Growing up, writing came naturally to me, and I was very fortunate to go to a high school that offered excellent writing instruction. We wrote a lot, studied grammar, and had to take an expository writing class that culminated in a long, college-style research essay.
With this background and preparation, I entered college certain that I was well prepared for college-level coursework. My freshman fall, I enrolled in my school’s mandatory (and infamous) first-year expository writing course. I handed in my first paper, confident that I was going to do well. I got a C.
Clearly, I was not as well prepared as I thought I was. That writing course, which I felt I was sure to ace, turned out to be one of the most challenging courses I took as an undergraduate. Why was I not better prepared?
The writing expected in college is vastly different from that practiced in high school, even at schools with strong writing curricula (which, in my experience, are few and far between.) First, the expectations are much higher.
In college, the standard five paragraph essay is no longer a safe bet. Students are expected to produce work that is more sophisticated in both style and structure. Second, the material itself is more complicated. Students must be able to digest complex research and come up with original insights, and then support those insights with sophisticated arguments.
As a professional writer, I know first-hand that learning to write is a life-long process. It is never too early, or too late, to commit to developing excellent writing skills—skills that will serve one well not only in high school and college but in all walks of professional adult life. With this in mind, I’d like to offer a few tips to both current high school students and new graduates preparing to enter college this fall.
FOR THOSE IN HIGH SCHOOL
The best way to prepare for college writing is to begin developing good writing habits early on. While the level of material a high school freshman is working with may not be as sophisticated as that of a high school senior or college freshman, the basic principles apply.
Learning to write is, in large part, discovering a process that works for you. Some people prefer detailed, point-by-point outlines, while others sketch their essays out in broader strokes. I tend to write drafts very quickly and take a long time revising.
Others prefer to draft slowly, so that fewer revisions are required. As you progress in your studies, try out different techniques, and note what works. Writing isn’t easy, but it also shouldn’t be painful. Pay attention to any tricks or methods that make essay writing less intimidating and more enjoyable.
2. Take notes
Organized, thorough note-taking is necessary preparation for a strong essay. The more complex the material, the more thorough your note-taking should be. Start by underlining, highlighting, or excerpting any material in your reading that might be relevant to your topic.
I like to type up all relevant passages in a word document, which helps me to organize my ideas later on. Next, read through your notes and pick out the most important ideas. Finally, read through a third time and identify the less important, but still relevant, supporting details.
3. Organize your thoughts
Once you have your raw material assembled, take time to develop your thoughts on the material. Don’t rush to your thesis. In fact, you may not reach a fully developed thesis until the end of your first draft. Figure out your general direction, but allow space for more complex and interesting conclusions to develop as you work.
Whether broad or detailed, create some kind of plan before you write, even if it’s only an outline of the general topics you plan to cover in your essay.
5. Start drafting early
Procrastination is a writer’s curse. We all struggle with it, especially when confronting the abject terror of a blank word document. Try to start writing as soon as possible, even if you don’t feel ready.
I give myself a hard deadline for starting first drafts, usually at least a week before the deadline. Don’t worry if your introduction isn’t perfect; there’s a good chance you’ll end up re-writing it after you finish the first draft.
It has taken me a long time to make peace with the necessity of thorough revision. Once you’ve finished a draft, the thought of starting back at the beginning can seem overwhelming. Don’t skimp on this step, though.
Leave yourself time to finish a draft, put it away for a day, and then look at it with fresh eyes. Try to see your paper as a stranger would. Read critically. What is your main point? What are the key supporting points? Are these clear? Is your introduction aligned with your conclusion?
These are excellent basic habits to start developing, either in high school or in college. It’s never too late, though learning to work through these processes can take time. For those recent graduates who are looking forward to starting college this fall, here are a few quick tips for keeping up—and improving—your writing skills over the summer.
FOR RECENT GRADUATES
1. Keep writing regularly
Writing is like playing a sport; if you don’t work out regularly, you get out of shape quickly. Over the summer, try to keep writing four or five days a week. Make this writing fun: write short stories, keep a journal, or write long emails to friends. Anything that keeps you in the habit of putting ideas into written words is good practice.
One of the best ways to learn to write is to read. This not only helps you to build your vocabulary, but it also helps you to develop an “ear” for good writing: what elegant sentence structures or precise wording, for example, sound like. Try to read a range of things— contemporary novels and classic ones, newspaper articles, long magazine features, blogs, poems, etc.
3. Brush up on grammar
I learned grammar in high school, and I still found myself regularly reviewing basic concepts in college and beyond. Everyone—especially those who haven’t studied grammar before—should take time to review the basic rules of punctuation, sentence structure, verb usage, and more.
The terminology may seem intimidating, but most of these concepts are pretty straightforward. Comma usage, for example, which can seem mysterious, actually boils down to just a few simple rules.
4. Learn about different academic styles
Spend some time online looking at the different academic formats: MLA, APA, Chicago. If you’re planning to go into the humanities, spend more time with MLA; APA is used in the sciences. You don’t need to be an expert in these formats by any means. A little familiarity, though, will save you time later and help you avoid the worst college writing pitfall: plagiarism.
I’ll be writing more over the summer about the writing process, ideas for summer writing projects, learning to edit your work, and more, so check in with our blog from time to time. In the meantime, here are a couple useful sources if you’d like to learn more.
University of Chicago College Writing Guide
An excellent, brief explanation of best practices for college writing, with examples.
Purdue Online Writing Lab
My go-to resource for any questions about grammar, style, or citing sources. This site has great tutorials on any and all topics, from using commas and semi-colons to citing YouTube videos in an academic paper.