5 Things Incoming College Students Should Know About Writing

Writing 101

by Professor Heidi A.

As a college English instructor, I work with a large number of students who come from disparate high school backgrounds. Despite these differences, there are still some common mistakes or misunderstandings that can trip students up in their first term. Below, I’ve condensed these trends into five useful tips for the aspiring college writer.


Most first-year students write essays as if they are going to be read by a scholarly robot. They pack in every “academic” sounding word they know, and even some they don’t. Their subordinate clauses have subordinate clauses. As a human being, I do not enjoy reading essays that have been written this way. Always keep in mind that writing is a form of communication, and, by definition, communication has failed if your audience can’t understand what you’ve said.

  • Always keep your audience in mind when writing.


I cannot tell you how many times I got into a stand-off with a student about their thesis statement. It usually went something like this:

Me: “So, what’s your thesis for this paper?”

Student: “I’m not sure, [gestures vaguely at introduction] what do you think it is?”

Me: “Which sentence expresses your primary argument?”

Student: “I don’t know, which one looks best to you?”

And then we just stare blankly at each other as we consider the gaping chasm between our expectations and reality.

Seriously though, two things you should always keep in mind for college writing: 1) have a thesis and 2) know what it is.

  • As a college student, you are in charge of your work. Own it.


In addition to the standards of MLA, APA or Chicago style, each professor has their own preferences for how they want written work to appear. In my classes, I required that students include their last name and course number in the file name of their Word document. Seems obvious right? Nah. The majority of my students never did this. Points were lost. Even if you don’t care about the points, it leaves a bad impression if the teacher has to make a note of little things like font or headings on EVERY single paper.

  • Beyond your grade in a specific course, learning how to follow detailed instructions is going to benefit you throughout your working life.


In the first weeks of school, my students are always surprised when I ask them to work in groups to either produce or dissect a piece of writing. Because good writing is easy to recognize, but difficult to reproduce, many people get nervous about exposing themselves as “frauds.” Newsflash: everyone is a fraud. Writing with others is a great way to realize this. Also, remember point #1 about audience? Writing in groups is an immediate source of audience feedback--letting you know if your ideas are coming across clearly.

  • Banish the idea that your peers don’t have anything to teach you when it comes to writing.


If you want to learn to speak a new language, you wouldn’t just memorize grammar rules and vocab. You’d pay close attention to native speakers in order to understand slang, double entendres, tonal shifts, and other ways of creating meaning. The same is true of writing. Many first-year students are over-reliant on formulas they learned in middle and high school, and don’t understand why their writing isn’t improving. Many first-year students also don’t do the assigned reading for their courses, especially if they aren’t being tested on it. 100 points if you can spot the connection! Yes, in order to take those training wheels off and cruise down the street like a big kid, you’re gonna have to ditch the formulas and write like a native. Let those reading assignments be the wind beneath your wings.

  • The best advice I can give is to read and study the types of writing you’d like to produce.