Wise advice from a professional writer and editor who's been there ...
High school and college students: You’re blessed if your professors make you write. You may hate it — a lot of people do — heck, I often hate writing and I do it for a living — but you will learn skills you won’t learn any other way.
But it’s not easy for most people. Here are five rules for the high school and college student given a paper to write. The rules come from a long experience of teaching writing at a seminary and mentoring young writers for the last decade or so. They also come from editing hundreds of people, especially academics and professional writers, including years as editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.
These rules apply to people who want to write for publication as well. Just put in “editor” where I’ve written “teacher.” These people should follow the rules even more closely than students. The professor has to read students’ papers but editors don’t have to read submissions.
For a related article, see Five Unexpected Lessons About Thinking.
First, do what the professor tells you
Well, of course! you say. But lots of students want to do something else. They tell themselves the professor won’t mind. For example, they want to write more than he wants them to write. They think they have to say this, that, and the other thing. So they hand in a five-page paper for a two-page assignment.
The professor will usually have a good reason for telling you to do what he’s telling you to do. He may want you to write just two pages because he wants you to learn to focus, to figure out the main point and select the best evidence, and present it efficiently. Or maybe he just doesn’t have time to read a lot of long papers, because he’s teaching other courses.
If he has a good reason, you won’t learn what you should learn if you ignore his instructions. Even if he doesn’t have a good reason, it’s his class — and your grade.
Second, go small
Pick the narrowest subject you can. A lot of us want to make the big, all-encompassing, solves-the-whole-problem point. You imagine your professor smacking his forehead and saying, “Wow, this student really gets it! Give this kid a full scholarship.” This pretty much never happens.
Find a subject you could put your finger on if you found it. Don’t begin with your theory, meaning you’ll write more of an argument and less of an exposition. You probably don’t know enough to argue your theory well. Write about a person or a book instead, or compare two people or two books. Present what important people have said about your subject. Describe an event drawing upon different sources. That kind of thing.
To put it another way: Don’t over-reach. Don’t say what you can’t say with confidence. Accept the fact that at your age, you can’t say all that much with confidence. That’s why you’re in school.
As someone who’s taught and edited, I’m much happier with the students or writers who tell me something they know, that they can describe well, than with those who send Big Thoughts. The great minds can do that, sure, but most of us mere mortals need to do what we can. That’s our contribution and a necessary one it often is.
Third, decide what you want to argue before you start writing
You may be the kind of person who works out what he thinks by writing. I’m that way. But don’t let that fool you into writing before you have your basic idea. You do that, you waste a lot of time noodling around and tossing up a lot of stuff you can’t use. It’s easy to type instead of write.
Get at least a bumper-sticker version of your argument. Then ask yourself what you mean by it and what evidence you have for it. Your first bumper-sticker may be, “This is a great book.” That’s not much, but you can do something with it. You’d ask yourself: “Why is it a great book? Why do I like it so much? Who should read it?” Then you might find yourself saying something like “It deals with this problem better than these famous books I’ve read” and then you’d lay out your reasons.
Fourth, share your writing with critical readers and listen to them
You need someone to tell you what you’re missing. Almost everyone does. I make much of my living editing academics and professional writers and even they need help putting their argument together and conveying it most effectively. They know too much to see what they don’t know and aren’t saying.
This will be true for you as a student. You need people to tell you they don’t see your point or they can’t follow your argument or your evidence doesn’t convince them. Don’t react — as it’s so, so easy to do — but hear them. Usually you’ll need to rewrite till they’re happy. You may indeed be perfectly clear — to you and to people like you. But if you’re not clear to them, you’re not clear enough.
Fifth, when you’re stuck, leave your computer and write by hand
When I said this to my seminary students, the younger ones always laughed. Out loud. In class. It’s not magic, but something good happens when you physically write. You see what you want to say better. You don’t burble out lots of stuff you can’t use. Your mind kicks into gear in a way it doesn’t always when you’re typing.
These five rules will make your life as a student easier. I could say a lot more about writing, but this is enough for a start. And do remember when you’re muttering to yourself about having to write a paper, your teacher’s giving you a blessing. And at some sacrifice. He’s the one who has to read all those papers.