We’ve all been there. The blank page staring up, mocking, inviting us to try to fill it with our sentences. The ideas swirl in our heads, but the words just won’t come. Whether it’s a timed writing exercise, an application essay, or that last term paper before summer break, we sometimes find ourselves struggling to translate thoughts onto a page. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The one skill that links all academic subjects is writing. No matter a student’s intended field of study, writing is an invaluable skill. Doctors write reports and articles. Lawyers draft briefs and letters. Businesspeople create case studies and proposals. The list goes on; there’s a reason that the College Board made the Writing section mandatory on the SAT in 2005. Perhaps no other skill can provide across-the-board success as does writing. Whether it be for standardized tests, a specific school project, the dreaded college admissions essay, or just for general improvement, it is never too early or too late to seek help in enhancing a student’s writing ability.
A common complaint from students is “I’m just not a good writer.” Writing, though, is more a craft than an innate talent—it can be developed, just like any other academic skill. Proper grammar, precise vocabulary, and an understanding of structure can all be learned, with practice. These, when combined, can open up the conduit between brain and page and help create a distinct, accessible writing style.
Let’s take a look at a few general tips that can help a student find quick improvement.
LESS IS MORE
I know, I know. There’s so much empty white space to fill and so little time to fill it! But you must fight against the urge to use extra redundant unnecessary inessential words to take up all that space. See how obvious it was? Repress that word-stuffing mentality, which will leave your writing the equivalent of cotton candy: voluminous and fluffy, but ultimately empty and forgettable. By focusing on conciseness, you’ll find that the words you do use will be much more powerful, and the ideas they support will be the same.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORD
It’s tempting to show off that big vocabulary you’ve worked so hard to achieve (you have been studying vocabulary, haven’t you?), but do so only like an artist uses her tools—the right one for the right situation. Just like a master sculptor wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to hone the details on a glass figurine, so you shouldn’t necessarily use a six-syllable French-derived adjective when the word “dry” will suffice. Those big ten dollar words often have secondary connotations that can alter their meaning, and while most people may not know all those secondary definitions, the people reading your essay—whether a teacher, professor, or college admissions officer—will, and shake their heads in dismay at your misuse. That said, if the big word works, use it! There may be very few occasions in life to throw defenestrate into a sentence, so you have to pounce on them when they come up.
GET TO THE POINT
One of the most drastic errors a student can make while writing an essay is to answer the wrong question, or not answer the question at all. Stories abound about very talented writers who received low scores on beautifully written papers simply because they didn’t address the proper issue. Make sure, no matter what prompt you are given—whether the ambiguous moral quandaries of the SAT essay (“Is lying ever justified?”) to the personal reflection narratives called for by college applications (“Describe a risk you have taken and discuss its impact on your life”)—that you answer the question in unequivocal terms. Hubris, nerves, or poor planning can lead a student to go off on an unrelated tangent, one that can eventually take over the essay and render the whole work, literally, pointless. Stay the course.
Of course, writing tips are easy enough to say, much harder to implement. It is only through practice, of both writing and reading, that a student can learn how to harness his or her thoughts and corral them onto a page. The dedicated tutors at Academic Achievers include many professional writers and teachers who have the experience necessary to help students see great writing improvement that will enhance every aspect of their education. Best of all, students will develop a crucial avenue for self-expression, one that cuts across all academic boundaries and helps them reach a better understanding of themselves and what they are truly trying to say.
Andrew Bailey is an Academic Achievers’ tutor and writing instructor who has taught hundreds of students how to write well. He was previously the head SAT Instructor for San Marino Academy and has taught all aspects of the SAT verbal and SAT writing sections. Andrew has privately tutored high school and middle school students one-on-one for over 5 years.