Oof. When this article came out in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago, I cringed pretty hard out of sympathy for all of the students I’ve come across who dread writing essays.
There is a misconception that it’s impossible to “become” a good writer. Either you’re born with a set of tools—an innate sense of grammar and vocabulary, or literary style, maybe?—or you’re not, and that’s that.
Some students try to find that magic by reaching for ten-dollar vocabulary words, which they then misuse half to death. Some figure that if they can just hit the word count the teacher assigned, they can pretend they know what they’re talking about. Some just repeat the same argument six times without actually using any evidence to prove it.
And this isn’t their fault, for the most part. Nobody has given them any real instruction except obnoxiously vague chestnuts like “Write a strong thesis statement!” or “Be more specific!”
It took me awhile to learn how to write. It took me, in fact, until my senior year of high school until I found myself in a class with a teacher who knew exactly how to explain what he expected of his students. And I went to some pretty serious schools and had, on the whole, excellent teachers.
So what is it about learning how to write—or teaching people how to write—that everyone finds so difficult?
In my six years of tutoring, and in the four or five years since I started putting together notes for my book Mastering the Writing Game, I have spent a lot of time thinking about that question—and I find that the differences between teaching writing and teaching really anything else are not that big.
In general, the key to success throughout all of school and on all standardized tests boils down to being able to answer the question in front of you.
For writing this goes DOUBLE. If you can answer the question, and explain why you think your answer is right, you’re in good shape.
It is that simple.
No need to reach for big words, or get fancy with grammar, or do anything geared toward impressing anyone.
That’s specifically for you college-bound seniors finishing your essays right now before Early Action and Early Decision deadlines. If you try to sell yourself to your college of choice, instead of simply telling the Admissions officer about yourself like they asked(!), you’ll get an eye-roll. It’s way more effective to…
JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION!
How about grammar? Is that the thing holding you back? Don’t worry; most of you have been speaking English since you were very little. If you can read what you just wrote out loud and it…you know…sounds like English? That’s probably close enough.
Stop trying to make it pretty and JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION!
If you’ve read the History chapter and you know what happened, don’t worry about making sure you show how much material you’ve memorized on the essay portion. It’s way more important to explain yourself. So…
Lecture over. Sorry I yelled. If any of you want a copy of Mastering the Writing Game—where I go into way more detail about everything you need to get good at to write your very best—email me at Tom@MuchSmarter.com, and ask nicely enough, and maybe I’ll shoot you an e-book for free!
In the mean time…(you know what’s coming…say it with me…1, 2, 3)
Get to work.