There’s nothing quite like the feeling of dread that settles in the pit of your stomach when you sit down in front of yet another blank Google Doc with a paper due at midnight. You might even tell yourself you’re not getting the grades you want because you’re just not good at writing.
Here’s the deal: you’re much better at writing than you think! Check out these four tips to get you going.
Start With Sources
Writing can be painful. That’s why a lot of us jump right in and try to bang out some word count before we’ve actually done our research. But take a breath, step back, and consult your sources first.
Maybe you’re writing a paper in response to an essay you were assigned to read. Read it in a format that allows you to make notes. Highlight noteworthy passages as you go. Personally, I prefer to print things out and underline with a pen. Once you’ve read to the end, look back at what you’ve highlighted. Congratulations! You’ve given yourself a bank of data, quotes, and ideas you can refer back to as you begin writing.
Need external sources? One simple way to find them is to go to look up your topic on Wikipedia. No, Wikipedia’s not a reliable source, but scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page and you’ll find a list of references. Chances are those references are actually pretty good! You should be able to access them in databases through your library, like JSTOR.
This is probably the most common issue I encounter: too much generalizing.
Almost all writing benefits from being more specific, more detailed, more particular. If you’re writing about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, don’t just say Sethe had a hard time getting to the north. Go to chapter 8 and describe the painful, dangerous journey she made across the Ohio River with the help of a woman named Denver. And be sure to cite the pages you’re referring to.
An essay that features citations immediately looks more professional and well-reasoned than one that doesn’t.
Here’s another example: I once had a student who was writing a paper arguing that a certain streaming company should acquire a certain other streaming company that specialized in soccer. I asked him why. Because soccer is getting more and more popular in the US every year, he said. Exactly, I said. Now find the numbers and put that in your paper.
Smash That ENTER Button!
Alright, so you’ve gotten to the end of your first draft. The hard part is over! But then you look back and realize, wow, this is one mammoth block of text.
Often, you can give your papers a sense of structure and organization simply by breaking up long paragraphs. Did your prompt ask you to answer four or five different questions? Each of your answers should probably get their own paragraph — more than one if the questions are complex.
Now that you’ve hatched all these fresh ’graphs, take a closer look. Does each have a topic sentence? Does each build to a clear conclusion? Don’t be afraid to move your sentences around or even to take another crack at writing one that worked well when it was snuggled up in the midst 500 words but doesn’t work so well now that it comes at the end of a crisp 150.
If your grader has had to struggle through a dozen papers with multi-page paragraphs, they will thank the scholastic gods when they come across your clean, blocked-out essay.
Read It Out Loud
This one is a little embarrassing, but trust me, it makes a big difference. Before you turn in your paper, find a quiet room and read it to yourself out loud.
This is the best way to spot grammatical errors, punctuation mistakes, and infelicitous lines. That’s because reading out loud forces you to slow down. It also passes your sentences through the natural filter in your head that tells you when a sentence is too long or just doesn’t sound right. Writing is language, and language before it was anything else, was spoken.
It's a short and simple step that can often save your grade.
Go forth and write!
Armed with these four strategies, you’re ready to write well-sourced, structured, and error-free papers. As with anything, practice is the only sure way to get better at writing. But, as you continue growing in your writerly powers, these simple tips will help you steer clear of easy mistakes and get your points across with confidence.