Master Needed College Writing Skills

Brian Witte

For the college-bound individual, few skills are more important than writing. Writing, of course, extends beyond words on a page -- it is the effective communication of complex ideas.

Writing well becomes increasingly important as students transition from high school to college. Many new college students continue to commit blatant syntax, spelling and grammatical errors that are simply not acceptable in higher education.

The key writing techniques that students must master include conciseness, clarity, proper grammar and strong reasoning. Students should practice developing these skills in high school in order to be successful once they step into a college classroom.

These skills can be generally categorized as being either technical or visionary. The most technical skill is grammar. Proper grammar is as important to writing as carpentry is to the construction of a home.

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The scope of your vision as a writer does not matter if you lack the skills to ensure it takes shape. As with many essential life skills, learning proper grammar is a matter of comprehension and repetition.

The easiest way to employ good grammar is to keep your sentences short and declarative. The more clauses and commas a sentence contains, the more difficult it is to use appropriate verb tenses and prepositions. Remember to use the same verb tense throughout your piece, ensure there is no ambiguity in your pronouns and avoid the passive voice.

The other three elements of quality writing -- conciseness, clarity and strong reasoning -- are more challenging. Unlike grammar, no clear rules govern their implementation. However, clarity and conciseness complement one another.

Being concise is often a matter of planning. Before beginning to write, consider the possible arguments or supporting evidence you may refer to when writing. Choose only the most strongly supported and persuasive elements to include in your piece.

Contrary to what many novice writers believe, your arguments do not become stronger with additional evidence alone. Presenting a poorly supported argument weakens your overall thesis.

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Beyond economy of language, one of the best techniques for clarity in communication is dividing your writing into well-constructed paragraphs. Each paragraph should express a single, well-defined idea.

When you are ready to address the next point, begin a new paragraph. Identifying paragraph-sized ideas is a skill learned with experience. The best test, however, is to read each paragraph and ask, "Is my main point clear?"

The importance of strong reasoning in writing is perhaps the most difficult to master. "Strong," after all, is somewhat subjective, and an argument that seems clear and persuasive to one person may seem weak and muddled to another. Much like building a house, however, correcting an idea that rests on weak foundations is much more difficult to do in the middle of the process than at the beginning.

Constructing an outline before you begin writing is the single best means of ensuring that your final paper is well reasoned. Outlines are essential tools that require you to summarize your ideas. They are also useful in ensuring that you are addressing the big picture before you concentrate on the details of selecting phrases and proper grammatical syntax.

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A strong outline is surprisingly simple to construct. It should clearly state a central thesis and three to five supporting arguments. It should be clear how each of your supporting points supports the central idea of your paper.

Next, expand each of these supporting points with three to five ideas. In the interest of clarity, each idea should be simply stated and the connection to the main point should be clear. Trim and supplement detail where necessary.

Once your outline is complete, you're prepared to begin writing. Now you are not so much creating a paper as expanding a scaffold. You possess all the elements you require, already pared down to essentials. All that remains is to tie those items together with clear and complete sentences organized into single-idea paragraphs.

Mastering these skills of strong reasoning, clarity of prose, conciseness of thought and grammatically correct sentences will serve you well long after you graduate high school. You will already have a head-start over your classmates in college, as well as a critical set of skills essential for success in the world beyond university.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.