Writing Skills are essential for success in college

The act of putting pen to page encourages pause for thought. This in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.
— Norbert Platt

Writing was important in high school, but most students who included an introduction, three or four points, and a conclusion were rewarded with good grades.

Writing was more important when you wrote your essays on your application. The content was more important. It needed to be logical, creative, and meaningful.

I was an expert at avoiding courses that required writing and at finding papers I could “borrow.” When I discovered how much writing was expected at my first real job, I realized that it would definitely have been smarter to have perfected that skill in college.
Graduate, Marketing, University of Wisconsin, Been There, Should’ve Done That  p.87

In college you do far more writing than you did in high school. It is important to understand:

  • how to construct excellent sentences and paragraphs.
  • how to format the paper properly.
  • to revise and proofread your work.
  • how to write for different purposes,
  • how to create not just a good bibliography (or Sources Cited), but to be able to use the correct format.

The young man in the picture is studying his computer, reading what he has written so far. He understands that a good paper must be clear and well-organized. When he finishes his first draft, he will go back and read it for content and organization. Then, after using his spell checker, he will proofread carefully before printing the final copy.

It is not possible, obviously, with a few pages on a website, to cover everything you need to know. Even one excellent book, can’t do that.

Let me start by recommending the best writing book I have found. It is Write for College: A Student Handbook, by Patrick Sebranek, Verne Meyer, and Dave Kemper. I’m using the 1997 book which is excellent but includes little on computer research. I assume the 2007 edition will include more in this area. Most books on writing I have looked at are dreadfully boring. I really enjoyed reading this one. If you find one you think is better, please let me know.

I was most impressed with their treatment of 25 different types of writing including Personal Reminiscence, Summary Report, Classification, Cause and Effect, Evaluation, Literary Analysis, and others (pp. 147-273) I would buy the book just to have this section.I can remember being asked to write a “Position Paper” but had no guidelines as to what that meant. 

I will therefore share a few of my personal experiences with writing papers that are not in this or other books I have read on the topic.

The Importance of Creativity

This piece of insight came from a teacher my daughter had in high school. He pointed out that most student papers were dreadfully boring. You have often been told, I hope, to narrow your topic. His advice was to do this taking a point of view that is unusual. This is more interesting to write and read, and it also requires more original thinking. Her paper, as I remember it, was a view of the Industrial Revolution as shown in the folk music of the time.

When I heard his advice, I knew at once what dreadfully boring essays I wrote all through HS and much of college. They were well-organized and covered the topics well, but they had no sparks of creativity, no original points of view. I wanted to go back and rewrite them all.

Creativity here, doesn’t mean doing something weird or cute like writing it from your dog’s point of view. You want to write a strong academic paper that has some original thinking, something that is both interesting and important.

The Importance of developing a strong Thesis

This insight comes from a research paper my son wrote in tenth grade. Until this time, even with two Masters’ degrees, no one had ever explained the importance of having a thesis.  To me, a thesis was the major paper you wrote to get the degree. No, I wasn’t stupid. Much time has passed since those days. Now I find this topic in nearly every book on how to write. But I will share Tony’s experience anyway.

Confirm your thesis. I put hours into a huge paper only to find out that I’d done it wrong! DON’T write a word until the professor has approved your thesis.
Junior, Business, University of Michigan, Been There, Should’ve Done That p. 90

His English teacher asked the students to each choose an author whose books they would like to read. The students were then to develop an original thesis and write a paper to defend it. I had never been asked to do this sort of thing.

After the students had time to read several of the books on their lists, they were asked write a list of questions, possibly questions they would like to ask the authors. Over a week or so, they sorted through these questions, crossing out questions that were too easy or just silly. They were asked to choose a question they could attempt to answer by studying the books.

Tony read books by H.P. Lovecraft, an early writer of horror stories. Lovecraft often used actual historic events and real people in his stories. Other characters and events were obviously not real. Tony’s question was “Why does Lovecraft use real people and events in his stories?”

There was no possible way to find a library book or website that would provide an answer. He needed to answer it himself. His paper was called “Four Levels of Reality in the Writings of H.P. Lovecraft.”  His thesis was that the historical characters made the reader feel like they were reading a true story. There were other characters that he called apparently true. They seemed as real as the first group but we had no proof they existed. The third group included  the apparently fictional characters. They were often the main characters. They had experience with the last group, the unknowns who were monsters or something so terrible they could not be described, an interesting fact that Tony decided made them more terrifying. If you could describe them, they wouldn’t seem so bad. A reader, beginning with the impression of a true or partly true story is more likely to experience the horror by the events involving  monstrosities so terrible they could not be described. His paper, of course, included many quotations describing each level of reality.

Tony’s paper, I realized, was better than anything I had written in college. In fact, both of my children wrote better papers in high school than I did in college.

I should add a comment about my son. Tony is severely dyslexic. When he was in third grade and still not reading at all, we had him tested for the second time. The conclusion of the schools testing was that his only problem was a pushy mother. Sure, I pushed the schools to do something, but I knew better than to push a child who desperately wanted to be able to read – but couldn’t. That’s when we went to a neurologist.

The neurologist after many tests concluded he was extremely intelligent and also severely dyslexic. He might never learn to read or write.

Let’s visit the story of Tony’s research paper. By tenth grade, he was actually reading between 2nd and 3rd grade level. He certainly couldn’t read any of Lovecraft’s books. We listened to many of them on tape. The others I read to him. When we found possible sections to quote or refer back to we put bookmarks there with a short note.

When it was time to organize the information, he brainstormed a long list of ideas and I wrote them down. The few words he could write weren’t much help because he couldn’t read them. We then clumped them where they seemed to go together. Finally we had six to eight main ideas. I then suggested he give me an outline. What would be a possible three or four main points. I wrote them down. Another way of organizing the ideas? And another?

I went back and read aloud his quickie outlines several times each. Slowly he cut out the ones that didn’t seem to work. Eventually, he chose to write about 3 levels of reality: true, could be true, not true. The fourth level was added later. You’ll note that at no point was I doing his work for him. I was the reader and writer he needed.

Writing was always interesting. Tony dictated, slowly and precisely, while I typed on the computer. His biggest advantage here was that his work was more carefully revised than the work done by fellow students.  Each day I’d read what we had written and he would tell me what to delete, add or change.

Improving Your Writing: Find the Writing Lab

You might ask your professors, if they’d be willing to look at your writing, especially if this is your first semester in college and the classes are small.. Otherwise, I’d recommend that you check to see if there is a writing lab.  They’d be happy to look at your first draft or even at your final draft. They will sit down and go through it with you so you understand your mistakes and weaknesses. These people are there to help you. Take advantage of their help.

This will include  The Cut and Paste method,
Two Warnings: Quotes and Plagiarism
When and how do we give someone credit?
Using Information from the Internet

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