Last month, after being invited to run a writing workshop with students in Taipei, I considered what challenges our students most needed to address as young writers. I didn’t need to look far. Students and professional writers alike struggle with writing. I know I did. But with effort, writing can become something you do well, and even come to enjoy. My writing career began in 11th grade, when my Shakespeare teacher presented us the chance to incorporate his feedback into our papers to score a better grade. For my first paper, I explored personification in Twelfth Night and earned a C+. After the revision, I received a B-. Through this routine, I learned the importance of editing. By my final paper, not only was I scoring A consistently, but I was enjoying the process.
Unfortunately, few high schools teach writing effectively. Many actually inhibit growth by restricting written expression into specific genres with rigid rules. In analytical writing, you’re taught never to use “I” and forced to follow a clear linear structure, while in creative writing, you’re taught to write in the first person and to throw structure out the window.
For your college essay, you need to combine the creative and the analytical: diving deeply into personal details and simultaneously taking a step back to reflect on your own experiences. This is a difficult challenge, but you can overcome it. We recommend beginning your essay in early summer before senior year. But the real work should start even earlier. Here are some of the most important things you can do now to start improving your writing:
Make time to read every day. Reading means more than just sitting down with a book. While reading any book can be valuable (we know our students love books like Ready Player One, and so do we), your time is better spent reading books that portray personal, realistic stories in a literary style.
To understand how to write well, it’s important to understand how good writing looks and feels. In particular, I’d recommend focusing on stories that are true to everyday human experience. While we often suggest books like Freakonomics or Grit to help students build critical reading skills, other genres such as memoir, autobiography, biography, and modern literary fiction reveal intimate personal writing journeys and these can help you enormously. A friend of mine who is professor of writing teaches contemporary fiction authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen, Gish Jen, and Jhumpa Lahiri and highly recommends them for high schoolers.
Write for you, write every day, even if it’s just one paragraph
Because all of your writing is to fulfill school assignments, it can be impossible to distinguish as a life skill rather than as an academic one. No matter your career choice, writing will be vital in daily life whether you’re drafting legal briefs, scientific papers, or business plans. Being a good writer is key to your future success, but enjoying writing will mean that you embrace everything you have to write without unnecessary stress. In my junior year of college I had more than 80 pages of papers to write one semester, but thanks to my experience since 11th grade, I worked through several rounds of edits, had a great semester, and got straight As.
Keeping a diary is a great way to start, even if it seems like a teenage cliche. Write about your daily life. Your emotions. Dig deeply into what it feels like to be you. Be open, honest, and share your vulnerabilities. Consider keeping a blog: being accountable to someone (the internet) can motivate you to actually write (and to write well). My freshman year of college I wrote a blog every day as a way of documenting my transition into Cornell. I didn’t write for any particular readership (the only people who read it were my parents and my brother, Alex). I wrote for me.
We study math, we study English, but we never actively “study” writing. We only practice it, often mindlessly and in ways that engrain negative writing habits. In texts and messages we use slang, abbreviations, and boring words. This is why you should “study” writing. The first way to do so, is to read actively — paying close attention to sentence and paragraph structure, verb choice, and grammar.
In addition, writing prompts are indispensable for building your skills. In our program, we use a custom curriculum of prompts tailored to each student, but anyone can find exercises online just by Googling. Find prompts that force you to open up about personal feelings, exploring specific emotions and experiences. Treat these writing exercises like practice tests. Sit down every week to do a different one. Edit it yourself. Then get someone else (ideally an English-speaking adult) to give you feedback. Through repetition and practice, you’ll notice problem points in your writing which you can begin to address, and you’ll notice, with pleasure, more and more improvement.
Writing is not some elusive talent by any means. It’s a skill. And skills can be practiced. Everyone who makes the effort will get better and become a stronger writer.