What does a high school student need to survive and thrive in today's world? The question started out as a purely practical one, related to picking out the right notebooks, pencils, erasers, backpack, and other accoutrements for an "Adopt-a-Student" school supply drive I signed up for. But I keep thinking about it, because I know that a snappy-looking three-ring binder and color-coordinated folders can only take you so far in life. So, welcome to my first Small Ways post in a while: 20 writing tips for students. So, for all you non-students reading this, please feel welcome to share with the students in your lives.
High school and college are where, for better or worse, we learn the fundamental writing skills that carry us through our lives. And while I was lucky to have some fantastic mentors, teachers, and professors helping me cultivate my skills (here's looking at you, Carol Ottoson, Arlys Johnson, Mara Kalnins, Brian Stonehill, Ed Copeland, Martha Andresen, Cris Miller, and Paul Mann), not everybody gets such high-quality help along the way. So, students of the world, please consider this my small contribution to helping you along.
1) Learn by reading.
The act of reading is itself an education. When you read, you expand your vocabulary. You learn about sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. You absorb the rules and conventions of language without even really having to think about it. Read whatever floats your boat or milks your goat. Be mindful, however, that the best places to learn proper English are books, newspapers, and magazines, or online content from well-respected sources.
2) Don't wait till the last minute to start writing.
The earlier you get started, the more time you have to get it right. I mean, I get it. If you're not confident about your writing, you dread writing assignments. So you put them off, procrastinating till the day before they're due. But creating good writing takes time. That's true for writers at any level. You're not doing yourself any favors by not giving yourself enough time.
3) If you don't understand the assignment, get clarification.
If your teacher or professor's instructions aren't clear, ask questions till they are clear. You can't hit a target if you can't see the target. So don't worry about looking stupid by asking questions about an assignment. The only time you might look stupid is if you miss your chance to get the clarification you need — and end up turning in something that doesn't fit the assignment.
4) Find a way to make your topic interesting to you.
Your writing will be better if the act of writing doesn't put you to sleep. Nearly every subject can be fascinating if viewed from the right angle. An assigned topic may seem super-boring at first. Don't just stick with the most obvious — and undoubtedly least exciting — approach to that topic. Instead, turn the subject around in your mind till you can come at it from an angle that at least vaguely energizes you. Keep digging, and googling, until you see something shiny. Ask your teacher for help if needed.
5) Keep your language simple.
Try to keep your sentences no longer than 20 words, and use the simplest words possible to explain what you mean. It's tempting to want to use all the big, fancy words you've learned, and it's tempting to think that using them makes you sound smarter. The problem is that using those big, fancy words properly takes practice. You'll make your point more clearly, effectively, and impressively if you work on keeping your sentences short and your language simple.
6) Learn about common errors. Then learn to avoid them.
You can avoid making embarrassing errors by learning about them in advance. People make many common errors in writing and speaking. Fortunately, these errors are so common that we can tell you about most of them, helping you avoid the errors in the first place. For quick summaries of many of these errors, check out this post on words that aren't really words, as well as this, this, and this post on commonly confused words and phrases. Because, regardless of what you may have supposed, utterances such as "irregardless" and "supposably" should be avoided.
7) Have a point. Make it clearly.
Always include an introduction that clearly conveys your main point or question. How many times have you read something and, a couple of paragraphs in, you still had no clue what the writer was trying to say? Avoid constructing trash piles of words that hide your gems of meaning. Instead, start with your central point or question, clearly stated. All details or explanation should come after that main point or question. Use this construction for each of your key points.
8) Avoid starting sentences with "I believe" or "I think."
Make your points confidently. Many people think that starting statements with "I believe" or "I think" helps them convey strong emotion or conviction about what they're saying. Sadly, it mostly makes them sound wishy-washy and/or defensive. If you genuinely believe in your statement, have the courage to let it stand alone. Check it out: "
I believe Abraham Lincoln was the most transformational president of the 19th century." See, doesn't that sound stronger and more impressive?
9) When writing to persuade, focus on why they should care.
The best way to connect with your audience is to begin by focusing on WHY THEY SHOULD CARE. Think about your central argument — the thing about which you're trying to persuade your reader. Why is it important or relevant to their lives? How does it impact them? Does it have the potential to make their lives better or worse? In your introduction and conclusion, write about the answers to those questions — the reasons they should care about what you have to say. You can use questions, imaginary scenarios, and the word "you" to put them at the center of your writing. This approach gets them to pay attention, feel engaged, and feel understood. And this, students of the world, is the central secret to writing engaging, effective content in nearly any forum. (In fact, this is how I approach almost everything I write for my clients. This is how I Get Real Paid.)
10) Proofreading is crucial.
Before you turn in any writing assignment, read every word slowly and carefully, looking for and fixing any errors you may have missed. If possible, ask a fellow student, friend, or parent to do it, too, because two sets of eyes are always better than one. Make certain to use spellcheck, and try out Grammarly to check your work. However, don't blindly trust that spellcheck and automatic grammar checkers will catch everything. They may not always catch a "your" when you really meant "you're," a "their" that should've been a "there," or something that you just got plain wrong, like a number, a name, a date, or another detail.
11) Don't plagiarize.
You must write your own content. Don't even think about copy/pasting something you found on the internet. Plagiarism — the act of presenting someone else's work or ideas as your own — is wrong. Getting caught plagiarizing is grounds for failing a class or even being expelled from a school. And you will get caught, as your teacher or professor likely uses one of those handy-dandy plagiarism checker tools to check all writing assignments. None of this means you can't draw from ideas or concepts presented by others. You can. You just have to take the time to use those words, ideas, and concepts to come up with some that are genuinely your own. And you have to give proper credit when it's due... see #12.
12) When using or paraphrasing others' work, always cite your sources.
Citing your sources covers your butt while giving credit where it's due. Follow your teacher or professor's guidelines for how to include quotes and cite sources. After all, quoting someone else's words and ideas can be a strong, smart way to support the points you want to make. Do make certain, however, that your own words and ideas make up the majority of your work. If you quote others' ideas without *doing something* with those ideas, nobody's going to be impressed. They want to see that YOU can think — not that you can identify others who can think.
13) Make an outline before you begin writing.
Outlines are crucial tools for helping you plan and organize your writing. They're absolutely worth the time and effort. Why? Putting your thoughts in outline form forces you to make certain that you have clear points, as well as adequate support for for those points. Think of outlines as road maps for your writing assignments. They help you sort out your thoughts so that you can make your points clearly, arrange things in a logical order, and keep you and your reader from getting lost.
14) Don't include stuff that doesn't belong.
Keep your writing focused and disciplined. As you work, regularly look back at your outline. Focus on your key points. Does everything you wrote directly support those key points? Delete anything that doesn't. If it doesn't support your key points, it's just clutter — clutter that makes it harder for people to see and understand your key points.
15) Follow instructions carefully.
When starting and finishing any writing assignment, triple-check that you've followed the instructions. Following instructions is a crucial life skill, so your teachers will take it seriously. Yes, they really may give you a lower grade simply because you used the wrong font. That's because, through every level of school, your writing assignments aren't just about teaching you to write good content. They're also helping you learn how to follow instructions. Any job you'll ever have will require that you successfully follow instructions. So when the assignment says to use 12-point Times New Roman font, double-space your work, create a bibliography in APA format, and keep your writing under 700 words, you need to do exactly that. Otherwise, you're giving away points that could've easily been yours.
16) Allow time for revisions.
You need to accept that most first drafts suck. Almost no one can write a first draft that needs zero tweaks. Expect to revise your first draft, working through the entire document at least two or three times. Every time you re-read it, you'll find things that you can add, improve, clarify, or tighten up. The more time you spend with your words and your ideas, the stronger they'll become. This statement applies to writers at every level.
17) Get feedback before you turn it in. Use that feedback.
Complete a partial draft in advance of the due date. Ask your teacher to give you feedback about it. By giving your teacher or professor a chance to validate the direction you're headed or correct your course, you're giving yourself a much better chance at success. If you were headed for a C paper, that act alone nearly guarantees you at least a B.
18) Don't be afraid of being original.
The world needs new and fresh ideas. Make some of them yours. Teachers and professors have been studying and teaching the same subjects for years or even decades. They don't love reading papers outlining the same safe and obvious conclusions students have written about for decades. And while those safe and obvious conclusions are just fine, it's energizing for everyone when you try to go beyond them, reaching for something original. Yes, it'll feel a little risky; again, that's where asking for early feedback (#17) can be helpful. I promise: You'll be pleasantly surprised at how your teachers will react when they see you embracing a challenge and trying for something new.
19) Use the resources that are available to you.
There's a ton of writing help out there. Use at least some of it. The internet is home to an inexhaustible number of writing tools and resources, including the Grammarly tool (mentioned above), these tools, and countless others. Your school may have a writing center or offer writing tutors. The person who sits next to you in class may be willing to exchange work. Hey, it's free help! Are you going to refuse free help??
20) Don't worry that you're not a "perfect" writer.
Nobody's writing is perfect. If you could ask Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Emily Bronte, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov, or John Steinbeck if they felt their all-time best efforts at writing could be improved, they would all say YES. We all just do our best with the time and resources we have. So do your best, and know it's something to be proud of.
Nowadays, high school and college students need to be equipped with many, many more skills than my generation and I were compelled to possess. Our world gets more confusing and convoluted by the second. No matter the size, shape, or automation level of our future world, however, we'll always benefit from knowing how to write effectively. After all, communication is how we connect with everyone else sharing our world. Those connections are worth the trouble.
Students of the world (take that as literally or metaphorically as you like), if you have writing-related questions for me, I'll be happy to answer them as best I can. Please feel welcome to post any questions in the comments.
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Self-indulgent closing thoughts (not required reading)
Finally, please indulge me as I dedicate this post to Karen, the student I'll never meet whose well-stocked backpack I dropped off a couple weeks ago. Though you'll never read this, I toss some good energy into the ether regardless: I hope I got you the stuff you need as well as the stuff you want. I hope I wasn't presumptuous in throwing in a planner to help you stay organized, or in thinking that you might love those neat-o Wite-Out rollers even half as passionately as I do.
Mostly, though, I hope that you're getting the help you need to succeed in school and in life. You deserve more breaks than you probably get. Please know there are people like me out here cheering you on and wishing you well.