Everyone knows that taking a college class can be intimidating. And it’s no joke that some of the most important classes you’ll take come in the English department. After all, good communication and writing skills help us succeed in life.
So as the 2019 school year starts, that got me thinking:
What’s the most important step an incoming student should take to pass their writing courses this fall?
To answer this question I gathered 20 college English professors to hear from their perspective. You’ll find their responses sometimes funny and other times blunt, but always helpful. You’ll find them listed below.
Revise your drafts on paper (not on screen).
Tim Dean, University of Illinois: https://www.english.illinois.edu/people/dean
“I will tell you a step that today’s students always skip, to their detriment. Revision is key to good essay writing, and it needs to be done on paper, not on the screen. Students should print out their drafts and read over them on paper—they will see much more clearly what works and what doesn’t in their writing.
I can always tell when students have skipped this crucial step in the writing process, i.e., when they’ve done the entire process on screen.”
Write your arguments in different formats.
Jennifer Boylan, Columbia University: http://jenniferboylan.net/
“All good writing is the result of revision and rewriting, and the sooner you get your mind around this, the more disappointed you can be. Most students write their work the night it is due, thus depriving themselves of the chance to create better work, and, in effect, getting less for their tuition dollar than they should.
I have one class in which students write a 7 page paper, then re-write it as a 21 page paper, then rewrite it as a 3 page paper, and finally do a fourth draft with the length unspecified. In this way, writers come to understand that creation is a process; that it takes time; and that the real insights often take place at the third and fourth draft stages.
In a way, revision for a writer is like practice for a musician. What’s the difference between a good musician and a mediocre one? A good musician likes to practice. A good writer likes to write, and revise.
What’s the best way to ensure you have the time to work this way? Start early.”
No one is going to read your bad writing, including the professor.
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois-Chicago: https://www.deirdremccloskey.com/
“The big secret is that good writing pays well and bad writing pays badly. Rotten writing causes more papers and reports to fail than do rotten statistics or rotten research. You have to be read to be listened to. Bad writing is not read, even by professors or bosses paid to read it. Can you imagine actually reading the worst report or term paper you’ve ever written? Your sainted mother herself wouldn’t.”
Start fast – no wasted space allowed.
Landon Brooks, University of Iowa: https://www.thegreatcourses.com/
“Simply put: start fast.
Don’t waste two or three fairly obvious and generally useless “warm-up sentences” before getting down to business. That first sentence should clearly identify your subject and possibly even go on to indicate your thesis and main talking points. A good cumulative sentence can accomplish loads in this respect, offering a strong base clause followed by more specifics in modifying phrases.
I suspect most college professors are used to skipping or skimming the first few sentences in student papers in which the student tries to ease into the point of the paper with safe and comfortable sweet nothings that do not advance the student’s argument or reveal anything about the student as an individual thinker.
Don’t waste time telling the professor what everyone knows and anyone could have written.”
Leave a comment: Were you ever sure your prof skipped reading your intro (or your entire paper)? When?
The ultimate crime? Ignoring your audience!
Clifford Stumme, YouTube: https://www.popsongprofessor.com/
“Audience. Audience. Audience.
The biggest crime a freshman (or anyone) commits is not considering their audience when they write their paper. Too many people start a paper want to “say something” rather than wanting to “say something to someone.” They want to speak their mind and be heard, but they need to prioritize what their audience needs to hear to be convinced or what their audience needs to hear to be successful.
And the first step in talking to an audience is knowing them. A writer needs to know who they are talking to and know things about them. They need to identify what that audience needs to hear.
If they speak to the audience, they will be successful every time.”
Read it out loud before you submit it.
David Crystal, University of Wales: http://www.davidcrystal.com/
“I would read as much as I could and let the authors influence me. Borrowing and adapting, to find my own stylistic voice.
I would choose a subject I knew well and imagined myself telling it to a familiar audience.
I relished the importance of redrafting … and redrafting … until I was happy, while remembering Valery’s observation that ‘a poem [but for me: any piece of writing] is never finished, only abandoned’.
I valued my increasing awareness about ‘how language works’ – developing a sense of the choices in expression that the language makes available to the writer:
- In its orthography – especially in the punctuation system
- In its grammar – especially in word order
- In its semantics – especially in vocabulary, often using a thesaurus as well as a dictionary
- In its pragmatics – judging the effect my choices would have on my reader.
And still today, I always, always read my writing aloud before submitting it to others. If it doesn’t sound right, there’s something wrong with it.”
Know the text before you write about it.
Simon James, Durham University: https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/staff/
“The key to writing a good English Literature essay is the encounter between the individual reader and the distinctive literary text- and that encounter should be as rich, as sophisticated and as well-informed as possible.
We are not looking for a ‘right’ answer- but a well-developed, scholarly argument well-grounded in the text.”
Step #1: Know your topic
Michael Schilf, Glendale Community College: http://michaelschilf.com/
“Above all else, writing is thinking, but even great thinking is a process. The writer must first inform him or herself thoroughly within a particular subject, ideally using inductive thinking.
Next, the writer must understand his or her specific audience and present the subject with that audience in mind.
Lastly, the writer must be clear and concise, yet still strive for creativity using an original voice.”
Read the syllabus!
Elizabeth Crane, UCR Palm Desert: https://www.elizabethcrane.com/
“Read the syllabus!”
Understand the syllabus.
Jared L. Aragona, Scottsdale Community College: http://writingmyfirstnovel1.blogspot.com
“I’d say the most important step is the same as for any class — understand the syllabus/course expectations/deadlines, then adopt and stick with a time management plan to meet those expectations/deadlines.”
Use the writing center.
Aaron Ritzenberg, Columbia University: https://english.columbia.edu/people/
“Use the writing center.”
Use your on-campus resources.
Susan Kirtley, Portland State University: https://www.pdx.edu/
“I would encourage incoming students to think of writing as a process (including brainstorming, drafting, getting feedback, revising, and editing). I would also advise them to begin that process well before the deadline!
Finally, I’d suggest seeking out all of the resources on campus, such as the Writing Center, classmates, and, yes, even instructors. We are all here to help.”
Follow the Golden Rule.
Laura Otis, Emory University: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/experts/
“‘Write unto others as you would have them write unto you.’ As you’re writing, always think of the reader and imagine yourself in his or her place. Use the kind of evidence that would convince you, and only write sentences that you would want to read.”
Embrace failure and practice sticktoitiveness.
Stacey Donohue, Central Oregon Community College: https://thetwoyearcollege.mla.hcommons.org/
“For success in first year composition, you do not need to be a “talented” writer.
For success in ANY college course, the most basic requirement is a desire to learn and a willingness to not immediately succeed (since “failure” is part of learning anything: think about your first time skiing). Other helpful habits of mind include curiosity, sticktoitiveness (and a playfulness when using words), asking questions, and asking for assistance when needed.
Your professor expects you to discuss your writing with her, and should have either office hours or dedicated conference time for those one to one meetings: take advantage of that.
And in the meantime, start writing now. Keep a journal of the interesting parts of your day, and the questions that came up.
And do some reading: try stretching and reading a type of article, book or blog you haven’t read before. Writing, like exercising, improves with daily attention, but unlike exercising, it can be the very opposite of tedious once you make it a habit. Writing can help you know yourself and your world just a little bit more.”
Keep yourself updated on the news.
Aurora Dominguez, University of Miami: https://www.auroradominguez.com/
“An incoming student should come in with an open mind and open to feedback.
When it comes to writing, it’s very personal, but there is also something beautiful about accepting and receiving feedback about the process. Feedback and collaboration helps writers grow as individuals.
Also, read…come ready to talk about what you’ve read and keep in touch with current events. If you do, you will always have inspiration and something to talk about in class.”
Connect with your professor.
Robert Tinajero, University of North Texas-Dallas: http://blueletters.com/
“I would say there is no one step but a series of things students can do:
- Meet with your professor, or email them, to get more information and clarification when necessary; too many students feel scared or awkward talking to their professor, but don’t; most professors are happy to help
- If the professor doesn’t give you a good example of the essay/paper they are asking you to write, then ask them for one; they should provide you with a strong student essay/paper from a previous semester
- Be aware that there are basically five components to any good paper: Format, Content, Organization, Research/Citation, and Grammar; improve your writing by breaking down your paper into those five components and work at getting better at each over time
- Have the mentality that writing is not something you are expected to be great at already; the whole reason you are taking a writing course is so you can get better
- Have the mentality that becoming a good writer takes time
- Make sure you consistently take advantage of your school’s Writing Center or other free resources like Grammarly, SmartThinking, etc.”
Do the work, spend time thinking, ask questions, and connect with your professors.
Ellen Feig, Bergen Community College: https://bergen.edu/community/center-for-peace-justice-reconciliation/
“The first semester of college or university can be overwhelming; living in a dorm with others, learning how to manage your time between studies and social life, and coming to terms with a new level of school work. As a professor for the last 15 years, I see many first semester students enter college with trepidation, and in many instances, lack of preparation. So how can you be prepared for your freshman semester? More specifically, what are some steps you can take to become a good, if not great, reading and writing student? Here are some tips to insure that your first semester leads to a successful academic career:
- Review the course syllabus and any online material before the class starts: It is always good to look over the syllabus (if there is one) and any material the professor has uploaded to a learning management system as you will have some sense of what to expect. This will also insure that you have any texts or materials that are required.
- Manage your time: One of the most essential steps to success is to set a weekly schedule that takes into account the work you need to do to prepare for class (i.e. reading, research) and the work you need to do as homework (i.e. assignments). Get a wall calendar or agenda and keep a to-do list. Personally, I believe that it’s best to use a hard copy rather than an application on your phone.
- Ask questions: Your professors and teaching assistants are there to help you succeed but about asking for help; this can lead to problems later on so ask as soon as you have a concern.
- Read!! This tip may sound a crazy, but you need to read the material you are given. Reading is what makes for great writing, so it is imperative that you take the time and really read what your professor assigns. I tell my students to read once without note-taking, then to read again while taking notes; avoid highlighting as we tend to highlight everything and try to avoid notetaking on your phone or computer. Get a great notebook and keep all of your reading notes, including questions, in it.
- Try to think critically: This can be a difficult thing to do for many students, but it is important to take your time and think when reading and/or writing. You can’t write a two-page essay until you have really thought about, and attempted to understand, the author’s thesis, tone and intended audience.
- Visit your professor during office hours: Although this is the last tip, it is probably one of the most important ones. The students who frequent my office hours, who stop me to talk after class, are the ones that I remember (I teach over 300 students a semester) and are the ones who tend to get the best grades. Why? Because they want to succeed and take the time to do so. Never underestimate the importance of connecting with your teacher.
Remember that you made it this far and are about to take the next step on your academic journey – it’s an exciting and challenging time of life but one that puts you in the driver’s seat. Be prepared, do the work, spend some time thinking, ask questions, and connect with your professors and you will be a success.”
Find teachers who respect the writing process.
Joonna Trapp, Emory University: http://english.emory.edu/home/people/
“First, you need to be aware you probably will not write great essays in college.
You are an emerging writer, learning, experimenting, failing, and finding success. That’s the way it is. Plus the constraints of limited time, busy schedules, and living a life affect the greatness of your writing. Take all the writing-intensive classes you can bear in your schedule.
Seek out classes and teachers who intentionally scaffold their writing assignments gradually into their courses. That step-by-step process teaches you volumes about how to structure your own writing process.
If possible, don’t wait until the last minute to work on your writing projects. The day you get a writing assignment, begin thinking and inventing ideas immediately, even looking around the library to see what the conversation looks like around the topic of your interest.
Writing in the academy is always part of an ongoing conversation. Finding a way to enter that conversation is a big key to successful writing in college.”
Charm your reader, then write with focus.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood, University of Illinois: https://www.english.illinois.edu/people/gdwood
“To write well you must read and write daily, so think of writing as you think of daily life. Good writing is like a well-managed day, with its check-list of rational tasks–problem solving, organization, and analysis–interspersed with health-giving moments of emotional release (that overheard joke, those inspired texts to your friend).
Your professors want evidence of a well-oiled mind, but also personality. Address your subject with steady focus and restraint, but your reader with charm (remember how you sweet-talked your way past that financial aid officer, that maitre d’…).
Like your successful day, your A paper requires grace under pressure, and wise food choices. Your three-part essay is breakfast, lunch, and dinner–no skipped meals, no caloric crashes. Your pace never flags, your endurance amazes, and your paper crackles with live-giving energy.
A satisfying day is mostly about people, about social transactions, and so it is with writing. That blank word document only seems like a lonely afternoon. Actually, you are about to enter into a high-minded conversation with your reader/professor that might help change the world. Go ahead. Make their day.”
Above all, Embrace curiosity.
Laurence Goldstein, University of Michigan: https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/mqr/
“Congratulations on your acceptance into a college or university, and your desire to write well in each of your courses.
I remember my own first day in the required freshman composition course at UCLA. The instructor, a graduate student, checked off our names and ordered us to walk around the campus on that summer day, take notes on what we saw and heard, and write a report on our findings in the clearest, most vivid prose we could put on paper.
In high school I had mainly written short papers about historical figures, or plot structures in a favorite short story, or rambling essays on the meaning of life. This assignment called upon my ability to describe the world I could see, touch, hear, and smell. Writing my paper opened the gateway to the fundamental pleasure of language, of unusual words, of sensory awareness of the world I would live in under whatever circumstances came my way.
Inevitably, I began to write about major social issues, about complex books of poetry and fiction, about my hopes and dreams for opportunities to live the good life in mind and body.
The teacher wanted to know what kind of students we were, and she was gratified to learn that we possessed an active curiosity and a fascination with the people and things of the world. These are the components of a great essay and ultimately of a lifelong education.”
Leave a comment: Time to represent! What college are you attending this fall and what makes it great?
Wow! It’s obvious these college English professors understand how to succeed in writing classes. Now I want to turn it over to you.