This is “Becoming a Successful College Writer”, section 1.3 from the book Successful Writing (v. 1.0).
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In the preceding sections, you learned what you can expect from college and identified strategies you can use to manage your work. These strategies will help you succeed in any college course. This section covers more about how to handle the demands college places upon you as a writer. The general techniques you will learn will help ensure your success on any writing task, whether you complete a bluebook exam in an hour or an in-depth research project over several weeks.
Writing well is difficult. Even people who write for a living sometimes struggle to get their thoughts on the page. Even people who generally enjoy writing have days when they would rather do anything else. For people who do not like writing or do not think of themselves as good writers, writing assignments can be stressful or even intimidating. And of course, you cannot get through college without having to write—sometimes a lot, and often at a higher level than you are used to.
No magic formula will make writing quick and easy. However, you can use strategies and resources to manage writing assignments more easily. This section presents a broad overview of these strategies and resources. The remaining chapters of this book provide more detailed, comprehensive instruction to help you succeed at a variety of assignments. College will challenge you as a writer, but it is also a unique opportunity to grow.
To complete a writing project successfully, good writers use some variation of the following process.
Chances are, you have already used this process as a writer. You may also have used it for other types of creative projects, such as developing a sketch into a finished painting or composing a song. The steps listed above apply broadly to any project that involves creative thinking. You come up with ideas (often vague at first), you work to give them some structure, you make a first attempt, you figure out what needs improving, and then you refine it until you are satisfied.
Most people have used this creative process in one way or another, but many people have misconceptions about how to use it to write. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions students have about the writing process:
For a more thorough explanation of the steps of the writing process as well as for specific techniques you can use for each step, see Chapter 8 "The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?".
The writing process also applies to timed writing tasks, such as essay exams. Before you begin writing, read the question thoroughly and think about the main points to include in your response. Use scrap paper to sketch out a very brief outline. Keep an eye on the clock as you write your response so you will have time to review it and make any needed changes before turning in your exam.
In Section 1.2 "Developing Study Skills", you learned general time-management skills. By combining those skills with what you have learned about the writing process, you can make any writing assignment easier to manage.
When your instructor gives you a writing assignment, write the due date on your calendar. Then work backward from the due date to set aside blocks of time when you will work on the assignment. Always plan at least two sessions of writing time per assignment, so that you are not trying to move from step 1 to step 5 in one evening. Trying to work that fast is stressful, and it does not yield great results. You will plan better, think better, and write better if you space out the steps.
Ideally, you should set aside at least three separate blocks of time to work on a writing assignment: one for prewriting and outlining, one for drafting, and one for revising and editing. Sometimes those steps may be compressed into just a few days. If you have a couple of weeks to work on a paper, space out the five steps over multiple sessions. Long-term projects, such as research papers, require more time for each step.
In certain situations you may not be able to allow time between the different steps of the writing process. For instance, you may be asked to write in class or complete a brief response paper overnight. If the time available is very limited, apply a modified version of the writing process (as you would do for an essay exam). It is still important to give the assignment thought and effort. However, these types of assignments are less formal, and instructors may not expect them to be as polished as formal papers. When in doubt, ask the instructor about expectations, resources that will be available during the writing exam, and if they have any tips to prepare you to effectively demonstrate your writing skills.
Each Monday in Crystal’s Foundations of Education class, the instructor distributed copies of a current news article on education and assigned students to write a one-and-one-half- to two-page response that was due the following Monday. Together, these weekly assignments counted for 20 percent of the course grade. Although each response took just a few hours to complete, Crystal found that she learned more from the reading and got better grades on her writing if she spread the work out in the following way:
For more detailed guidelines on how to plan for a long-term writing project, see Chapter 11 "Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?".
One key to succeeding as a student and as a writer is setting both short- and long-term goals for yourself. You have already glimpsed the kind of short-term goals a student might set. Crystal wanted to do well in her Foundations of Education course, and she realized that she could control how she handled her weekly writing assignments. At 20 percent of her course grade, she reasoned, those assignments might mean the difference between a C and a B or between a B and an A.
By planning carefully and following through on her daily and weekly goals, Crystal was able to fulfill one of her goals for the semester. Although her exam scores were not as high as she had hoped, her consistently strong performance on writing assignments tipped her grade from a B+ to an A−. She was pleased to have earned a high grade in one of the required courses for her major. She was also glad to have gotten the most out of an introductory course that would help her become an effective teacher.
How does Crystal’s experience relate to your own college experience?
To do well in college, it is important to stay focused on how your day-to-day actions determine your long-term success. You may not have defined your career goals or chosen a major yet. Even so, you surely have some overarching goals for what you want out of college: to expand your career options, to increase your earning power, or just to learn something new. In time, you will define your long-term goals more explicitly. Doing solid, steady work, day by day and week by week, will help you meet those goals.
In this exercise, make connections between short- and long-term goals.
One reason students sometimes find college overwhelming is that they do not know about, or are reluctant to use, the resources available to them. Some aspects of college will be challenging. However, if you try to handle every challenge alone, you may become frustrated and overwhelmed.
Universities have resources in place to help students cope with challenges. Your student fees help pay for resources such as a health center or tutoring, so use these resources if you need them. The following are some of the resources you might use if you find you need help:
Students sometimes neglect to use available resources due to limited time, unwillingness to admit there is a problem, or embarrassment about needing to ask for help. Unfortunately, ignoring a problem usually makes it harder to cope with later on. Waiting until the end of the semester may also mean fewer resources are available, since many other students are also seeking last-minute help.
Identify at least one college resource that you think could be helpful to you and you would like to investigate further. Schedule a time to visit this resource within the next week or two so you can use it throughout the semester.
You now have a solid foundation of skills and strategies you can use to succeed in college. The remainder of this book will provide you with guidance on specific aspects of writing, ranging from grammar and style conventions to how to write a research paper.
For any college writing assignment, use these strategies:
For help with specific writing assignments and guidance on different aspects of writing, you may refer to the other chapters in this book. The table of contents lists topics in detail. As a general overview, the following paragraphs discuss what you will learn in the upcoming chapters.
Chapter 2 "Writing Basics: What Makes a Good Sentence?" through Chapter 7 "Refining Your Writing: How Do I Improve My Writing Technique?" will ground you in writing basics: the “nuts and bolts” of grammar, sentence structure, and paragraph development that you need to master to produce competent college-level writing. Chapter 2 "Writing Basics: What Makes a Good Sentence?" reviews the parts of speech and the components of a sentence. Chapter 3 "Punctuation" explains how to use punctuation correctly. Chapter 4 "Working with Words: Which Word Is Right?" reviews concepts that will help you use words correctly, including everything from commonly confused words to using context clues.
Chapter 5 "Help for English Language Learners" provides guidance for students who have learned English as a second language. Then, Chapter 6 "Writing Paragraphs: Separating Ideas and Shaping Content" guides you through the process of developing a paragraph while Chapter 7 "Refining Your Writing: How Do I Improve My Writing Technique?" has tips to help you refine and improve your sentences.
Chapter 8 "The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?" through Chapter 10 "Rhetorical Modes" are geared to help you apply those basics to college-level writing assignments. Chapter 8 "The Writing Process: How Do I Begin?" shows the writing process in action with explanations and examples of techniques you can use during each step of the process. Chapter 9 "Writing Essays: From Start to Finish" provides further discussion of the components of college essays—how to create and support a thesis and how to organize an essay effectively. Chapter 10 "Rhetorical Modes" discusses specific modes of writing you will encounter as a college student and explains how to approach these different assignments.
Chapter 11 "Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?" through Chapter 14 "Creating Presentations: Sharing Your Ideas" focus on how to write a research paper. Chapter 11 "Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?" guides students through the process of conducting research, while Chapter 12 "Writing a Research Paper" explains how to transform that research into a finished paper. Chapter 13 "APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting" explains how to format your paper and use a standard system for documenting sources. Finally, Chapter 14 "Creating Presentations: Sharing Your Ideas" discusses how to transform your paper into an effective presentation.
Many of the chapters in this book include sample student writing—not just the finished essays but also the preliminary steps that went into developing those essays. Chapter 15 "Readings: Examples of Essays" of this book provides additional examples of different essay types.