5 Writing Tips That Will Raise Your Grade in Any Class

By Joe Pawlikowski on April 11, 2013

Not everyone majors in English — as an English major myself I wouldn’t even recommend it — but we all need writing skills taught in the English track. That’s why colleges require at least one composition class. The problem is that most freshman composition classes fail to fully instill the principles necessary to write well. The truth is that you can learn to write well for college classes in much less time than a semester-long class.

All throughout school, in nearly every discipline, you’ll need to write papers and essays. Some of them count for an enormous portion of your grade. Here’s something I learned very quickly: if you can express your ideas in clear, easily understandable terms, you make it easier for a professor to award you a higher grade. Even if your paper lacks a bit in terms of content, crisp writing can improve your standing.

On history and psychology papers I used to earn higher scores than students who knew the subjects much better than me. They conducted better research, but struggled to compose their findings. I conducted poorer research, but disseminated my findings in clear, flowing terms. The experiences taught me that simple writing — the kind they should teach you in freshman comp — can make the all-important difference between a C and a B.

Looking for an edge in a class that doesn’t interest you much, but which heavily weighs an essay or paper? Here are some tips that you can digest in just a few days, and that will help you score higher marks on those papers.

1. Write first, outline later

Typically professors suggest, if not require, that you create an outline before you start writing your first draft. On a basic level, it makes sense. Outlines help you organize and structure your ideas. But what if you don’t have many ideas of your own? That’s an issue all too common in college-level papers. You might have conducted research, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have even a single idea.

Writing helps with this process. When you start writing down the ideas you came across in your research, you’ll start to forge connections. At that point you’ll start to see where these ideas intersect, which means you’re creating your own ideas. That is the point when you should start organizing and structuring your thoughts. Maybe you’ll use what you wrote initially, or maybe it’s just a part of the process. But you’ll find much fresher ideas come to mind if you write before you outline.

What if the professor wants you to hand in the outline? Play along. Do what you can with an initial essay, but stick with the above process. Want to cover yourself when you hand in the paper? Hand it in along with your revised outline.

2. Build paragraph-by-paragraph

Plenty of writing advice suggests that every word matters. In many ways this advice holds water, but when it comes to college papers you can focus on a more important structure: the paragraph. A paper full of well-constructed paragraphs will impress far more than a paper full of five-cent words.

As teachers have preached since you were in elementary school, each paragraph has a topic sentence. A paragraph that lacks a topic sentence is a paragraph that needs fixing. Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle explains the concept: “A paragraph is a group of sentences organized around one complete thought which is stated in the topic sentence.” You won’t get a simpler definition from most college professors.

As you write, jot down your topic sentences on a separate piece of paper. As Pournelle further explains, you should “decide if that’s really the order you want to present the information in.” In other words, ensuring that each paragraph contains a topic sentence allows you to structure your paper. Again, this represents a reason why outlines come later. In fact, your list of topic sentences will serve as an adequate outline for your own purposes.

Pournelle provides exquisite advice throughout the linked article. It will take three minutes to read and will provide you with invaluable information.

3. Read it aloud

As you complete your paragraphs, you can take one additional step that will ensure a clear and understandable paper. After you hit return, stop and read the paragraph you just wrote. Unless you write in the library, force yourself to read the paragraph aloud. It might seem embarrassing if people surround you, but even so it shouldn’t matter. This step can make perhaps the largest difference of any advice on this list.

When reviewing others’ papers in college, and then screening writing job applicants in my current position, it has become clear that people don’t give much thought to how someone reads their work. The words might make sense to them in the throes of composition, but they don’t translate well. And at its core, writing involves translating what is in your head into a form that others can understand.

The simplest and most effective means of achieving clarity involves reading what you just wrote. If it sounds clunky and awkward, chances are you need to make changes. Writing and speech differ on a number of levels, but when it comes to clarity writing is at its best when it resembles basic speech. If your paragraph sounds like something you might say to someone else, then you’re on the right track.

4. Spice up your verbs

The best bit of compositional advice I received in college came in a reviews class. It involved finding art and reviewing it, which might sound like a cakewalk. On the contrary, our professor forced us to challenge ourselves and find the perfect description for our chosen art.

One of the exercises he had us perform was to go through a newspaper review and circle all forms of to be: is, am, are, was, were. Then he handed back our most recent paper, ungraded. We spent the first half of the class circling forms of to be in our own papers and spot-checking those of our peers. Then we went to a computer lab and rewrote our papers with the goal of reducing the number of linking verbs by at least 50 percent.

No writer can eliminate all forms of to be. Linking verbs do serve a purpose, but provide better effect when used sparingly. Focus on verbs of action. They make a paper easier to read and more effectively convey new ideas.

5. Write every day

If you want to get better at writing, you need to practice. It works in the same manner as any other skill. If you work at it a little bit every day, you will notice considerable improvement. You might have only four or five papers per semester, and you might spend only two days actually writing each. How, then, can you expect to improve? The answer is to write a little bit every day.

This doesn’t mean you have to write an essay every day. Keeping a simple journal will suffice. If you write even five paragraphs in a day, you will notice rapid improvement at the beginning. Eventually you will hit a plateau, but at that point your writing will be strong enough to earn As on papers. And that’s the entire point, right?

By Joe Pawlikowski

Uloop Writer
Joe Pawlikowski attended Rutgers University, where he majored in English. He now works in internet marketing, focusing on content creation. His personal blog is at JoePawl.com.

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