Meet the new you
Being a new student can often seem like finding yourself in one of those science fiction films where the heroine wakes up one morning and finds she’s got a brand new identity. There seem to be so many things you are supposed to be doing. Every day you seem to encounter yet another thing that you are expected to know how to do.
Writing essays at university can seem like one of those things. Even if you have always found writing easy and enjoyable, the kind of writing you are required to do at university can seem like a foreign language the first time you read it or hear it. People who have come to university straight from school find there are big differences between what worked at A level and what they are required to do now. You may have come to university via an access route where the emphasis was on producing good portfolios of coursework and materials and so involved little or no essay writing.
Writing at university can seem like a daunting prospect when you first start to do it. Because we can all speak and write and use language, it’s easy to assume that we should just be able to do it. It’s just as easy to get frustrated when we find that we can’t and aren’t able to produce the work our tutors expect. This experience is not confined to students. Even experienced writers like me still get notes from editors saying ‘this point is unclear’, or reports from anonymous reviewers at academic journals saying ‘the argument would be stronger if the author took account of Professor X’s recent book on this subject’.
Think of yourself as a writer
So how do you overcome this anxiety about writing at university? The first step is to think of yourself as a writer and to think of being a student as being someone who has to write. As this suggests, you can only be a writer if you are writing so turn yourself into a regular writer who does some kind of writing every day, writing they do for themselves that they find enjoyable and valuable.
Studio journals & learning logs
You could keep a diary but it’s probably best to do regular writing that connects with your studying. You could follow the example of many fine art students and professional artists who keep what is called a ‘studio journal’ where they write about not only what they are working on but also about their reflections on the process of working, their ideas, hopes, fears, frustrations and pleasures. ‘Process’ is the key word here: writing, learning and studying are processes i.e. they are actions that move from a beginning towards a visible end and that make that movement through developmental stages.
You could keep a ‘learning log’ in the form of a notebook where you can jot down interesting ideas connected with your courses – from lectures, reading, seminars, talking and thinking. Your learning log can be both retrospective and prospective.
In the retrospective or reflective part of your learning log you write about things after they have happened. What questions did a particular lecture or seminar raise for you? What was interesting? What didn’t you understand?
In the prospective or exploratory part of your learning log you write about things that are going to happen. Your tutor has given you some reading for next week’s class: what questions does it raise? What don’t you understand? What books do you need to get from the library to find out the answers? Perhaps you’ve just read something in a newspaper or just seen something on TV that’s relevant to your course and you want to discuss it in next week’s class.
What is a writer?
Thinking of yourself as a writer is just the start. You need to spend some time thinking about what it means to be a writer. The basic dictionary definition of a writer is ‘someone who practices writing as an occupation’ but there’s much more to it than that. One of the meanings of ‘write’ is ‘to compose’ and two of the meanings of ‘compose’ are ‘to construct’ and ‘to arrange in a specified manner’. So writing does not just mean putting words down on the page: it means putting them down on the page in a particular way and for a particular effect and purpose.
We read something and it has an effect on us. It makes us laugh or makes us sad. It makes us think ‘That’s interesting – I didn’t know that’ or ‘That’s ridiculous!’ A piece of writing produces a response from us because the writer has chosen to use particular words and has arranged them in a particular way. When your tutors read your essays, your writing will have effects on them – and you don’t want them crying tears of frustration because they can’t understand what you are saying! Your tutors will assume that everything you have written is the result of conscious and deliberate choices. Your tutors will also assume that you have written things for a particular effect and purpose. So being a writer means being someone who has developed self-awareness about what they do and why they do it. Being a writer means understanding that if you do something it will have an effect; and understanding that you have a choice about whether to do it or not.
Use a PC
Another important practical step to becoming a successful writer at university is using a PC. If you’ve never used one then set aside some time to learn how to use a PC for writing your assignments and for making notes. This will save you a lot of time in writing, editing and producing work; and it will make writing – and studying – seem much less of a chore. Using a PC will help you with presentation – it will help you produce better-looking work. Finally, using a PC to draft and edit your work will help you develop a sense of working towards a finished text – as opposed to struggling to read your own scribbled notes.
Use your time
Make full use of the time you are given to produce an assignment. Never again in your life will you have so much time to do your work. When you leave university and start work you will find that you are often required to complete large tasks at very short notice. If you work in a company, your boss may tell you on Wednesday morning that he needs a 20 page report by Thursday afternoon. If you work in a school, you may come in one morning and find you have to cover classes for a colleague who’s been taken ill. University is unique because your tutors give you a reasonable and often quite generous amount of time in which to complete your assignments. So if your assignment is due in three weeks, use all that time – don’t keep putting it off and putting it off until you’ve hardly any time left!