Academic Roadblocks: Quality Writing

Writing is a daunting task for many students. You may be good at planning a task, listing and organizing the steps needed to complete it but when it is time to write the paper, things seem to fall apart. Whether it is a weekly reflection paper or a dissertation, putting ideas and concepts into words so a reader can understand them is critical. When students have poor writing skills, the results are often disappointment and failure.

What I Should Have Learned

Primary and secondary education teaches basic writing skills and post secondary work is supposed to sharpen them. However, the focus is often on learning facts with less emphasis placed on narrative communication. When the time comes to write a paper, many students are clueless about how to do it.

What If I Didn’t Learn It?

While students may readily accept their lack of writing skills, fixing this deficit is at best a daunting task because it requires considerable time and effort to learn all of the things necessary to become a good writer. Time is something a student--especially a graduate student-- has little of. At the graduate level, many students are working full time jobs, raising families, and taking courses at the same time (See earlier post) so time is a valuable commodity with little left to learn writing skills. This creates a dilemma as quality writing is a core characteristic of a scholar. Here is where the first mistake is made. Because time is so precious, students faced with this situation often rush to find tools and services to help with writing as a random attempt to "fix it," resulting in more wasted time and money.

What Do I Do About It?

As mentioned earlier, writing is a skill that should have been learned over years of education. How can it be fixed without similar time commitments? The answer is that it won't, so what are ways to cope with it? The situation is similar to a person diagnosed with a chronic illness: how to live with it rather than fix it.
Effective solutions to problems result from a clear evaluation of the situation before taking action. Step back and look at the big picture. What is the real problem that makes your writing inadequate? Start by eliminating as many simple things as possible. Remember that good writing is more than typing the words on a computer screen. Good writing requires research, thinking, and planning. Part of the problem is usually related to one or all of those three activities. Are you current with the topic? Have you identified and supported a valid research question/problem? Have you developed a plan with a method and design that will address the problem? Think through each of the three questions before going further.

Start With The Mechanics

Now start working on the mechanics of writing. Use the spelling and grammar checking tools in your word processor. Learn the settings and how each works. What do the underlined words and phrases in your text mean and how do you fix them? More importantly, do they need fixing? Remember that the computer does not "think" about what you have written; it looks at the mechanics part of your writing so every suggestion is just that, a suggestion. When in doubt, research it. For more detailed feedback, use a style checking app but read the reviews before selecting one and remember that it is only an app.

A frequent mistake students make is thinking that a style checker can fix poor writing skills. Mechanics is only one part of the problem.

Finding The Deeper Issues

Once you address the basic mechanics, you will have a clearer picture of other deeper issues with your writing. If you are in an academic program, ask one of your teachers or committee members for help identifying specific weaknesses. Talk with your Chair about the most effective way to improve your writing. If you have been in a program for any length of time, you should have received considerable feedback about your writing and at this point, ask a friend to read your work to identify confusing parts. Revise those parts and if you still have problems, use any school resources that might be available such as writing tutors. If that doesn't work, it is time to consider hiring an editor to give a professional perspective. This is not someone to write your paper as that would constitute academic dishonesty and could result in dismissal from your program. A good editor will provide feedback to help you clearly communicate your ideas and concepts.

One More Thing

It's never too late to learn. I have been teaching for over 40 years and learn something new every week. While some are coincidental in the course of a work day, much of it comes from a habit of double checking my language use daily. If I am not sure about a word, phrase, or punctuation, I go online and research it. This is a habit that you should cultivate to strengthen your writing skills. Sure, it takes a few minutes every day but it will make you a better writer and a better scholar. Isn't that your goal anyway?