Top tips for student writers

For many of us in Higher Education, and probably elsewhere, the summer term is well and truly ‘marking season’. As a marker, I am involved in work that is a process of both grading and guiding my students. As I mark, my comments are on one level devised to help students sharpen their thinking and develop their understanding, But on another level, I aim to provide comments that aid student writing and support my students as they move on as writers to the next piece of work assigned to them.

In the spirit of aiding student writing, and as a timely break from marking, I thought it might be worthwhile to put together a list of top ten writing tips. There may be some points that are useful to share with your own students, or indeed, with other writers:

Top ten tips for student writers

  1. Read

It seems obvious but I don’t think that the importance of reading as an aid to writing can be overstated. Reading and writing are intricately related. Reading develops ways of both thinking and saying, and exposure to reading is gradually internalised so that writers can eventually develop an inner voice that works to rearticulate ideas for themselves. The more one reads, the better the writing becomes.

  1. Answer the question

This is an oldie but a goodie. One common gripe about student writing is the tendency to include irrelevant materials and discussion matter. Usually this happens because writing content becomes too broad. One way to avoid such ills is to refer back to the question or task frequently so that you remind yourself of the task at hand. A simple strategy here is to put the brief or question as a header so that it is at the top of every page.

  1. Write from a plan not from your head

Building from the above point, another way to avoid writing irrelevantly is to write from a plan. This is another obvious tip but it never fails to surprise me how many people start writing without a writing plan in place. If you think about it, expecting yourself to be able to contain a range of complex ideas in your head and to transfer these to the page in a structured, cohesive and logical way, is a huge ask for anyone. Instead, writing from a plan allows you to arrange, sequence and synthesise ideas, content and argument much more effectively.

  1. Write to learn

Plan your writing but don’t be a slave to it. Writing happens in tandem with thinking. As you write, new ideas, insights and even eureka moments come to the fore. Embrace these moments and let them inform what you are writing. So write with a plan but do so flexibly.

  1. Keep reading

I have already said that reading and writing are interlinked. But it is also worth pointing out that these are activities that are both iterative in nature. Some preliminary reading helps to shape initial ideas, but ongoing reading might help to finetune them. Don’t see writing and reading as separate stages in the writing process.

  1. Be precise

Precision is a key ingredient to good writing. Avoid ‘the’ and ‘this’ type statements unless it is abundantly clear what ‘the’ and ‘this’ refers to. Take note too of any generic writing such as ‘some politicians’ or ‘a while ago’. It is usually much better to state exactly who and exactly when.

  1. Learn to signpost

Making writing flow aids academic argument. There are some simple signposting words that can help such as ‘therefore’ and ‘however’, but make sure that the use of these types of words are actually appropriate for what it is you are saying. More sophisticated ways of signposting might be including a sentence that connects the last paragraph to the subsequent one. Don’t be afraid to refer back to help the reader understand how the paragraphs fit together.

  1. Plan your time

All writing takes time and must fit around other commitments. To make writing happen, it must be prioritised and given the time and space it requires. One way to approach the prioritisation of writing is to make a simple timetable that ringfences specified amounts of time when you can get writing done. Just make sure that time allocated to writing is sufficient.

  1. Edit

Good writers are often good editors. In fact, editing should be factored into any time plan for writers wanting to produce their very best writing work. It is through editing that writing can be tickled into shape. Look out for ways to make the writing sharper and more readable. Edit out areas of weakness such as writing off-point, repetition or awkward sequencing of ideas. Finally, remember that editing is different from proofreading. Proofreading is a system of checking for errors. Editing is a system of actively looking for ways to enhance your writing.

  1. Have fun

This might seem like an odd tip to end with but having fun with writing is important. Writing might seem like a chore at times but it is also a craft. Just like any craft, it is something that takes time, care and practice if to get good at it. But a craft is also a creation, an extension of you and an expression of how you see the world.  Writing, even academic writing, is a creative form of human expression. Enjoying writing often aids writing.

My top ten is not an exhaustive list. I have highlighted common issues that I think are always useful to pay attention to. Hopefully, in sharing these ideas, there are some quick pointers that might be useful for others –  either for their own purposes or for the purposes of helping their own students. For me, it is time to get back to my marking. As I do, I will undoubtedly find myself thinking what else might help student writers with writing in Higher Education.

Verity Aiken


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