September 27, 2023

Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Students’ Writing

Author: Michael Patrick Rutter
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We need to do a much better job of teaching our students to write effectively.  Effective writing is far too important to be left to freshman rhetoric and composition courses or designated writing intensive courses.

By ghettoizing writing instruction in distinct courses, we inadvertently send our students a powerful message:  That we don’t really value effective written scholarly communication.

Every publishing academic is a professional writer and an evaluator of scholarly writing.  Therefore, we’re all equipped, at some level, to help our students write better.  If we don’t, it’s because we’re too overwhelmed or too lazy or too lacking in commitment to be bothered.

Whatever your discipline, I urge you to integrate writing instruction into your classes.

Remember, in most disciplines we only need to focus on one kind of writing.  Most academic writing is analytic, rather than simply descriptive or informational or reflective or argumentative. 

Instead of simply presenting facts or information, analytical writing involves interpretation, criticism, and evaluation.  Students must intelligently discuss a topic or issue, formulate and develop an argument in light of alternative perspectives, marshal and assess evidence, and spell out the argument’s broader implications.

All of us are familiar with the common writing mistakes that undergraduates make:

  • An introduction that begins with gross generalizations, that fails to pique readers’ interest, or that doesn’t acquaint them with the essay’s broader topic and its importance.  Poor introductions typically waste space on inessential, peripheral, or irrelevant material.
  • A thesis statement that is too vague, simplistic, broad, unfocused, ill-defined, or unoriginal.  A strong argument, in contrast, poses a hypothesis that is nuanced yet provocative.  
  • An essay that lacks a logical or coherent structure and smooth transitions between paragraphs and sentences.  Such essays come across as disjointed, jumpy, rambling, as all over the place.
  • The body of the text that contains too much description and too little analysis and interpretation.
  • An essay that treats evidence as unproblematic.  Evidence doesn’t speak for itself.  It must be carefully weighed and evaluated for bias, perspective, accuracy, and validity.
  • An essay that fails to consider alternate interpretations or counterarguments.
  • A conclusion that simply re-states the thesis, and fails to examine the essay’s importance or broader implications.
  • An essay filled with mechanical errors that distract the reader.  These typically involve mistakes in grammar, spelling, word choice, and punctuation.

So what, precisely, can we do to strengthen students’ writing?  Draw upon insights from AI and machine learning-powered essay autograders, like the University of Technology Sydney’s Acawriter or the University of Michigan’s M-Write.

These programs offer a roadmap that instructors can use to lead their students through the writing process.

1. Begin by leading a discussion of writing genres.
Make sure your students understand the difference between analytical, descriptive, discursive, narrative, reflective, and argumentative writing.  This is essential if students are to better understand your expectations for an analytical essay.

2. Then, introduce your students to the challenges of writing an effective introduction.
Every publishing academic is familiar with the techniques that effective writers use to hook readers, such as a provocative question, a telling quotation, a revealing anecdote, a reference to a relevant historical anniversary, or a mystery or a contradiction.

Of course, an effective introduction must do more than pique a reader’s interest.  It must also introduce the reader to the broader topic in which the essay is situated.  Consider asking your students how they might introduce concisely a particular topic, and the debates surrounding it, to a general reader.

3. Next, guide your students through the process of formulating and refining a thesis statement.
A good thesis is responsive to debates within a particular field.  Typically, a compelling thesis takes one of the following forms:

  • It challenges or complicates an existing interpretation or the accepted wisdom and offers an alternative.
  • It enters into a debate and examines whether one side in this debate makes a more compelling argument or whether the debate needs to be recast.
  • It tests whether an existing argument or interpretation can adequately explain a fresh body of material. 

4. Then, work with your students on how to incorporate evidence into their essays.
Academic essays require evidence — data, facts, statistics, quotations, testimony, and other forms of documentation – to build and substantiate their argument.  But evidence needs to be explained, explicated, elucidated, and evaluated and its meaning distilled so that the reader accurately can assess its value.  

Students must also learn how to smoothly and seamlessly integrate evidence into their argument, not with long block quotes, but through paraphrasing, summarizing, and synthesizing sources.

5. Encourage your students to take opposing points of view seriously.
Sophisticated arguments take into account counterarguments and alternate explanations or interpretations, which is why effective writers make extensive use of connective or conjunctive pronouns like “but,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “although.”

By acknowledging conflicting points of view, words that denote concessions underscore a writer’s fairness and sophistication.

6. Introduce your students to the secrets of fluid, graceful writing.
The key lies in the use of linking and transition words and phrases – like “likewise,” “similarly,” ”consequently,” “thus,” “therefore,” “alternatively,” “to illustrate,” “to clarify,” “for instance,” “to summarize,” and “given the above.” 

These words can make academic writing smoother and more seamless and make an essay’s logic more transparent.

8. Remind students that an effective conclusion does not simply rephrase their thesis and reiterate their essay’s main points.  
A bang-up conclusion doesn’t simply summarize. It has several larger goals:

  • To underscore an essay’s novel approach, surprising findings, or critical insights.
  •  To spell out the paper’s broader implications, which might be methodological, theoretical, conceptual, or substantive, 
  • To point ahead toward future areas of research inquiry.

It’s not enough to lecture students about the importance of editing, revising, and proofreading an essay or to warn them of the perils and punishments for academic dishonesty.  We need to do more, much more, to help them become better writers.  That requires timely, targeted, substantive feedback.

Most of my classes are far too large to provide the kinds of individualized, detail comments and one-on-one meetings that might strengthen students’ writing best.  But the ideal should not be the enemy of the good.  

There are many ways to make writing more central to your teaching.

  • Require students to write frequently.
    After all, one way to learn how to write is to write.  That’s why I assign frequent low-stakes writing assignments that involve responses to prompts or analysis of a primary source.
  • Hold small group and full-class discussions about effective writing.
    By dedicating class time to writing instruction, I send a powerful message:  That writing quality matters to me and that I am committed to helping my students ability to write analytically and persuasively.
  • Provide as much timely feedback on writing as you possibly can.
    Some of my feedback is individualized, but some is collective.  That feedback focuses on common problems shared widely by my students.  Here, I’m less interested in poor grammar or syntax or awkward phrasing or careless errors or inappropriate use of colloquial language, then in what we might consider to be systemic problems:  

    • Differentiating opinion from analysis.
    • Entering into a scholarly conversation
    •  Formulating and developing a thesis or argument.
    • Making claims without providing adequate substantiation.
    • Explicating, analyzing, and integrating various kinds of sources, and  

The purpose of this feedback is not to rehash past problems, but to point the way to future improvement, to replace feedback with “feedforward.”

There is no better way, in my view, to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills than through frequent writing.  Self-consciously design writing assignments to build specific cognitive and analytical skills, including the ability to:

  • Articulate a concept in their own words.
    • Summarize a scholarly debate.
    • Abstract a book or an article’s argument.
    • Explicate a primary source, a specific piece of evidence, or a data set.
  • Compare and contrast particular events or decisions.

You may have seen a position statement recently released by NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English, the United States’ largest professional organization of K-12 English teachers. Several sentences in particular have provoked a backlash.  Here are two: 

“The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education…. It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.”

Certainly, our students should be able to express themselves in a variety of ways: Orally, visually, and through a variety of new media formats.  I myself want my students to be able to create videostories, podcasts, infographics, and charts and tables (though not the GIFs and selfies that the position paper highlights).  And I do want my students to be able to interpret books through various critical lenses.

In addition, I myself ask my students “critically examine popular culture texts.” 

But as much as I value the “new literacies,” my top priority is to teach them how to read complex texts and to write analytically, logically, and persuasively.  

Writing is not about putting preexisting thoughts down on paper.  Academic writing is nothing less than the art of thinking clearly, cogently, critically, and reflectively.  It’s about critically evaluating various interpretations and crafting one’s own arguments.  

It’s through the writing process that we discover our thoughts – and, at times, discover how crude and unsophisticated our thinking is.  I’ve known many great talkers.  But the true test of an argument is how well it stands up when it is embedded in prose.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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