Once you have entered the realm known as university, you are faced with a myriad of assignments. Many of these assignment involve you having to put your pen on paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and produce text. This text is consequently used by your instructor to measure how well you know something by either giving you a grade, representing the ‘correctness’ of your text, or by providing you with feedback which either confirms or rejects your knowledge on the subject and might justify the amount of time you actually spent writing.
The problem with writing, and more specifically, writing at university, is that learning to write is exactly the same as learning to ride a bicycle. Most of us start at a very young age, first with the help of our parents, next with the help of training wheels, and before you know it, these have been removed and you’re off. Your horizon has just expanded, you’re skills have been updated, and you are likely not to forget ever again how to ride your bike. Although learning to write is a much more complex process, we do not seem to make the same early start as we do with riding a bike, right?
Come to think of it, even when attending high school, we are often not adequately trained or prepared for university writing. As a result, when most of us enter higher education, we struggle with the writing tasks, and nobody seems to offer us the training wheels we so desperately need to help us learn how to deal with and survive our (first) writing assignments.
The following guidelines are compiled to give you some support. Follow them and I guarantee that writing becomes tolerable and maybe even enjoyable.
The number one problem with writing assignments is the assignment itself. Firstly, writing assignments are designed by instructors who have a pretty good idea what they expect from their students. Secondly, the deadline of the assignment, which is often somewhere at the end of the course.
Regarding the first problem, instructors envision what students should know and how the writing assignment is going to demonstrate this knowledge (i.e. the evaluation). In addition, instructors also use terminology in the assignment which they understand, and of course they will assume that students have the same understanding. For example, a good example of a writing task you might receive is the following:
“Please write a 500 word essay about the impact the euro has had on the economy of Estonia till 2014”.
Although it might seem straight forward, the biggest problem is that, unless agreements have been made, nobody really knows what an ‘essay’ is. Specifically in the European context, there is a huge discrepancy between the meaning of the word and writing traditions. Thus, what does the assignment ask you to do? Write an essay? What is an essay? Should I include arguments? Can I write from my own perspective? Do I need to include references? Paragraphs?
What I’d like to emphasise with this problem is that, as a student, you should always double check your understanding of the assignment with that of your instructor. If you think there is a misunderstanding, or you are not entirely sure what to do: check! If the assignment is vague and the instructions unclear: check! It’s not your fault! Ask what the criteria are for getting a passing grade for your written text. What is assessed? How is it assessed? It is in your benefit to know, and your right to ask.
Regarding the second problem, the deadline of the writing assignment, writing assignments are given and forgotten — well, they remain a distant event in your agenda. If we are procrastinators, the written assignment due at the end of the course is the last thing on our to do list. Until, well, you know it, the night before the deadline. The result, we are producing a product which might (hopefully) pass the rigorous evaluation of the instructor, but, in the process, we have learned very little about the process. Actually, we are happy that we met the deadline, and we’ll see what happens next.
Often, we receive a grade, a pass or a fail. Sometimes we receive feedback, which, as we have already received a grade, we are happy to ignore. Less frequently, we receive substantial feedback which is going to help us make sense why we received the grade we received, and how I should change the text next time I write an ‘essay’.
These two problems have a direct impact on why we are not enjoying and not surviving our writing assignments. The following points are suggestions that will help to bring some joy to writing, learn from the writing, and organise your writing in such a way that you start to wonder why you did not do it sooner.
1. Start early!
This piece of advice is almost too obvious, yet so true. If we consider the deadline to be a problem, this is the only solution. The question remains though, why should we start early? Well, if we consider writing to be a process (like learning to ride a bike), then we can also assume that there are aspects to this writing process which might benefit from an early start. Absolutely! See the next suggestions.
2. Make an outline of your text.
What should be included? Are there different parts you need to consider? Remember, your text is dynamic, which means your outline can be (should be) changed. Outlines are good to get a general perspective of what your text should do. Also, outlines are good for comparisons, once our text is complete. We can make a reverse outline of our text to see how well it matches the original version. This gives us a fair comparison between what our text should do and what it actually does. If it changed, we need to consider why, which in turn helps us to conceptualise our text.
3. Free write!
When we have time to write (start early), we are able to get into the zone of writing through free writing, for example. Free writing is a technique which is used to clear the mind and help writers get over the writers block. Considering what we know about writing (what has been taught to us); we have always been told that the text on paper (or screen) should be correct. In other words, we are often constrained by the spelling errors we make and the grammatical inconsistencies of our sentences. Also, we are constantly interrupted when we are not able to find the right word or sentence structure. This is not at all helpful when we are in the process of writing. Sometimes it is good to just let go and keep writing for 5 minutes without stopping. Do not check your grammar, do not worry about spelling. These are aspects we can always fix at a later point. Sometimes it is important to get ideas on paper. Again, our text is dynamic and ever changing (if we give it time).
4. Be social!
The writing assignments we produce at university are never written for ourselves. They are not a diary we keep. They are always meant to be read by an other, usually our instructor, but sometimes a host of reviewers. Thus, how can we make sure the writing meets the needs of these people? Well, have others read it and comment on it. See your text as a long Facebook post or Tweet. We want to see how many people will comment on it, like it, or retweet it. The more comments, the more likes, and the more shares, the better our assessment of the correctness of the text. Thus, don’t be selfish, share your writing with others and let others share their writing with you. It is more important than you might think. We also know that reading other people’s writing makes us better writers. Make sure, though, that you give yourself enough time to revise your text based on the feedback you receive from others. If your instructor doesn’t give you drafts to write, then you have to do it yourself, and you should!
5. The text is linear the writing is not!
As I indicated earlier, our text is dynamic. This means we do not have to start at the beginning and finish at the end. If you wish, you can start writing the end of your text. Why not? Your conclusions, or final words, might be the most important statement you wish to make about the text. It’s this part which will dictate how the rest of the text will shape itself. Also, revising your text over and over again will help you to become more critical about your text, but also will help to develop your sense of text and audience. The final product is never final. We can always make improvements in our text. It’s important to know what’s wrong with our text and how to improve it.
6. Ask for feedback.
Finally, once you have handed in your text and you receive a grade for it but no feedback, head straight to your instructor and ask for feedback. Why did I get a 5? Why did I get a C? What did you evaluate and how? What did you like about my writing? What did you not like about my writing? Is there something I can do to improve my text? You might think to yourself, isn’t that the duty of the instructor? And you would be right, but, unfortunately, it’s not always the case. The more feedback we receive on our text, the better we become at self diagnosing our writing. Of course, receiving is one thing, reading and processing your text is another. See the tip given above regarding revision.
If you take a few of these points into consideration, then you’ll enjoy the writing process much more. Moreover, these simple solutions will help you to better manage your writing task. If you have just started your career at university, it’s vital that you start developing good constructive writing habits — in other words, do not leave the writing tasks till the night before. Trust me, you’ll need all the help you can get. Specifically when you do not have to do so much writing.
Also, look out for support measures at your university. For example, does your university have a writing centre — a centre where students can drop by and talk to peer writing consultants about their writing. Does your university organise writing courses or writing bootcamps? Make sure these courses and camps offer you plenty of opportunities to go through the process of your writing. Even better would be if these courses or bootcamps will also support disciplinary differences. Never forget, writing is almost like riding a bicycle: usus est magister optimus.
To all students (and teachers) of the University of Tartu, if you recognise yourself and wish to change your habits, you have the opportunity to drop by and talk to our writing consultants about your writing (in both Estonian and English). You can find your Centre of Academic Writing and Communication (AVOK) in the Faculty of Philosophy: Jakobi 2 room 131, or contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.