Writing Well for College and Life

Richard J. Light, a professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, in his book on student engagement, Making the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2001) tells us that of all the skills students desire to strengthen, writing is mentioned three times more often than any other (p. 54).  Despite that being the case, over half of the recent matriculating California State University students enrolled in a remedial writing class; further, all the entering freshmen at Harvard are required, without exception, to take an expository essay writing class. Obviously, writing is not an easy subject to learn, let alone attain mastery over.

Yet, the importance of writing well is undeniable. When a group of alumni from eminent colleges were surveyed twenty years after graduating and well ensconced in the world of work, over 90% responded to a list of skills important to their effectiveness on the job by noting the “need to write effectively” was the most important. (Making the Most of College, p.54).  In college the demands on your ability to write build. Outside of the science or engineering majors, over 80% of undergraduates are required to produce over 60 pages of final draft material a year. The 60 pages, however, is at the lower end of the scale. The vast majority of the 80% actually hand in well over 100 pages a year. Only 10% write under 45 pages a year.

The reason so much writing is assigned over the course of a college career is because there is a direct correlation between writing and student engagement. Student engagement can be measured by total time commitment to the course, the level of intellectual challenge the course presents, or the level of personal engagement the course demands. To put it euphemistically, if your writing skills are below par, you will find tremendous challenges in college.

Consequently, the more you write in high school, the better. Juniors usually grapple with the SAT essay, and ever greater writing demands from their classes. For seniors, the need to perfect their essay skills mounts with their college application essays and a steady increase of assignments in AP, IB and CP courses. Probably one of the more difficult aspects of improving our writing is taking our fair share of criticism. Without criticism, though, none of us will get better at writing. Even today, I get portions of my writing chopped up on a regular basis. The trick, however, is to take criticism and actually learn from it.  A few choice suggestions on how to do this are offered by Professor Light:

  1. Meet, if possible, with your instructor and ask for specific, concrete examples on how to improve an early draft.
  2. If you get the same written comments on papers, go over the feedback with your instructor to ensure you understand them.
  3. Identify the passages that need improvement and know specifically where to focus on revising.
  4. Get help from others. The more perspectives you gain from capable readers, the better your essay will become. Again, though, ask for specific feedback and concrete suggestions. General comments such as be more imaginative, are not useful.
  5. Get strategies for revising an essay. If examples used are weak, learn how to strengthen them and find out from the instructor the best course of action.

All the steps above demand that you actively pursue efforts to improve your writing. This effort is not for the faint of heart.

Lastly, probably one of the very best ways to improve your writing is to write for an audience. At my center we feature classes that obviously deal with the elements of writing well: close and careful reading, solid command of grammar and spelling, good clear thinking, and a steady effort to revise and re-think an approach. Nothing brings all these elements together like actually entering contests, such as the Ayn Rand Anthem contest (in which we placed a finalist this year), or the Shakespeare Fellowship Essay Contest (in which one of our students received 6th place). The quest to become a better writer never ends, nor should it.