writing as you do to your drawing or your dissecting. Stop thinking you have to create poetry with every sentence. (Well, unless you are taking a poetry class.) Instead, think about making every sentence clear and correct and purposeful. That’s the key to successful writing in college — and beyond.
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