What is a good writer? To answer this question, you have to examine what it means to be “good” and what it means to be a “writer,” and then fuse those two definitions together. At first, it may seem self-explanatory—you may want to say that a good writer is someone who makes good grades on written assignments, or simply someone who writes according to the rules of syntax—but time in the Writing Center has shown me that very skilled writers can make low grades on papers, and then syntax-sound papers can say absolutely nothing at all.
Let’s start by deciding who is a writer. Do you enjoy writing? Do you have to write for either school or work? Can you juggle fourteen text conversations simultaneously? Are you regularly updating some form of social media? Have you ever put a pen or pencil on paper and formed words? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are a writer. If you constantly tell yourself that you’re not a writer in general, then you’ll be psychologically blocking yourself from becoming a better writer—you won’t see a point in trying, because you refuse to accept that you’re a writer. But, if you look at the ways you use written communication on a daily basis, you’ll see that you indeed do write. In recognizing that we are writers, whether it’s out of necessity or enjoyment, we open the door for opportunities to improve our skill.
So how about “good?” People frequently come into the Writing Center saying that they were always a good writer in high school, so they were shocked when they made a C (C-, D, etc.) on a paper. Inversely, there’s also a large percentage of people who come in and apologetically confess that they’ve never been good writers because they frequently have comma splices or once made a bad grade and have been roiling in self-doubt.
When thinking about academic writing in college, you can’t always rely upon the grades you made in high school to predict the grades you’ll be making now. In high school, I was the 4.0 student (except for that one tricky 3.69 semester) who could whip out a paper in an hour and ace it. Then, college came, and I thought I could do the same thing. One essay-based test by Dr. Gatton later, and I realized that it is a whole different ballgame in college. Writing well, in the sense of pretty sentences and a strong grasp on grammar, doesn’t always make for good writing.
Instead, good academic writing is that which responds to all parts of the question, displays a thorough understanding of the topic and demonstrates authority, is organized in a logical manner, and is concise and clear. Good grammar plays into this, especially when you have the opportunity to revise a piece before submitting, but can’t be the sole determinant of whether or not you’ll make the grade. While the criteria I listed for good academic writing sounds like a lot, it becomes easier to grasp with a little practice.
Here are some suggestions:
First, keep your prompt handy and reference it throughout your revisions. Making sure you have an understanding of what is being asked before you start writing is crucial, and double checking the question(s) will make sure you both answer everything and don’t go off on tangents.
Step two is looking at your thesis: Do I include a single sentence that provides my readers with a specific road map through my paper? A strong thesis can help you self-correct many of the organizational issues that can wreck a paper.
Next, make a post-outline of your draft. Read through and write the topic of each paragraph in the margins. This allows you to do a few different things: you can look through and make sure that each topic is adequately tied back into your thesis and answering the prompt, and you can see if there are instances in which you have two (or more) topics in a single paragraph. If the latter is the case, this can clue you in on separating something into two or more paragraphs so that each point can be fully developed. A post-outline also helps you decide if your arguments are ordered in the most logical manner– does A logically transition into B, which leads into C?
Then, ask yourself if there is a way to make some things simpler. We may associate seven syllable words and dense language with the academic peer-reviewed pieces we have to read for class, but if we aren’t familiar with writing like that, it will come across awkward, not intelligent. Make every word carry its weight, and if something can be said in fewer words, you can reduce it.
Finally, and this is more than shameless self-promotion, seeking a second set of eyes is crucial. Using resources like the Writing Center allows an outsider response to enter the conversation, and it ensures that there aren’t “well it made sense in my head” scenarios.