Writing Tips from the Center

Posted: February 21, 2014

by Lauren Jennings, Writing Center Consultant

When I first learned I would be writing an article for the Writing Center’s website, I let the best faux smile I could muster hide the terror that was beginning to stir in my chest. While I do love to express myself through written words, doing so isn’t always easy. I tend to prefer more structured assignments; give me an academic prompt and I can usually pump out a good product without too much sweat. However, tell me to write something about anything and I freeze stiller than a deer in headlights. Whether it’s trying to choose a topic or trying to translate the thoughts in my head to words on paper, figuring out what to say and how to say it can be quite the struggle. So, sometimes I talk myself out of writing altogether. What I’ve learned so far, though, is that if you talk yourself out of doing something enough times, you might actually begin to believe that you are incapable of doing it at all.


For some of us, writing can be stressful. We can be under so much pressure to write something great that it can feel like it is crushing our creativity. It reminds me of that episode of SpongeBob where he spends nearly three days slumped over his desk with nothing to show for it but a beautifully crafted ‘the at the top of the page, then proceeds to drive himself insane rather than write his essay. It may be funny to watch, but it is not so funny when you are in a similar position. The good news is that many, if not all, of us suffer from writing concerns at some point in our lives. Want more good news? We don’t have to be slaves to our writing woes. There are many tips and tricks to kick start writing projects, polish up a written assignment, or just start liking writing a bit more. Read on to find some practical ways you can address your academic hang-ups and make writing a little less daunting for yourself.



Let’s say you’ve found a sudden gust of motivational wind. You’ve pried your eyes away from Facebook, opened a fresh Word Document, and have your syllabus open to the assignment page. What now? Well, a quick brainstorming session might help. If you have not been assigned a topic, try making a quick list of all of the possible topics you could write about, and ideas associated to those topics. The key is to write quickly so as not to second-guess the thoughts buzzing around in your head. Everything is fair game—something that may seem farfetched at first may end up being the idea you go with. Do not limit yourself based on what you think is the “right answer”. Consider what you are passionate about, what your interests are you, what you don’t know much about but would love to learn more, or what you think you might be able to find good research on. For more help with this, check out the Writing Center’s handout on brainstorming. You can even do a quick Google search on potential topics to help get the ideas flowing.


Break assignments into sections

This could be a helpful practice if, like me, you are intimidated by the thought of writing an entire paper from start to finish. Split the outline of your paper up into manageable parts and work on one part at a time. Perhaps you have decided that you’ll have an introduction, a main argument, three reasons to support the argument, and a conclusion. Create headings for each section, then pick one to work on first. Don’t worry about the other sections—you can address those later. If, however, you have an idea for a section other than the one you’re working on, jot the ideas down under the heading for that section so you don’t forget them. And don’t be afraid to work on the sections out of order! I often won’t touch my introduction until I have most of my main argument finished. Pick the order that works for you.  


Jot ideas down

When I write, I tend to do so sporadically and in pieces. I spill a thought on paper, then start a new line two spaces down with a completely unrelated thought. That’s definitely okay. Writing assignments don’t have to be neat little packages until it’s time to turn them in. Also keep in mind that brainstorming is not confined to the beginning of the writing process, so don’t be afraid to jot down new ideas as you’re working on the assignment. Try to jot down your new ideas as soon possible. You may think you’ll remember it later, but in the process of juggling multiple ideas and distractions, chances are you won’t. Why take the chance?


Take a walk

Getting away from your paper and walking (or running) around outside will help get your blood flowing, increase your energy, and sharpen your ability to focus once you return to your paper. When you’re walking, try to release your mind from any stressful thoughts related to the assignment. Take note of your surroundings, what you hear, what you smell, and what you see. It may sound like a cheesy exercise, but relaxing your mind and opening your senses to your surroundings, whether they’re campus buildings, car traffic, or a row of trees, can reduce the mind cramps and increase your creativity.


Don’t wait

You may feel as if you work better under pressure. For some people, there’s nothing like a rush of adrenal to kick-start the writing process an hour before an assignment is due. While you may pump out more content in two hours than you do over the course of two days, it is also likely that the rushed product is not as good as what you might have come up with if you had spent more time working on it. Think of it this way: You know those moments when, in the midst of a heated conversation, you can’t think of anything good to say? Then, ten minutes after everything is said and done, every clever remark under the sun comes to mind and you ask yourself, why didn’t I think of that then?! Wouldn’t it be great to have those moments back? Well, that’s exactly the opportunity you give yourself if you start working on an assignment well before it’s due. This can prevent quite a bit of painful hindsight in the long run.


Ask a friend

Peer editing isn’t just for the classroom. No matter what stage of the writing process you are in, having a friend, roommate, or peer provide some input on your assignment can be very helpful. Find one or two people whom you are comfortable sharing your writing with, and whom you trust to be completely honest with you about those awkward word choices, or who can offer good insight into your project. I was recently in a situation where I had free-written about something random and wanted to turn it into something more meaningful. A friend looked over it, then offered a great suggestion: turn it into a poem! I heeded the advice, and what initially was a random journal entry turned out to be a pretty cool poem. So, don’t be afraid to share your work with others. You never know what great advice will come of it.


Read, read, read

This is a practice that will help you improve as a writer and academic in the long run. Children’s author Edward Irving Wortis, more commonly known as Avis, once said that the best way to improve your writing is to read. Making a habit of reading regularly, even if it is a textbook, will ultimately benefit us as writers, and even as people. One reason is that reading allows us to explore examples of good (and, unfortunately, bad) writing. The more we read the way others express their ideas, the more we learn the most appropriate, effective, and skillful ways to express our ideas. Also, reading improves our vocabulary because we are exposing ourselves to a wider variety of words than we likely use in our everyday lives. It’s especially handy to have a dictionary nearby for easy access when you come across a word you don’t know. You may just find that the exhilaration of learning a brand new word, which you may flaunt with an appropriate level of intellectual pride to your peers, may just be worth the small effort.


So, there you have it—seven tips to get you started with, or help you complete, your writing assignments. While this list is not comprehensive, it hopefully contains at least one tip that relates to a writing woe you struggle with. The most important note I hope you take away, however, is this: believe in yourself. Really. It is important for us to be reminded that we are fully capable of being successful academics. If we weren’t capable, we wouldn’t be working to join the ranks of approximately 30 percent of Americans who have a college degree. So, get to it! And don’t forget to check out the Writing Center for more help.