Help Students Write Better. Now.

May 24, 2017 Diane Rubino

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My earliest efforts to help students improve their writing bombed. Pointing out problems and explaining how to correct them did not have an impact. However, I began to see results when I put students in charge of identifying their own mistakes and tracking their progress.

My quest began when I started teaching mid-career. I quickly became overwhelmed by the sad state of student writing. But I wasn’t teaching writing per se. So, what’s someone like me to do?

Writing Hacks for Hack Writing

After commiserating with peers got me nowhere, I turned to the assignments to explore what I meant by shoddy prose. I asked myself, “Why doesn’t this piece work?” I noticed patterns across students, papers, and classes. I then focused my efforts and theirs on addressing the key trends I found. The remedies won’t generate Pulitzer Prizes. But students who take their work seriously get surprisingly better, surprisingly quickly with these easy-to-use ideas.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go With MS Word

A key component of lousy writing is long, leaden, stream-of-consciousness sentences that seem to go from brain to computer to “send,” without reflection and editing.

I initially provided a litany of feedback and tried to help students set goals, by suggesting priorities for each person. I now focus on two areas in every course. Keeping it simple improves adherence and is easier on them and me.

  • Passive aggressive. It was not unusual to see an assignment with one-third of the text in passive voice. Explaining that this habit translates into boring writing wasn’t enough to make change happen. What did make a difference was articulating a target (around zero percent) and having students write their passive voice score in the document. If students can’t identify this problem, MS Word can be set to perform that function for them.
  • Slash-and-burn sentences. My students regularly clocked in with rambling sentences which were dozens of words in length. Windy phrases from beginning writers are almost invariably weak. Now they use the word-per-sentence meter in MS Word to keep sentences under 15. Here too there was zero change until students were instructed to submit a word tally with the assignment. I also help them identify culprits by looking for phrases that spill over two lines of word-processed text without a period.

Happily, MS Word’s Authoring and Proofing tools have many options to help beginners become attuned to pitfalls.

These two adjustments help a lot. For example, they changed one student’s first tedious slog into a noticeably more readable essay just one week later.

The Music of Language

Reading your writing aloud is a surefire method to discover clunky wording. There’s no easy way to ensure students complete this task. So I conduct a staged reading to show how a deliberate pace and careful listening helps to identify weaknesses. They then read an assignment to a partner in a pair-and-share to help each other hear problems. In the same session, students also read aloud a section of James Joyce’s The Odyssey to get a taste of the value of punctuation. They decide how the text should sound, which means they spontaneously insert commas and periods to create the rhythm giving meaning to the text.

Ideas From Last Century to Last Month

Introducing a few other tools provides students with additional self-help options:

  • A classic that seems modern. I assumed students would be familiar with the near-perfect Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I was wrong. Since its table of contents conveniently telegraphs its lessons, I have students review only the ToC—an assignment so micro even the most beleaguered can manage it.
  • Modern classic. I also ask everyone to use an online grammar checker like Grammarly to enhance their ability to catch mistakes. Though I thought every student would know about these tools, I was wrong about this too. Yet they seem to appreciate it. Even one of my most reluctant students spontaneously announced that she was now using this program for all her work.

Common Sense Is Not Common 

  • Articulate expectations. Conveying the importance of writing well and a sense of urgency about corrective action may be the only step needed. A syllabus alert and a short discussion on the first day of class reinforces the idea that form and function matter. It also allows for the airing of a routine question: Don’t I get credit for my ideas? Because I teach in a communications program, it’s easier for me to say, “Only good ideas well expressed matter in the class and in your career.”
  • Use existing resources. If you’re a part-time instructor, you may not know about all the student services on campus. It may be valuable to research what’s available. If there is a writing center at your school, it may be time for a referral. I do this often.

As a whole, these ideas are helpful because they encourage students to reflect on and edit their work, something they didn’t seem to do on their own. Another benefit is that they provide an obvious next step. Students may not know what to do with a comment about wordiness, for example. Being instructed to put phrases on a 15-word diet, however, makes expectations clear.

Writing is a complex craft and improving it is an arduous, lengthy endeavor. However, I’ve found a middle ground. For me, this place is located somewhere between ignoring bad prose completely and adopting the role of iconic writing teacher William Zinsser.

Students need assistance with their writing. Some require more guidance than others. How have you incorporated writing skills improvement in your course? Let us know in the comments below.

Image credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock


About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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