Three strategies for helping college students (or anyone) become better writers

by | Feb 19, 2021

Whether your courses are online or on campus, you’re not going to get through your undergraduate or graduate school career without having to write a paper – or 20, depending on your field of study. While you might not have to write lengthy research papers post-graduation, you will likely need to write a resume and cover letter, emails to colleagues and/or clients, work or personal memos, and possibly business plans and reports. Strong writing skills will set you apart from other job candidates and help you be successful in your career as well as other parts of your life.

So, how can you improve your writing skills?

1. Read. 

“I strongly believe that,” said Emily Knox, Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and an award-winning Associate Professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois. (Check out the MS/IM program, which is returning online in Fall 2022.)

Knox spoke about the correlation between reading and writing well in her presentation on effective and efficient teaching strategies, which she gave recently as part of The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series.

“The problem with a lot of our students is they do not read,” Knox said, during a discussion on writing with other instructors. “That’s where you see a lot of the issues with things like ‘intents and purposes’ … which sounds like ‘intensive purposes.’ Yes, they do read a lot on the internet, but what I mean is … what we call intensive reading.”

When you read a book, newspaper or magazine article, blog, even a well-written set of directions, you are studying the art of writing. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you’re getting a sense of how good writing should be done and how writers use voice, plot, style, and other elements to effectively tell their story or convey their message. Reading also helps you build your vocabulary, expand your understanding of things, and spark your creativity, among other things.

While “The Iliad,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are certainly examples of good writing, don’t try to slog your way through the classics if that’s not your thing. If you’re a sports nut, try “Friday Night Lights.” If you enjoy traveling, check out “Eat, Pray, Love.” If you’re into poetry, Google the poems of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman. Start reading a newspaper, magazine, or blog. In other words, read something that appeals to you. It will make you want to read more.

2. Write

If you want to get good at something, you’ve got to practice. Try journaling a few times a week about a class, something that happened in your day, somewhere you would like to travel, a new recipe or piece of tech you’re dying to try. You could also try writing a letter to the editor of the Daily Illini or your hometown publication or a blog post. You can write about a topic that’s trending online (Social media posts don’t count!) or something that you’re passionate about even if it’s a review of your favorite coffee shop or study spot.

Looking at a blank screen or sheet of paper can be intimidating even for seasoned writers. Once you choose a topic, start jotting down things that come into your head. What is the main idea (or ideas) that you want to convey? What details about that idea should your audience know? Don’t worry about organization, grammar, or punctuation at this point. Once you have something down, go back and organize your thoughts.

“One thing students get very bogged down in is what do I think is good writing,” Knox said, adding that’s caused some to freeze up.

“What I try to do is encourage students to write in a style that makes most sense for them,” she continued, adding she doesn’t care if they write in first or third person. “I don’t worry about what style guide the students are using. What I want them to do is write clearly in a style that works for them.”

Knox added that over her years of teaching, she’s rethought her writing assessments and doesn’t require a long research paper “with 20 citations” if that assessment doesn’t fit her course objectives. In some cases, she said, it makes more sense having them write a persuasive letter or a piece of writing they would write as a business professional.

3. Revise, revise, revise

This is something everyone should do regardless of their level of expertise or experience. 

Remember, one of the main goals of writing is making sure you’re communicating your knowledge and ideas clearly and effectively. If you have time, it’s always a good idea to step away from your computer to give your mind (and eyes) a break. When you return, you can look at your piece objectively and critique your main point (or thesis), your organization, word choice, etc., and then proofread for grammar and punctuation. (Tip: If you run out of breath while reading, you may need to add a comma or period or two.)

One of the best ways of making sure you’re conveying your ideas effectively is by asking someone to review your work and provide feedback. So, reach out to a classmate, a tutor, or your instructor who will offer some constructive criticism. This step is especially important if you’re writing an academic paper and want to make sure you’re using the right tone and citing research correctly, among other things.

Do you have any tips for sharpening your writing chops? For more writing support, check out Illinois Online's Writing Support page.