Writing is not simply a high school exercise designed by sadistic adults to torture teenage brain cells. The pain felt while writing, if not teenage angst, is the result of torpid brain cells firing into action. Writing is communication. Communication is imperative to all human interaction. Writing helps one organize thoughts, from linear progression in the form of instructions, to organizing complex histories and theories. Writing can assist in achieving the correct message for a given audience, culminating in shared moments where all understand the sagacity of intent.
Writing and Critical Thinking are inextricably bound to each other. Writing tears down, strips, decomposes thoughts and theories into their elemental components, assists in logically scrutinizing each component, then allows us to use those fundamental pieces and build something new. Writing can literally train our brains to think better, more creatively, and with higher efficiency.
Contrarily, not writing can result in personal failures, at best, and global catastrophe, at worst. Writing well can mean the difference between being employed or being unemployed. Writing well, especially on an employment resume cover letter, may be the only means a potential employer has of filtering applicants into “call” piles and “trash” piles. I personally have evaluated dozens, if not hundreds of applications. Well-written cover letters, addressing the specific job, with no spelling or grammatical errors, typically go to the “save” pile. Poorly-written cover letters, with grammatical errors and misspellings, generic in tone and information, indicate a careless attitude. The individual sending out a careless resume wasted time and expense.
Writing communicates who you are, communicates the care, diligence, perseverance you have. Writing can enlighten people to your mind and your character.
Or, think of it this way: writing separates humans from apes. If you don’t write, you might be an ape.
Don’t be an ape.
My 17th year teaching in Higher Education and I have yet to build a callous towards poor writing skills. In fact, when I ask my colleagues about their greatest gripe, “writing skills” is typically in the Top 3, joined by “poor study habits,” and “lack of initiative.”
I can do something about the first two; the third has to come from within.
I’m going to set myself up for criticism at the onset because I am going to blame high school educators for the poor writing skills manifest in college students. More to blame are programs and policies, more likely, as 9-12 teachers are typically only the message-bearers. Avoid shooting the message-bearers.
I do blame high school education for the mere fact students arriving at college who cannot write have passed through twelve years of an educational system and yet cannot write a meaningful sentence. An individual tragedy for the student, and a travesty committed by our public schools.
Students arrive at college, having received A’s and B’s in high school, thinking him(her)self capable of writing well, only to discover a D or C on his(her) first writing assignment.
“How can this be?!” students cry. “That professor is an asshole. He doesn’t know how to write. He has these crazy rules! No one writes like he wants us to write! What he wants is impossible!”
No, writing for college is not impossible. People write for college assignments everyday. The collision of presumed writing ability developed in high school with the reality of college writing assignments creates noise about writing assignments, though. In a nutshell, many new college students are ill-prepared for the writing styles and skills necessary for college/university writing. Students then complain about having to take ENG101 and ENG102, coupled with copious instructions in syllabi on the rules to which writing should conform. Students are left wondering what happened to the last four years of high school English.
In my opinion, journal-writing in high school, or writing without regards to spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, or organization, simply encourages poor writing skills. Outside of a creative writing course, every single student, in every single class, needs to be trained to adhere to proper writing standards. Period.
Technology is not even required; writing with pen-and-paper should be mandatory, with optional use of technology. Or, at least hand-writing drafts prior to using a word processing app.
Students need to be told, “If you want to write to your grandmother like an illiterate, that is your choice when you get home. In my class, you will follow my writing rules.”
I provide my students a set of rules which they are to abide by if the student wants any credit whatsoever for the writing assignment. I have had to create my set of rules to break students of bad habits brought from high school.
- Don’t write as if you are writing a letter to your grandmother. Unless otherwise stated in the directions, college/university writing assignments are not free-form, stream-of-consciousness writing assignments. Instructors want organized thoughts on paper that are logically consistent, make sense, and precisely address the topic. In other words, the writing should sound “smart.”
- All grammar rules apply. Do not put all of your thoughts into one sentence covering half the page, i.e. no run-on sentences. No sentence fragments, either.
- All spelling rules apply. Never write as if you are composing a text message. Proper nouns are always capitalized. “I” is always capitalized.
- A paragraph is not a sentence, and a sentence is not a paragraph. A paragraph begins with a thesis sentence. Following the thesis sentence are a number of supporting sentences. Provide as many details, examples, facts, etc. until the thesis statement has been sufficiently supported. Then, the final sentence summarizes or closes the paragraph.
- A “Works Cited” page or a “Reference” page at the end of a paper does not cover your ass regarding plagiarism. Instructors must know what words are unique to your brain, what words precisely belong to somewhat else, and what words represent the summarized words of others. Thus, you must follow the rules of some acceptable writing “style” such as Chicago, MLA, or APA. Summarizing another’s words without providing reference to those words is still plagiarism.
- Instructors love examples. Writing without examples is simply a waste of effort and time. Writing without examples I call, “fluff,” merely a string of words that say nothing. Others call such writing, “bullshit,” or “shotgun-style,” as somewhere in all of the words must lie an answer worth some points. I give zero ( 0 ) points for fluff writing. College writing should always include examples. Examples tell the instructor you have been paying attention. Examples reinforce knowledge captured in your brain cells. Examples make your writing more powerful.
- Read your work out loud. One, if not the best, way to find nagging problems with writing is to listen to your words aloud. If you cannot find someone to proofread your work, then read your work out loud. Don’t believe for a second that your writing is perfect without first having a good writer proof-read your work, or reading your work aloud. Our brains are too easily tricked into seeing what we want to see, and re-reading is should not be the only method used to edit. Reading aloud forces our brain to work in a different mode. If your writing sounds awkward, stilted, unimaginative, no doubt your writing probably is.
- Write in short, simple sentences. If you know you are a poor writer, then begin small. Keep your sentences short. Use examples, good, concrete examples that add content. Remember: every sentence you write should mean something, but not mean exactly what the sentence that came before meant. As you get better, more comfortable, then your writing can become more complex.
- Read. Writing well means reading. Read newspapers, journals, magazines, as much as you can tolerate, with as much variety as you can tolerate. Pay attention to sentence formation and paragraph construction.
- If necessary, create an outline or rough draft. Even if the assignment is only to write a paragraph to, “Explain why shopping on Tuesday morning is important,” jot down a list of ideas. Then, turn each item in the list into a sentence. See? Writing is not that hard. Oh, yeah, a list is not really writing, either. Pay attention to the directions. If an instructor says “describe” or “discuss” you need to write some paragraphs. In my classes, if you choose to give me a bulleted list or a numbered list, you’ll get a zero, even if the listed elements address the topic. Paying attention carries over to Private Sector employment; why should Public Sector education be different?
I provided the world, via my WordPress blog, 10 Tips to Write Better for Academia; and really, if you can write well for academia, you should also apply those writing tips outside of academia.
Now, these tips are meant merely for in-class writing assignments. Writing for research journals requires writers to step up their game even more.
If you really want to improve your writing, avoid using personal and demonstrative pronouns altogether. Never begin a sentence with a pronoun. Always write using an “active” voice rather than a “passive” voice.
And, lastly, and perhaps most importantly, write what you mean.
As I self-edit, I incessantly ask myself, “Is this what I meant to say? Will someone else know what I meant? Is it possible my meaning could be misconstrued? Can I write with fewer words and maintain my message?”
I don’t ask anyone to agree with the direction I cast my blame. I would ask that all who coach others to write to ensure that fundamental writing skills are hammered home. Students may curse you now, but they will respect you later.
And, those of us in Higher Ed will nominate you for sainthood