Back-to-School Writing Basics for Students—and Everyone Else

by • August 28, 2012

It’s time to go back to school. For many of us, students and non-students, summer is the ideal time to forget the formalities of school or work for a while. While I definitely encourage you to indulge in the last bit of summer vacation over Labor Day (US) weekend, I wouldn’t do readers justice to ignore the truth—vacation is ending and that what-I-did-over-the-summer essay is coming. This post is aimed at giving a few pointers for improving your writing, even if you don’t know much about it.

First and foremost, use the writing process as often as possible.

Writing is a process that includes prewriting/brainstorming, writing a thesis statement, outlining, drafting, and proofreading. (For some this may seem painfully obvious. Please bear with me, as it may not be obvious to others.) Completing the writing process is often difficult for people because of their unfamiliarity with the parts of the process or because of procrastination. This is the most difficult tip to use, but it is the most helpful. I won’t go into the details of the writing process here, but if you are looking for a great resource, please check out The Purdue Online Writing Lab’s resources.

Assuming that you are vaguely familiar with the writing process or that you are interested in a “quicker fix” to improve your writing, the following tips will help you improve your your text in a jiffy.

1. Write as you speak and speak what you write.

During my time as a writing tutor at Alma College, this was often the first step I went through when helping students with their writing. It’s extremely helpful to speak aloud as you write (you can whisper!) and even more helpful to read aloud what you have written. If you cannot easily read through your writing, your sentences may be too long or incorrectly punctuated. Any place you fumble, consider rewording or reorganizing for greater clarity.

Keep in mind that for professional or academic settings, writing this way may lead to texts that are too casual. To prevent this, be sure to edit out most personal pronouns (I, you, we) and write out contractions (don’t -> do not).

2. Use short, clear sentences instead of long, confusing ones.  

Short sentences are preferable to long ones. They are more understandable, and there is less chance of screwing up the punctuation. If you are running out of breath while reading your writing aloud, consider breaking that bad-boy of a sentence into separate sentences.

If you are confident in your phrasing and punctuation, by all means, play with the length of your sentences; however, if you struggle with clearly stating your idea or doing so with correct punctuation, keep your sentences simple. It’s far better to write correctly and be understood, than to write with length and style while confusing your audience.

3. Learn and check basic spelling and punctuation.

While we all make typos here and there, recurring errors in the spelling of words or in the use of punctuation not only look unprofessional but also distract the reader. If you can’t commit to learning the correct spelling of “receive” or “definitely,” consider at least using a spell checker. Keep in mind, however, that MS Word spell checker can’t distinguish between the proper and improper use of “your” and “you’re” or “there” and “they’re.” If you confuse the differences of these words or checking your own writing is too tedious, tools like Grammarly.com can help in catching these and other errors.

Regarding punctuation, the marks you will use most often are the period (full-stop, if you are a BrE writer) and the comma. Learn to use them correctly. In general, when you are writing a thought, and you complete the thought, use a period. If you are writing a thought, and you need to take a breath, use a comma. If you need to brush-up on correct use of various punctuation marks, there are some great, simple explanations available in the Grammarly Handbook.

4. Don’t play thesaurus; use words you know.

This rule is the simplest—avoid terms and words you don’t know or don’t understand how to use. Using a “fancy” word only makes you seem more intelligent if you use it correctly. In any case, you may confuse your reader if you overuse lofty language.

Do you see a pattern here? Always, K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid)! It should be clear that, if you do use the writing process, there is a lot more flexibility for experimenting with sentence length, punctuation, and diction. This is because the writing process allows maximum creative thinking as well as repetitive editing and reworking, often with feedback from others. Many people, however, don’t have time for a long, iterative process or simply don’t want to do it. For these writers, the above tips will help improve their writing regardless.

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What are some simple writing tips that work for you?

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