Writing is often a challenge for college students, especially lower division students — to whom it may seem that we focus obsessively on writing. While writing may come easily to some of you, others among you have good reasons for finding it more difficult. Perhaps you are trying to master English as a second language. Possibly your earlier experience with writing classes was not as successful as you would like. Some have a hard time making the switch between academic writing and the informal writing used in personal letters, social media, texting, and email.
The basic goal of good writing is to clearly and concisely express your ideas in a form that makes sense to an attentive reader. Several things contribute to achieving that goal: logical and clear writing, good organization of your ideas, a proofreading and editing process that refines your initial drafts, and avoiding errors and ambiguities that may confuse your reader. Other things interfere with that goal: disorganized writing, errors and ambiguities that force the reader to guess what you are trying to say, foregoing a proofreading and editing process and going with an unrefined draft, and so forth.
What can you do to move your own writing toward that goal? What follows is an informal list of some techniques, approaches, and resources that can help.
- You are probably tired of hearing this by now, but start early and give yourself plenty of time to do your best written work. Last-minute, rushed work is usually easy to spot. In the most obvious cases, papers are full of obvious errors that confound your reader. In less obvious cases — sometimes in work by students who find writing easy but don’t allocate enough time — odd and easily corrected errors crop up.
- Proofreading requires some discipline… and time. Not only do you actually have to do it (ahem) and complete your early drafts early enough to leave time for it, but you have to contend with the difficulty of spotting errors in your own writing. When we read our own writing too quickly we “see” what we thought we wrote instead of what we actually wrote, and we can miss obvious errors. Proofreading must be done slowly, methodically, and more than once. Even better, read your paper slowly and out loud — you are very likely to catch errors that simply feel wrong when they come out of your mouth. For extra help, ask a friend or family member to read your paper back to you.
- Rather than trying to create flowery, academic-sounding writing, strive to make your writing clear and concise. Your goal is to express your ideas clearly and usually unambiguously. Using lots of unnecessary words may interfere with that goal. If you can simplify the words and clarify their meaning, by all means do!
- Take advantage of built-in editing aids in your word processing software. Never turn in work that has not been spell-checked — leaving errors that spell-checking would catch creates the impression that you didn’t care enough about your writing to even bother with this. (Warning: Don’t just automatically accept all proposed spell-checker corrections. They can be wrong!) You may consider running the grammar checker in your word processor, too. Be careful — not all grammar correction software suggestions are correct, so you’ll still have to consider each one yourself.
- Classes have writing prerequisites and advisories for a reason, namely that we are concerned that if your writing skills fall below the expected level you may find it difficult to fully succeed in the class. It is tempting to hope that you’ll be OK, especially if you are in a hurry to complete school. But you may also find that you aren’t ready for the sort of writing required until you meet those prerequisite requirements.
- If you are not a skillful and secure writer, help is available from many sources. Peer editing can be very useful — where you and another student (or students) get together to read one another’s papers and discuss what you see. Everyone benefits from this and the positive results are well-known. Ask your teacher if he or she will review your drafts before the deadline. I am always willing to go over your draft paper with you, and I can almost always help you make it better. Consider taking advantage of the De Anza Writing and Reading Center resources, which include tutoring and much more. Enroll in that prerequisite class to ensure that your writing is at the level required for your class.