Getting writing right: what to expect in university, part 2

This is the second part of the blog “Getting writing right: what to expect at university” by my guest, author and teacher, Elizabeth Peirce.

You can read the first part of this post to get background on the importance of building your writing skills in high school, and how improving communication skills, particularly writing, is one of the best ways to work toward future career success.

For a refresher, I’ve included the first 3 of Elizabeth’s tips from the previous post, plus the new ones. Here is the full list:

1. Read as much as you can.

It’s often been said that readers make good writers. A familiarity with language, acquired through your reading, will often carry over into your writing. Expand your literary horizons by checking out the “Facts and Arguments” section of the Globe and Mail or have a look at some Huffington Post articles that circulate on Facebook. Get used to reading stuff that’s longer than a couple of paragraphs. You need to practice sustaining an argument over an essay that could range from 500 to more than 2000 words. Get a feel for how others have done it.

2. Practice makes perfect (or permanent)

Would you want to show up at a big game with your basketball team without having practiced for weeks or months beforehand? A similar principle applies in writing essays. Doing a few warm ups before beginning the big essay can help your brain switch into writing mode. I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, a series of idea-generating writing exercises you can open pretty much at random and try in your spare time. They’re short, fun, and will prime the pump before “the big game”.

3. “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

This, in a nutshell, is how every university paper you’re ever going to write will be structured. Become familiar with the conventions of academic writing—from introduction, to body paragraphs, to conclusion. Professors love it when their students know how to craft an effective thesis statement—the one- or two-sentence summary of their essay’s main argument that usually appears at the end of your intro. Remember that a thesis must be debatable! If you didn’t cover this in high school, or feel you need more practice with thesis statement construction, now is the time to work on it. A good online resource is OWL (Online Writing Lab), a comprehensive writing resource from Purdue University found at You can also find help here with other aspects of research paper writing and documentation, including style guides, grammar exercises, and ESL skills-building.

4. University writing centres are your friends

Most, if not all, universities now have a dedicated writing centre open to students who are finding the transition between high school and university-level writing challenging. No, they will not write your papers for you, but the tutors at the writing centre can give you really good feedback on your first draft, as well as answer your questions about documentation and other technical matters. Many of their resources are also available online; see, for instance, the Saint Mary’s University Writing Centre website: Best of all, it’s free! (well, you paid for it with your tuition; another reason you should make use of it!)

5. Buy a good dictionary

This was the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s advice to her writing students—actually, one of her only pieces of advice—and she was on to something.

I love my Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary and use it several times a week.

6. George Orwell said it all.

If you read nothing else this year, you should have a look at the legendary writer George Orwell’s masterful essay “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946 and still relevant today. Orwell examines the link between clear thinking and clear writing, and how important both are as steps toward political and social regeneration. This essay should be required reading across the university disciplines.

I’m going to leave you with Orwell’s six rules for good writing, which I had taped above my computer for years until I had memorized them:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous. (Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”)

Never forget that your writing has the power to change minds, and changed minds can change the world.

Elizabeth Peirce is a Halifax-based editor, teacher, and author. Her book, Grow Organic: A Simple Guide to Nova Scotia Vegetable Gardening won the 2011 APMA Best Atlantic Published Book Award. She blogs about local food and parenting issues at C.O.O.K. ( and offers in-person and online workshops on urban gardening and canning and preserving, among other topics.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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