by Beverly Cole - Monday, August 17th, 2015 @ 8:45 AM

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As a student in middle school or high school, it can be difficult to discern which information is significant to your GPA, and which information is essential as a building block to your future. With few exceptions, writing is one of the most important skills you will learn that is critical to your GPA and your future; Learning how to write well is a gift you will enjoy far beyond your academic tenure, and the earlier your writing education begins, the greater your potential growth as a writer in the years to come.

Prior to college, I had spent my formative educational years matriculated in a large public school district known for academic excellence.  Foundationally, my public school experience taught me how to navigate challenging material without a lot of attention devoted to my individual needs as a student. Substantively, my schooling had prepared me well for my time as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. There was, however, one area in which I felt surprisingly unprepared: writing. Writing had always been something I took for granted before college. I assumed I was an excellent writer because most written assignments I had received in middle and high school returned to me with an “A” and a compliment such as “Wonderful!” or “Thought provoking!” written on the top of it. I was wrong. Those writing assignments that I had glided through in seventh through twelfth grade had not prepared me for the rigors of writing in the Ivy League. After I turned in a draft paper to my Linguistics teacher, she reviewed and returned the paper with a message on top that read something like, “Stilted use of language. Try again!” I felt like I had been slapped. Stilted?  From a linguistics teacher, no less! My friend next to me had “Great job!” written on her paper, and I shoved my paper in my backpack, red with humiliation.

Eyes welling with tears, I ran to the library and started reading up on writing and how to write effectively. In the days that followed, I read THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White and ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser with desperate intensity. Writing was no longer just about writing down facts you looked up in the library or about appropriating flowery language. At Penn, it was about creating compelling arguments after extensive research. With a new perspective on my own writing style, I tore apart, restructured, and edited my paper.  I learned to write then put my writing away for a period of time. Taking time away from my writing gave me new perspective and the consequent ability to edit further with a fresh eye. When I received an A on the final copy of my Linguistics paper, I exhaled and smiled. Despite my relief, I knew I was behind.  Other students clearly had a much stronger foundation in writing. I was playing catch up, and writing assignments at Penn would take me twice as long as my friends because I would edit them over and over again.  With a great deal of effort, my writing improved during college and even helped me gain admissions to Columbia University School of Law. I still struggled with writing my first semester at Columbia, and it took me a large chunk of my first year as a law student before I finally felt like I was writing as effectively as my peers.

It wasn’t as though I was trying to overcome a weakness for posterity or pride, believe me. As soon as I had seen that detested “Stilted” on my rough draft, I knew that good writing was critical to academic success in college.  Writing was impossible to avoid back then and remains an inevitable reality today. Even engineering majors at most top-rated schools like Yale and Cornell have writing requirements.  As a Psychology major, I wrote numerous papers, which incorporated technical and scientific terms at every turn. Apart from my requisite Calculus class, most courses I took required some writing, whether in the final exam or in a paper.  For a comparative religion course, I spent hours poring over citations, making sure that my references and context were accurate. High school citations seemed like casual references compared to the detailed annotations required by some Penn professors. Annotated bibliographies were like writing essays unto themselves and took almost as long as the core assignment.

In law school, I don’t recall taking one course that didn’t involve either writing a paper or writing for hours as part of a final exam. In many of those exams, professors presented us with a hypothetical situation and a limited amount of time to collect our thoughts, organize a response, and answer in a precise yet expansive manner. Writing is the backbone of legal education, and a successful law student has mastered the art of writing prior to entering law school and uses this skill to advance herself in her coursework.

Although I very much felt alone in my experience at the time (way, way back in the 90’s), this may be a growing problem among top colleges and universities throughout the country. A few years ago, a Stanford professor surprised students by suddenly and publicly berating a student for poor writing skills and then followed up with an apology, explaining that her outburst was expressing a “frustration at what I perceive as a general decline in writing skills.”  In addition, William Ellet, an adjunct professor teaching writing at Brandeis International Business School and former writing teacher at Harvard Business School, believes that the problem starts in middle school, stating that “nobody takes responsibility for writing instruction”, citing to a Department of Education study from 2011, which found that a paltry 24 percent of eighth and twelfth graders were proficient in writing.

It is because of my past challenges with writing that I understand the true importance of learning how to be a strong writer at an early age. If I had received the individualized attention I clearly needed in middle and high school, writing would have been more of an evolutionary process, not a crash course in survival. Teaching someone to be a good or even great writer is difficult and takes years. There are so many elements critical to the writing process, and all of them need guidance in their development: Brainstorming, Outlining, Drafting, Citation, Styling, Revision, and Proofreading.  Each step requires thought, and without intensive, individualized interaction with a teacher, even the strongest of students can get lost or simply not appreciate the significance behind writing development. With training, however, young students can develop their craft as they grow as students and as people. Their writing style can evolve, so that by the time they reach college, they can write independently and with polished finesse.

There is a reason that Penn and Columbia and other top schools require writing as part of a student’s curriculum. Writing is integral to life. It doesn’t matter which career path a student chooses. Obviously, as an attorney, effective writing is paramount. Beyond the law and other careers that traditionally depend upon a person’s writing skills, the written word continues to grow more significant, as many of our communications that were once verbal are now written – and in a format, like e-mail or text, that can be recorded indefinitely. Doctors and others steeped in the sciences will need to write papers that explain their research and findings to peers. Business people draft presentations and memos on a daily basis. As the CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, aptly stated:

Just because most team members don’t have “professional writer” in their job descriptions doesn’t mean writing is off limits to them. Everyone here is a writer.

As students, excellent writers build their skills and achieve academic success. As these students become professionals, these same writing skills can help pave the way for a bright future in any chosen career.


About the Author

Beverly Cole Beverly Cole

Beverly Cole is the Communications Director of English Hound (www.EnglishHound.com), a NY based distance learning company specializing in tutoring K - 12th grade students in reading and writing. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University School of Law. She lives in Florida with her husband and two children.

One Comment

  1. August 17th, 2015 @ 9:06 AM

    A lot of academic writing is formulaic, which means it follows the same format regardless of topic. This is good for learners—including international EFL learners—because it helps narrow down something broad like “writing well”. Once students have the hang of the formulaic nature of it, the next important skills to learn are paraphrasing and citing sources: these are especially tricky for international students. Learning how to do these well, though, will set them up for success in a variety of classes.

    It’ll also put them ahead of their peers, too. As a former writing center tutor at a large American university, I know that domestic students also struggle with the basics of academic writing, even at the university level.

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