How to get students to write with confidence

June 8, 2001

When it comes to putting ideas down on paper, a little good advice can go a very long way, writes Mark Griffiths.

Writing is a basic but time-consuming activity in higher education. It is also something many students - and staff - avoid until absolutely necessary.

Given writing's importance, it is surprising how little time is spent discussing how, for example, to make it more creative and productive. Students get advice on "how to write an essay" but this usually concerns structure, not the writing process itself.

Insights into writing only slowly translate into action, and because most students confront the task only when an essay deadline is looming, the feeling is more of "having to" write than "wanting to" write.

Unfortunately, most students view writing as a private act and their problems as personal and embarrassing. Strategies for overcoming this include getting students to criticise their own work before going public, sharing initial plans and ideas with others and practising reviewing other people's work.

There is no one proven method or quick fix for teaching people to become better writers, but like any other behaviour, it can be learnt. It is important to remember that writing does not need to be perfect to be effective and satisfying, and that most of what we write is not truly original:it is often the presentation that counts.

Here are some tips to help make writing more productive:

* Establish a regular place where all serious writing is done

* Remove distracting temptations such as magazines and television. Leave other activities, such as washing up, until after writing

* Limit potential interruptions by putting a "do not disturb" sign on the door or unplugging the telephone

* Make the writing site as comfortable as possible

* Make activities such as making coffee dependent on minimum periods of work

* Write while feeling "fresh"

* Plan beyond daily goals

* Plan and schedule tasks into manageable, realistic units

* Redraft at least twice - a word processor can make this task a lot easier. In general, successful writers are likely to revise manuscripts

* The most productive and satisfying way to write is habitually, regardless of mood. Writers who over-value spontaneity tend to write in binges, which they associate with fatigue

* Share writing with peers as people are more critical of "unfinished" drafts. Although some writers like to work independently, many prefer to share their ideas and plans at an early stage and then get colleagues to read over early drafts, comment and share ideas.

Not every suggestion will work for everyone - some people cannot write in silence or with others in the room. People do not become better writers overnight, but a few tips may help in facilitating better writing, not only among your students but maybe even among yourselves.

Mark Griffiths is a reader in the psychology division, department of social sciences, Nottingham Trent University.

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