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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 November 4, 2020

    15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

    15 Simple Ways To Make Self Improvement That Will Change Your Life

    Self-improvement doesn’t have to be big mind-blowing changes; it can actually be simple steps to improve upon what you already have to get you where you want to be.  However, what you will need is consistency, determination and wiliness to try some things that will stretch and challenge you.

    Rather than setting your sights way off into the future, which leaves you feeling like you’ll never make it, you can start following these simple and effective self-improvement steps today.  So if you want to make an immediate impact on your life and are willing to take action, then keep reading— you’ll going to love these!

    1. Be willing to work hard.

    As with anything in life, if you want something, you’ve got to work hard to get it.  This doesn’t mean you burn the candle at both ends, leaving you exhausted and leaving your personal life in ruins.  It merely means that when you want something badly enough, you’ll put in the time to get there.  Action is what’s important here and the more ‘inspired’ the action is, the better the results in the end.

    2. Make sure you have friends who you can talk to.

    Sharing the load is important as with any self-improvement. If you can communicate with others and get feedback on how you are doing then that’s great.  We all need ‘cheerleaders’ in our corner to keep us going when times get hard, but you also need to have people who will tell you how it is even when you don’t want to hear it.  So make sure you have a good support network around you, especially those people whose opinions you respect.

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    3. Adapt to your circumstances rather than over-thinking them.

    Sometimes, we can hit a hard period. Perhaps you’ve lost your job or your partner has left you.  Instead of over analyzing the situation, learn to adapt to your circumstances and accept them as they are.  It’s not about making your circumstances into some kind of a drama; remember, what you focus on expands which means you’ll get more of it.  You then don’t become your problems and you’ll feel a lot less burdened by them.

    4. Ensure that you use your time wisely.

    Time is of the essence, some might say; whilst others will say that time is an illusion.  One thing we do know is that you have one life on this planet, so how you use that time is of the utmost importance.  So how can you use your time wisely? Only you know how to do that, but look at how you currently spend your days: do you sit working all day, get home, eat and then sit slumped in front of the TV for the rest of the evening?  Your time on this earth is precious, so isn’t it time to make use of the time you have left? Try something new, go for a walk, learn a new language or meditate but make sure it’s something you absolutely love.

    5. Always be consistent.

    A wonderful way to self-improvement is to make changes to how you do things.  For example, with your friends, are you always the unreliable one who bows out of an arrangement just before it happens? Or are you someone who starts a new exercise routine and then stops doing it 3 weeks into it?  Whatever it is and whatever you do, always be consistent. When you make a commitment, stick to it. It will improve your life immeasurably you’ll feel more confident and happier with yourself, especially because you’ll know that whatever you tackle, you’ll be able to consistently do it!

    6. Go and find your happy place.

    No, I’m not saying “place” as in popping to your local bar or restaurant and gorging yourself on your favorite drinks or food. What I’m saying is to find out what you love to do, what makes you happy and go there.  Your happy place is a place where you find peace, where you lose yourself and feel contented.  Meditation is a great way to find your happy place; it brings you back to you and ensures that you are always living in the present moment.

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    7. Make sure you embrace all your emotions.

    In life you are going to find that it throws you some difficult challenges, sometimes it will bring out your fears and lead you into uncertainty, and other times it will be joyful.  It’s important to embrace all emotions that come up in your life, embrace them wholeheartedly and understand why they are there and then let them go.  Try not to dismiss or resist them because remember “what you resist, persists,” so embrace them each and every time.

    8. Always be prepared to step out of your comfort zone.

    The idea of stepping out of your comfort zone for some people can leave you paralyzed with fear; however for any changing in your life, your comfort zone will always have to be stepped out of.  It doesn’t have to be something big, like doing a sky-dive or something just as crazy. However, it’s worthwhile to change something that you’d once have feared, like going to the cinema on your own or eating at a sushi restaurant when the thought of trying raw fish which would normally mean you running for the hills.

    So try something new—it doesn’t have to be wacky, but it has to challenge you!

    9. Be on hand to help others.

    Whether it’s helping a stranger on the street or a family member or a friend helping someone else either in their time of need, lending a helping hand is a wonderful and simple self-improvement to make.  Giving to others is not only beneficial to those you are helping but also to yourself; it can give you a sense of purpose, of contribution and also takes your mind of your own troubles and worries.

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    10. Live in the present moment.

    A wonderful self-improvement tool is to live in the present moment, to live in the now.  It is within this moment that you’ll appreciate all that you have and see the beauty in the simplest of things.  Being mindful of your current circumstances and bringing your mind back to where it belongs will bring about a happier way of life instead of constant worry or stressing about the past or future—both of which do not exist. Only the present moment exists. When you get used to living that way, you’ll never want to go back!

    11. Learn something new.

    There is nothing so liberating as learning something new; it can lift both your confidence and self-esteem and give you a great reason to meet new people.  If you continually top up your brain activity by learning something new all the time, you’ll feel on top of your game and want to share the knowledge you have learned. There is nothing quite so empowering as learning a new tool in life that can either improve your circle of friends or raise confidence levels—or both!

    Reading is also a great way to help you learn something new:

    12. Exercise daily.

    This seems an obvious one, but exercise is so important not only to your health but also to your spirit.  We all know that after exercise, the world can feel a brighter and more positive place, so why don’t we do it more often?  Exercise isn’t about getting the perfect body or losing weight; it’s more about feeling good inside and out!  With a healthy body comes a healthy mind—so start something today. Even if it’s just a daily walk, it’s better than staying on that couch, again.

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    13. Go to new places, travel a bit.

    I’m not saying go fly off to some far away distant forgotten land—although you can if you so wish. It’s more about going to new places and experiencing life outside of your own back yard.  Too many of us stay in one place too often. We only see the same people, the same streets and do the same things each and every day.  If you want to improve your life, get out there and see the world and what it can offer.  You can start by going to a town or city you’ve never been to in your own country and checking out the architecture, the landscapes and the people.  Anything new is good, so get out there!

    14. Listen to uplifting music and dance.

    If there’s one thing that can really improve your life and get you excited about it, it’s listening to great uplifting music and dancing.  When was the last time you really let go?  Let it all hang loose and got into a piece of music and let yourself go?  Dancing, like exercise, makes you feel great. It releases all kinds of emotions and can make you feel unbelievably good.  Self-improvement isn’t all about the serious stuff; it can be something as simple as finding new music, music that inspires you and makes you dance and have fun!

    15. Get up earlier than normal.

    This is the last one, and it’s last because it’s one of those self-improvement tips that we all know is a good thing, yet we seem to avoid it at all costs!  If you think about it, the earliest part of the day is when your brain is most active because it’s been turned off for the last 7 hours or so.  So don’t you think it’s best to get all those things above done in the morning?  Things like exercise, meditation and dancing, which can all be done in the first part of the day.  Take it from me: this early morning stuff can really get your day started with a bang!

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    Featured photo credit: Laura Chouette via unsplash.com

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