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I thought I was a good writer. Then I went to college.

Tips from a still-learning writer.

I love to look back and laugh at my writing from high school. It was a hot mess. 

I’m often told I have a natural writing talent, but talent can only get people so far.

Enter Lauren, freshman year of college:

“HOW THE HECK DO I WRITE IN APA STYLE?”

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T USE ADVERBS?” 

“WHY DO I USE ‘THAT’ OVER 100 TIMES IN MY PAPER?”

In my four years of higher education, I learned how to write beyond “natural talent.” I learned fundamentals and practical skills. It’s amazing how much I didn’t know. 

I am going to let you in on my classroom experience as a writing student with hopes it will help you along your writing journey. Prepare to be floored (or say, “Huh. Didn’t know that,” or “I hate the English language with a burning passion.” I get it). 

Level one: The basics

The Purdue OWL

The first time I wrote a paper in college it was in APA style. I did not know APA style. I panicked. Then I did a frantic search on Google. Then I found the miracle that is the Purdue OWL APA formatting and style guide. I now have it memorized. 

Stop overusing ‘that’

In one of my first creative writing classes, my professor warned us against the “that” crutch. More often than not, “that” is not necessary in your sentence. 

For example:

A teddy bear is something that I need to sleep. 

A teddy bear is something I need to sleep. 

“That” is not adding meaning to the sentence, so it’s just taking up space. The word becomes clutter (more on that in a second) and overtakes your piece of writing. Get rid of “that” whenever possible. One way to do this? Search “that” in your document (Command+F if you’re on a Mac) and delete like a maniac. 

Clutter: Get it out

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser wrote, “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” After I read the book, I applied my new knowledge of clutter in two ways: I cut unnecessary words and I stopped trying to make myself sound smart. 

Unnecessary words (like “that,” “just,” and “kind of”) may help your word count, but they help nothing else. Also, don’t get me started on word count requirements. That’s a grievance for a different day (word count requirements often lead to fluff in pieces of writing. Oops, it slipped. Sorry). 

I am guilty of adding “thus” and “henceforth” to academic papers. Inflating is embedded into American culture. We want to impress, but there is no need to use fancy words in our writing to do so. More often than not, adding academic words confuses readers and makes your writing messy. Be simple, but effective. 

Level two: The details

Adverbs are useless

I didn’t recognize my excessive use of adverbs until I took a fiction class. I couldn’t stop describing my characters’ actions with phrases like, “He looked at her lovingly,” or “She walked quickly.” I soon realized there are words in the English language for both of those phrases that don’t include the use of an adverb. “He gazed at her.” “She trotted.” 

Adverbs are lazy. Don’t use them. How to stop? Gain access to a dictionary and a thesaurus. Use them. 

Passive voice. It’s complicated. 

Passive voice deserves a whole blog post. My tip for avoiding it is to check if the subject of your sentence performs the action. 

For example: 

The event is being hosted by the university. This is passive.

The university is hosting the event. This is active. 

It’s confusing. The Purdue OWL has your back on this one, too. 

Revise the s#!+ out of your writing

In all of my beginning writing classes, we read the infamous S#!++y First Drafts by Anne Lamott. It was a wake up call I needed to let go of my first draft pride. I used to get defensive when I received feedback or edits of my writing, but I had to get over it fast when I entered my first creative writing workshop. After that, I realized the magic of revision. I often turn my (horrendous) first drafts into a shell and build better writing. I use my peers’ comments to fill plot holes and mend confusion. I read out loud to hear how words sound when they are strung together a certain way. It’s a thrill, and at the end I am left with a stronger, more cohesive piece of writing. 

Don’t be afraid to let go of your baby first draft. It will grow. 

Level three: The personality

The first few paragraphs aren’t you

You get more comfortable the further you write in a piece. At the end, you may look back and see what you wrote at the start is stiff and awkward. Cut it. It’s not you. It’s you who is trying to look good before you get comfortable. 

Know the central message of your piece

I’m not going to tell you the key to a successful piece of writing is to have an outline. Why? Because I don’t use them, and I know plenty of writers who don’t. I will tell you to identify the key message of your piece. This clear vision will guide your writing and make it easier to come full circle. If you have markers and ideas you want to hit along the way, that’s great. Just don’t be alarmed if your process changes around your central idea. This is normal. 

Know your reader, but know your voice more

“Know your audience.” A lesson drilled into my head from my communication classes.

This is good advice. It is important to know who you are writing for and to, but don’t tailor all of your words to fit your audience. Your writing will come off less genuine. Trust your voice and your ability to deliver a quality message without compromising your style. Your readers or listeners will thank you for not sounding like a robot. 

The last lap

To be a writer, you must be a reader

It’s the tried and true practice. Read as much as you can. I would not love writing memoir if I had not first loved reading it. 

You are in progress your whole life

Your writing will never be perfect. I guarantee there are mistakes and contradictions in this blog post about writing tips. It is inevitable. I am human. 

The cool thing about being human: There is always more to learn and progress to be made. So, I will keep on. 

Now, onto revision. 

 

*I derived most of these tips from On Writing Well by William Zinsser. If you want to become a writer, or become a better writer, start by reading that book. 

 

 

By laurenstockam

Lauren is graduate student at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO.

2 replies on “I thought I was a good writer. Then I went to college.”

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