School papers and improving your writing

May 24, 2018

In college, I spent three semesters working in the school’s writing center. That experience, and the associated class in which I learned how to tutor writing, probably helped my writing more than all of my other college courses combined.

There were a couple reasons for this, from simple tricks like reading aloud1 to more subtle interactions between assignments, grammar, and thought. The duties of a writing assistant were vaguely defined – pretty much just “help with the writing” – and the curriculum gave us a lot of leeway to experiment and figure out what was most helpful for the students we tutored.

One thing I noticed was that helping a student with the grammar and style of their introduction and thesis was usually a good way to help them work out what they actually wanted to argue in their paper. I don’t buy into the trope that if you can’t write clearly, you can’t think clearly, but I do think it works the other way – clarifying your writing helps to clarify your thinking.

Another thing I realized after doing this for a little while is that there might be diminishing returns to increasing the length of an assignment. Most of my classes in college assigned two five-page papers and a ten-page final. Sometimes there would be extra reading responses or half-hearted discussion boards thrown into the mix, but that was the basic structure. The writing class instead assigned a one or two page paper every week, which is roughly the same amount of writing but allows for much more feedback and iterative improvement over the course of the semester. It might require less research, but allows for more practice thinking, too. That was one of the inspirations for this 300-word-post experiment.

  1. Reading a piece of writing aloud is the best way to make it better. People always resist because it seems embarrassing, but there’s no substitute.