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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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