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Advice for Students: 10 Steps Toward Better Writing

Advice for Students: 10 Steps Toward Better Writing
Better Writing

    Writing well is easily one of the most sought-after and useful skills in the business world. Ironically, it is one of the rarest and most undervalued skills among students, and few professors have the time, resources, or skills to teach writing skills effectively. What follows are a handful of tips and general principles to help you develop your writing skills, which will not only improve your grades (the most worthless indicator of academic progress) but will help develop your ability to think and explain the most difficult topics. Although directed at students, most of this advice applies equally well to any sort of writing; in the end, good writing is not limited to one context or another.

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    1. Pace yourself. Far too many students start their papers the night before they are due and write straight through until their deadline. Most have even deceived themselves into thinking they write best this way. They don’t. Professors give out assignments at the beginning of the semester for a reason: so that you have ample time to plan, research, write, and revise a paper. Taking advantage of that time means that not only will you produce a better paper but you’ll do so with less stress and without losing a night of sleep (or partying) the evening of the due date. Block out time at the beginning of the semester — e.g. 2 weeks for research, 2 weeks for writing, 2 weeks to let your draft “sit”, and a few days to revise and proofread. During your writing time, set aside time to write a little bit each day (500 words is incredibly doable, usually in less than an hour — a short blog post is that long!) and “park downhill” when you’re done — that is, end your writing session at a place where you’ll be able to easily pick up the thread the next day.
    2. Plan, then write. For some reason, the idea of planning out a paper strikes fear deep into the hearts of most students — it’s as if they consider themselves modernist artists of the word, and any attempt to direct the course of their brilliance would sully the pure artistic expression that is their paper. This is, in a word, dumb. There is no successful writer who does not plan his work before he starts writing — and if he says he does, he’s lying. Granted, not every writer, or even most, bothers with a traditional formal outline with Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, lowercase letters, lowercase Roman numerals, and so on. An outline can be a mindmap, a list of points to cover, a statement of purpose, a mental image of your finished paper — even, if you’re good, the first paragraph you write. See the introduction to this post? That’s an outline: it tells you what I’m going to talk about, how I’m going to talk about it, and what you can expect to find in the rest of the paper. It’s not very complete; my real outline for this post was scribbled on my bedside notebook and consisted of a headline and a list of the ten points I wanted to cover.

      Whatever form it takes, an effective outline accomplishes a number of things. It provides a ruler to measure your progress against as you’re writing. It acts as a reminder to make sure you cover your topic as fully as possible. It offers writing prompts when you get stuck. A good outline allows you to jump back and forth, attacking topics as your thinking or your research allows, rather than waiting to see what you write on page six before deciding what you should write about on page seven. Finally, having a plan at hand helps keep you focused on the goals you’ve set for the paper, leading to better writing than the “making it up as you go along” school of writing to which most students seem to subscribe.

    3. Start in the middle. One of the biggest problems facing writers of all kinds is figuring out how to start. Rather than staring at a blank screen until it’s burned into your retinas trying to think of something awe-inspiring and profound to open your paper with, skip the introduction and jump in at paragraph two. You can always come back and write another paragraph at the top when you’re done — but then again, you might find you don’t need to. As it turns out, the first paragraph or so are usually the weakest, as we use them to warm up to our topic rather than to do any useful work.
    4. Write crappy first drafts. Give up the fantasy of writing sterling prose in your first go-around. You aren’t Jack Kerouac (and even he wrote some crummy prose) and you aren’t writing the Great American Novel (and Kerouac beat you to it, anyway). Write secure in the knowledge that you can fix your mistakes later. Don’t let the need to look up a fact or to think through a point get in the way of your writerly flow — just put a string of x’es or note to yourself in curly brackets {like this} and move on. Ignore the rules of grammar and format — just write. You can fix your mistakes when you proofread. What you write doesn’t matter, what you rewrite is what matters.
    5. Don’t plagiarize. Plagiarism is much more than lifting papers off the Internet — it’s copying phrases from Wikipedia or another site without including a reference and enclosing the statement in quotes, it’s summarizing someone else’s argument or using their data without noting the source, it’s including anything in your paper that is not your own original thought and not including a pointer to where it comes from. Avoid ever using another person’s work in a way that even suggests it is your own.

      Be sparing in your use of other people’s work, even properly cited. A paper that is essentially a string of quotes and paraphrases with a minimum of your on words is not going to be a good paper, even though each quote and paraphrase is followed by a perfectly formed reference.

    6. Use directions wisely. Make sure your paper meets the requirements spelled out in the assignment. The number one question most students ask is “how long does it have to be?” The real answer, no matter what the instructions say, is that every paper needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be to make its point. However, almost every topic can be stretched to fill out a book, or condensed down to a one-page summary; by including a page-count, your professor is giving you a target not for the number of words but for the level of detail you should include.

      Contrary to popular opinion, writing shorter papers well is much harder than writing longer papers. If your professor asks you to write 8 – 10 pages, it’s not because she doesn’t think you can write more than ten pages on your topic; more likely, it’s because she doesn’t think you can write less than eight.

    7. Avoid Wikipedia. I admit, I am a big fan of Wikipedia. It is generally well-researched, authoritative, and solidly written. But I cringe when students cite Wikipedia in their papers, especially when they use the worst possible introductory strategy: “According to Wikipedia, [subject of paper] is [quote from Wikipedia].” Wikipedia — and any other general-purpose encyclopedia — is really not a suitable source for college-level work. It’s there as a place to look up facts quickly, to gain a cursory understanding of a topic, not to present detailed examinations of academic subjects. Wikipedia is where you should start your research, but the understanding that forms the core of a good academic paper (or nearly any other kind of paper) should be much deeper and richer than Wikipedia offers. But don’t take my word for it: Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s founders, has very openly discouraged students from using his creation as a source.
    8. Focus on communicating your purpose.Revise your paper at least once, focusing on how well each line directs your readers towards the understanding you’ve set out to instill in them. Every sentence should direct your reader towards your conclusion. Ask yourself, “Does this sentence add to my argument or just take up space? Does it follow from the sentence before, and lead into the following sentence? Is the topic of each paragraph clear? Does each sentence in the paragraph contribute to a deeper understanding of the paragraph’s topic?” Revising your paper is where the magic happens — when you’re done with your first draft, your understanding of your subject will be much greater than it was when you started writing; use that deeper knowledge to clarify and enrich your writing. Revision should take about the same time as writing — say 15 – 30 minutes a page.
    9. Proofread. Proofreading is a separate thing entirely from revision, and should be the last thing you do before declaring a paper “finished”. This is where you’ll want to pay attention to your grammar — make sure every sentence has a subject and a verb, and that they agree with each other. Fix up all the spelling errors, especially the ones that spell-checking misses (like “there” and “their”). Certainly run your word processor’s spell-checker, but that’s the beginning, not the end, of proofreading. One good trick is to proofread your paper backwards — look at the last word, then the second-to-last word, then the third-to-last word, and so on. This forces your brain to look at each word out of its original context, which means that your memory of what you wanted to write won’t get in the way of seeing what you actually did write.
    10. Conclude something. Don’t confuse a “conclusion” with a “summary”. The last paragraph or two should be the culmination of your argument, not a rehash of it. Explain the findings of your research, propose an explanation for the data presented, point out avenues for future research, or point out the significance of the facts you’ve laid out in your paper. The conclusion should be a strong resolution to the paper, not a weak recapitulation tacked on to pad out the page count.

    The best way to improve your writing is to write, as much as you can. The tips above will help give you direction and point out areas where you are likely to find weaknesses that undermine your written work. What tricks have you come up with to make the process of writing more productive and less painful?

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    Last Updated on May 21, 2019

    How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

    How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

    For all our social media bravado, we live in a society where communication is seen less as an art, and more as a perfunctory exercise. We spend so much time with people, yet we struggle with how to meaningfully communicate.

    If you believe you have mastered effective communication, scan the list below and see whether you can see yourself in any of the examples:

    Example 1

    You are uncomfortable with a person’s actions or comments, and rather than telling the individual immediately, you sidestep the issue and attempt to move on as though the offending behavior or comment never happened.

    You move on with the relationship and develop a pattern of not addressing challenging situations. Before long, the person with whom you are in relationship will say or do something that pushes you over the top and predictably, you explode or withdraw completely from the relationship.

    In this example, hard-to-speak truths become never- expressed truths that turn into resentment and anger.

    Example 2

    You communicate from the head and without emotion. While what you communicate makes perfect sense to you, it comes across as cold because it lacks emotion.

    People do not understand what motivates you to say what you say, and without sharing your feelings and emotions, others experience you as rude, cold or aggressive.

    You will know this is a problem if people shy away from you, ignore your contributions in meetings or tell you your words hurt. You can also know you struggle in this area if you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you have said.

    Example 3

    You have an issue with one person, but you communicate your problem to an entirely different person.

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    The person in whom you confide lacks the authority to resolve the matter troubling you, and while you have vented and expressed frustration, the underlying challenge is unresolved.

    Example 4

    You grew up in a family with destructive communication habits and those habits play out in your current relationships.

    Because you have never stopped to ask why you communicate the way you do and whether your communication style still works, you may lack understanding of how your words impact others and how to implement positive change.

    If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, this article is for you.

    Communication can build or decimate worlds and it is important we get it right. Regardless of your professional aspirations or personal goals, you can improve your communication skills if you:

    • Understand your own communication style
    • Tailor your style depending on the needs of the audience
    • Communicate with precision and care
    • Be mindful of your delivery, timing and messenger

    1. Understand Your Communication Style

    To communicate effectively, you must understand the communication legacy passed down from our parents, grandparents or caregivers. Each of us grew up with spoken and unspoken rules about communication.

    In some families, direct communication is practiced and honored. In other families, family members are encouraged to shy away from difficult conversations. Some families appreciate open and frank dialogue and others do not. Other families practice silence about substantive matters, that is, they seldom or rarely broach difficult conversations at all.

    Before you can appreciate the nuance required in communication, it helps to know the familial patterns you grew up with.

    2. Learn Others Communication Styles

    Communicating effectively requires you to take a step back, assess the intended recipient of your communication and think through how the individual prefers to be communicated with. Once you know this, you can tailor your message in a way that increases the likelihood of being heard. This also prevents you from assuming the way you communicate with one group is appropriate or right for all groups or people.

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    If you are unsure how to determine the styles of the groups or persons with whom you are interacting, you can always ask them:

    “How do you prefer to receive information?”

    This approach requires listening, both to what the individuals say as well as what is unspoken. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson noted that the best communicators are also great listeners.

    To communicate effectively from relationship to relationship and situation to situation, you must understand the communication needs of others.

    3. Exercise Precision and Care

    A recent engagement underscored for me the importance of exercising care when communicating.

    On a recent trip to Ohio, I decided to meet up with an old friend to go for a walk. As we strolled through the soccer park, my friend gently announced that he had something to talk about, he was upset with me. His introduction to the problem allowed me to mentally shift gears and prepare for the conversation.

    Shortly after introducing the shift in conversation, my friend asked me why I didn’t invite him to the launch party for my business. He lives in Ohio and I live in the D.C. area.

    I explained that the event snuck up on me, and I only started planning the invite list three weeks before the event. Due to the last-minute nature of the gathering, I opted to invite people in the DMV area versus my friends from outside the area – I didn’t want to be disrespectful by asking them to travel on such short notice.

    I also noted that I didn’t want to be disappointed if he and others declined to come to the event. So I played it safe in terms of inviting people who were local.

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    In the moment, I felt the conversation went very well. I also checked in with my friend a few days after our walk, affirmed my appreciation for his willingness to communicate his upset and our ability to work through it.

    The way this conversation unfolded exemplified effective communication. My friend approached me with grace and vulnerability. He approached me with a level of curiosity that didn’t put me on my heels — I was able to really listen to what he was saying, apologize for how my decision impacted him and vow that going forward, I would always ask rather than making decisions for him and others.

    Our relationship is intact, and I now have information that will help me become a better friend to him and others.

    4. Be Mindful of Delivery, Timing and Messenger

    Communicating effectively also requires thinking through the delivery of the message one intends to communicate as well as the appropriate time for the discussion.

    In an Entrepreneur.com column, VIP Contributor Deep Patel, noted that persons interested in communicating well need to master the art of timing. Patel noted,[1]

    “Great comedians, like all great communicators, are able to feel out their audience to determine when to move on to a new topic or when to reiterate an idea.”

    Communicating effectively also requires thoughtfulness about the messenger. A person prone to dramatic, angry outbursts should never be called upon to deliver constructive feedback, especially to people whom they do not know. The immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the ideal time to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment rights.

    Like everyone else, I must work to ensure my communication is layered with precision and care.

    It requires precision because words must be carefully tailored to the person with whom you are speaking.

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    It requires intentionality because before one communicates, one should think about the audience and what the audience needs in order to hear your message the way you intended it to be communicated.

    It requires active listening which is about hearing verbal and nonverbal messages.

    Even though we may be right in what we say, how we say it could derail the impact of the message and the other parties’ ability to hear the message.

    Communicating with care is also about saying things that the people in our life need to hear and doing so with love.

    The Bottom Line

    When I left the meeting with my dear friend, I wondered if I was replicating or modeling this level of openness and transparency in the rest of my relationships.

    I was intrigued and appreciative. He’d clearly thought about what he wanted to say to me, picked the appropriate time to share his feedback and then delivered it with care. He hit the ball out of the park and I’m hopeful we all do the same.

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    Featured photo credit: Kenan Buhic via unsplash.com

    Reference

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