One area of concern for many students is the writing they will be asked to do in college. Here are eight great writing tips to get you started.
College writing involves complex tasks
College writing assignments are rarely simple or straightforward. You might be asked to read a chapter or an article and write a response to it. Sometimes you have to locate the article first by searching through the library databases. This may take you five minutes if you are adept at searching and understand how to search on the databases, but it could take much longer if you are learning how to search. The challenge many students face is giving themselves enough time to complete all the tasks. Break down each writing assignment into the tasks you will need to accomplish to complete the task and give yourself the time to do it. Instead of, “I need to write that summary,” consider that what you really need to do is read the assignment including rubrics, locate the article, read the article, take some notes, ask a classmate a question, begin writing the summary, revise and edit your work, and post it to Canvas. You should ask yourself if you have enough time to accomplish all this? Hint: waiting until the night before is anxiety producing.
Faculty have different expectations
New students often question what is expected of them for college writing assignments, though they don’t often ask what the expectations are. First-year students are surprised that faculty in all their classes ask them to write and care about its presentation. Regardless of whether your professor takes off points for grammar and punctuation, all of your faculty expect your writing to be clear and readable. It will take time to get to know your professor’s full expectations for your writing. Ask questions. Pay attention to the weight of a writing assignment. Is it worth five percent of your grade or 20 percent? This is an indication of how much your professor expects from you. Can you turn the paper in late? Students are surprised to learn many faculty members do not accept late papers.
Your writing reflects you
Your writing says something to the world about who you are, what you think, what you value and how you see it. Think less about each assignment as accomplishing a task for someone else or checking off the assignment box on Canvas. Realize that in the end, this is your work. Are you happy with it? If you turn in unedited essays at the last minute, how does this reflect on you? Each writing assignment is an opportunity to communicate yourself to a larger audience, and you are the person this matters to the most. Students will focus on grades as the indicator of success in a class or on an assignment, and I encourage you to expand your thinking about success to whether you met your own expectations for yourself in your writing.
I know, strange advice. The number one tip I have for you is to walk away from your writing and return to it later. Too often, I see students focus on accomplishing the whole writing task in one sitting. They get stressed, frustrated, stay up late and usually haven’t eaten. They talk about how the adrenaline really pushed them through. And every writer has had this experience, so I am not going to say this won’t happen to you. Yet in class the day an assignment is due or two days later, when I have asked students to return to their work, they see things they didn’t see in the heat of the moment. They instantly start revising their work and ask if they can resubmit. If you can distance yourself even 24 hours from your writing, you will be able to see things in the text you didn’t see at the time you wrote it earlier.
Read what you are being asked to do more than once. Read any articles, chapters or assignments you are analyzing before you begin writing. Students sometimes start writing before they have done the work of reading or they don’t place as much importance on the reading that serves as the basis of the writing. In college writing, the tasks are almost always in relation to reading something else, whether you are summarizing, responding, analyzing, or researching. The biggest question I get from students is whether or not they can put their opinion in the text. You are reading about things that are new to you or maybe you have some idea of it, but the reading serves to increase your knowledge and understanding of the issue. The writing you do in response to the reading should show you have developed an understanding. You can have an opinion, but you should be able to present it by showing you have read and analyzed the texts to come up with the opinion.
Talk it out
Tell your classmate, roommate, friend, parents, writing tutor, and anyone who will listen what you are writing about. Read your first paragraph to them, and ask if they understand it. Don’t assume others aren’t interested in your work! I know students who call their parents and read their papers aloud to them. Talking it out is one way to gain some clarity on the assignment and hear what others have to say about it. It can also help you process your writing.
All writers benefit from having others read their work and respond to it. Many first-year students think they are good writers and don’t need to see a writing tutor. This may be true, but a good writer seeks out opportunities. Often students want to send their papers to faculty for feedback, and this can be very helpful if your professor is able to accept your work as a rough draft, but it’s not a reliable system for developing your skills as a writer. Writing tutors can provide peer support and guidance. Seeing a writing tutor is not about finding someone to correct your work. Writing tutors engage with you on the process of improving your writing. You can make an appointment with a writing tutor on the portal, and best of all, the visit is free of charge! The librarians at Hatch Library are also a good resource for helping you with your research tasks, and I encourage you to utilize their services. Believe it or not, many of our graduate students work with Hatch librarians to do their research.
Embrace the struggle
Writing is a struggle. And this has nothing to do with whether writing itself is a struggle for you or whether it comes easily. When you are given a writing assignment, you have been given a problem to solve and present in written language. It should not be easy because underlying every writing assignment is a question you are answering. It involves thinking deeply and critically, and at times, as writers we don’t want to do this. We want to get it over with and done. If you know going into the assignment that you will struggle, you can build your skills to respond to the struggles. Maybe you struggle with getting started on the assignment. Talking it out with a classmate or writing tutor might give you the motivation you need to begin. Or maybe you need to talk with your professor to get some more information about the assignment. Have you read the required readings? Some students find it useful to free write for 5 minutes on the topic and begin their writing with threads from the free writing. The point is whatever your struggle, there are multiple ways writers manage writing struggles. You will need to find the strategies that work best for you.
Brenda Hardin Abbott is an assistant professor of English and the writing program coordinator. She teaches first year writing classes and children’s literature. Her ENG 114 theme, High School Movies, examines how teachers and students are portrayed in popular American culture. Her favorite high school movie is The Breakfast Club. Her favorite children’s book series is Harry Potter. She is certain, if sorted, she’d be in Ravenclaw.