Six Writing Tips for Students

How you can strengthen your professional communication.

Jefferson’s award-winning writing program prepares students to effectively communicate in the workplace and be nimble thinkers and writers who understand the vital role flexibility plays in professional communication.

As part of the University’s Hallmarks program, all undergrads take classes on written and multimedia communication. These courses, which emphasize rhetorical competency and a process-based approach to composition, helped the program earn the prestigious National Council of Teachers of English Certificate of Excellence from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. (Only three other schools received this honor for 2020-2021.)

Throughout the curriculum, faculty often focus on these six tips that will strengthen anyone’s writing skills and help them become better communicators:

1. Understand what conversations and to whom your piece of writing responds. In Jefferson’s intro to academic writing course, we teach the concept of “they say, I say.” When you write, you’re responding to someone else. The rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke compares the beginning of a writing project to having a conversation at a party: You walk in and people are standing around, talking in small groups. You join a group and listen to the conversation. After you’ve realized what your friends are discussing, you “put in your oar” and respond. Your friends disagree, agree and the conversation continues. The hour grows late, and you decide to head home. As you leave, the conversation continues without you. Burke’s “parlor metaphor” underscores the importance of understanding the conversation that your piece of writing joins. How do you understand the conversation? Read!

Quote from Yo-Yo Ma

2. Know your audience. Get a handle on the style and kinds of evidence expected by reading extensively in the area you will contribute. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma says that his job as a musician is to make the listener the most important person in the room. Same with writing. When you’re writing, no matter the genre, you write so others can understand you. It’s an act of hospitality.

3. Make a plan. You wouldn’t run a big race or take a trip without making some plans. It’s the same with writing. Identify the tasks associated with your writing project, assign each task a time limit and then put the tasks into your calendar. Many writers like to divide writing tasks into 20-to-30-minute increments, instead of trying to sit and write for long stretches. For larger projects, you might experiment with stacking several 30-minute sessions to fill a larger chunk of time in the morning, then schedule one shorter session in the afternoon to clean up your writing and prepare for the next day’s session. Writers call this “parking on the downhill slope.” Divide your tasks into SMART goals that are Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timebound. Also, make sure to include reading as one of your writing tasks (see tip No. 1).

4. Have a support system. During the pandemic, many Jefferson writing faculty use virtual “write on-site sessions” to get words on the page. You can do this, too. Invite your friends to a Zoom session, set a time limit, identify a SMART goal, turn on your camera, turn off the mic and write. It’s easier to stay in your seat with someone watching you. As you leave the (virtual) room, send a chat message to your writing partners that describes what you’ve accomplished and where you’ll pick up in the next session.

5. Don’t stress about objectivity. Instead, stress about the positioning of your evidence. Unless you’re writing instructions for IKEA furniture, it likely will be obvious that you’re the document’s author. Don’t hide that you’re the person writing the thing—it never works.

6. Keep at it. Writing is like any other skill or habit of mind. The more you practice, the better you will become. Happy writing!

Dr. Katie Gindlesparger is a professor of writing and rhetoric and director of the writing program at Jefferson.

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