Writing in College:15 Tips for Students

Professional Writer and Editor

One of the things you'll soon notice as a new college student is how much you have to write. Whether you're taking English comp or biology or bowling, you may very well be asked to write one or more papers for the class. Though writing is a creative process and each writing assignment is unique, there are a number of guiding principles that you should always follow as you write for your classes.

1. Use correct grammar
You are taking college courses now, and it is essential that your writing be at a college level. Moreover, the way that you write is seen as a reflection of your analytical ability and overall intelligence, both in school and in the workplace, so make sure that you begin now to write carefully and well, and use standard English.

2. Your tone should be fairly formal
Don't use slang, jargon, or cutesy language or symbols (such as smileys) in your writing. Avoid using multiple exclamation points and question marks for emphasis, and don't overuse italics for emphasis. Remember, the greater the amount of emphasized text that you use, the less the effect of the emphasized text. Also, don't use all caps, underlining, or bold italics for emphasis, either.

3. Though your writing should have the proper level of formality, don't use verbose or flowery language in an attempt to sound more academic.
Rather, use clear, concise language that effectively communicates your ideas (more on this below).

4. Use, but don't overuse, punctuation
One of the main challenges faced by today's English professors and editors alike is the demise of punctuation. This generation of college students that has grown up with instant messaging and text messaging sometimes doesn't make the shift when it comes to more formal and academic writing. If you need a refresher course on correct punctuation use, read my grammar articles, or refer to your freshman composition handbook.

5. Be clear and concise
When you write, use words carefully so that your writing will be clear. Make sure that you are using the correct word and that it has appropriate connotations. As a general rule, avoid using jargon or other specialized language that might not be familiar to readers. If you must use jargon or industry vocabulary, define unfamiliar terms so that readers will understand them. Also avoid obsolete and invented words.

To write concisely, avoid unnecessary repetition and redundancy, wordy phrases and sentences, and overly long sentences. Don't use a long word when a short one will do (example: use versus utilize). Use active rather than passive voice whenever possible.

For more information on this topic, see the articles on clarity and conciseness.

6. Find out what resources are available to you
Many resources are available right on campus that will help you to be successful in your writing. Try the following:

  • Visit your campus library. Ask for a tour so that you can become familiar with what the library has to offer. At the very least, take a self-guided tour. When you have a specific topic to research, talk to the librarian or research assistant to learn about scholarly journals or books that he or she recommends on the subject. Check online journals that your library has access to, as well. For specific information on writing research papers, see the article Writing Effective Research Papers.
  • Pay a visit to the writing lab, and ask to have your paper reviewed by one of the tutors. For this to be most effective, you should go well before the paper is due so that you will have time to revise your paper to incorporate the suggestions made by the writing tutor.
  • Talk to your professor. Visit your professor during office hours—that's what they're for. Ask for ideas on topics and thesis statements or for suggestions on possible secondary sources. Or ask for help with sections of your paper that you might be having trouble with. Many professors will even read a draft of your paper before you turn it in if you ask them to, so if you have this opportunity available to you, make sure you take advantage of it.
  • Use the Internet to find examples, reference sources, and information about authors. Often, the Web is a great place for finding additional reference materials. Once you have one good source from a particular author, check the author's Web site or the online database at the library to see if he or she has other works that you can cite from in your paper.

7. Begin early
One of the most important things you can do to help ensure success in your writing is to start working on your assignment early. Conversely, one thing that nearly ensures a lower grade on a paper is to procrastinate. To avoid this, write on your calendar the day the writing assignment is due. Then, if your instructor has not already assigned intermediary deadlines for important steps in the writing process (such as choosing a topic, completing any research that might be required, writing the rough draft, revising the rough draft, and so on), do so yourself, and mark those dates on your calendar or in your planner, as well. Set realistic goals, and then make sure you stick to them.

8. Understand the assignment
Before you start writing, make sure that you fully understand your assignment and that you follow the instructions for the writing assignment carefully. Then, as you work on the assignment, review the instructions periodically to make sure that you are not leaving anything out. You don't want to find out halfway into the project that you misunderstood the assignment and have to do major revising or, worse yet, that you have to start over.

9. Use an outline
Before you begin drafting your paper, create an outline to guide you in your writing. You can make it as detailed as needed. Writing an outline will help you to identify supporting points or flesh out your ideas, will allow you to organize your thoughts, and will let you know early in the writing process if you need to make major changes or do more research on a particular idea. For more information on writing outlines, see the article How to Write an Outline

10. Brainstorm
If you get really stuck and can't come up with any ideas, try doing some free writing, clustering, or other brainstorming activities.

11. Don't plagiarize
As you research other materials written on your subject, make sure to document your sources appropriately. And when you directly quote someone, indicate as much. It may be tempting to simply claim an idea as your own by not citing it, but it's not honest, so don't do it. Moreover, you risk receiving an F on the paper or in the class or possibly being expelled from the university if you do so. The possible consequences aren't worth it.

That doesn't mean, though, that you have to completely reinvent the wheel; you can use other people's findings. Just make sure you give credit where credit is due.

12. Review (and implement) feedback from others
As you work on new assignments, review your professor's comments on past assignments, and find ways that you can improve your writing. You should also ask a friend, classmate, or family member to read over and critique your papers for you. It is always important to have someone else review your work because he or she will catch things that you will overlook or will think of ideas that you did not.

13. Revise your writing
Good writers generally agree that most of writing is actually rewriting. After writing an initial draft and having it reviewed by someone else, give yourself ample time to revise your writing. In addition to giving yourself time to do the actual revising, leave yourself a day or two after you write your rough draft, if possible, before you begin working on your final draft. This will give you the opportunity to come back to your paper with fresh eyes and more objectivity and will aid you in the revision process. For more information on this subject, see the article How to Revise Your Writing

14. Save your work often
As you work on your paper (assuming you are doing so on a computer), in addition to saving often to your hard drive, you should also save backup copies of your work to a thumb drive or to an online storage application. You can also attach your document to an e-mail and e-mail it to yourself (for example, Yahoo! now offers unlimited e-mail storage for free).

15. Believe in yourself
Be confident in your ability to write well and to succeed. Believing you can do it is half the battle.

When it comes to writing, the more you do it, the better you will become at it, so take heart. Start early on your writing assignments and take the time to research thoroughly, write thoughtfully, get feedback, and revise your writing, and you'll be amazed at the results.

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