Getting writing right: what to expect in university, part 1

I’m thrilled to present you with this guest post called “Getting writing right: what to expect in university”.

My guest is Elizabeth Peirce who is not only the author of several books, but who also taught first year English at two universities for 14 years. When it comes to writing, she knows what she’s talking—er, writing—about!

I asked Elizabeth to write the blog for two reasons:

1. Although most students say they know writing is important, I’m not convinced they see the real life applications and value in it. And, make no mistake—by value I mean money, income, return on investment.

Communication (written & oral) is consistently rated one of the top 10 skills employers look for in an employee. And not just for occupations that involve a lot of writing, but across the spectrum. It’s part of the reason the whole STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement has changed to STEAM, with the inclusion of an “A” for Arts. The skills developed in the arts and humanities—primarily the ability to write clearly—were noticeably missing. Employers understand they need people who not only have hard or technical skills, but also the ability to communicate with both internal and external stakeholders.

You need good writing skills to get a job (to write an engaging resume and a cover letter, plus ace the interview), but you also need solid communications skills to advance in your career. Good leadership requires good communication skills, and the ability to write well is a big part of it.

Some experts say the idea of specific occupations is outdated. They say we’re heading toward a future where many jobs won’t have a particular set of skills and duties, but instead will require people to have a hybrid of skills and perform many different kinds of tasks.

In any case, one thing remains clear: no matter what occupation, time, or place, good communication skills will always be important—either to get the job, or to advance your career (or most likely both).


2. The second reason why I asked Elizabeth to write this guest blog is because writing is something high school students can start to improve now, before they get to university.

Almost all university students will be required to take a “writing requirement” course, where they will need to do a lot of writing and will be graded almost entirely on written assignments. This course should be completed in first year and it can be a big shock to many students, even those who did relatively well in high school English. It’s a wake up call that says, “You’re in university now; time to up your game.”

The transition from high school to university is often fraught with anxiety and other difficulties, so if you can do something to minimize it, why wouldn’t you? Set yourself up for success by working on this skill now, while still in high school. Elizabeth offers several tips in this guest post. In fact, she had so many great tips I had to cut the post into two parts to ensure the information was digestible.

So, without further ado, here are the first few of Elizabeth’s tips. More to follow next week.

Happy writing!

Getting writing right: what to expect at university

If you’re a high school student preparing to enter university, you should know that for the next three to four years, you’re committing to being a full-time writer. When you finish your degree, you will have produced hundreds of pages of written work in the form of essays, lab reports, presentations, and more. Your degree should have an extra designation on it, besides the B.A. or BSc.: “Certified Writer.”

Problem is, a whole lot of students graduate without learning how to write effectively. This is a problem because the workforce you will be entering after your studies demands that you be an effective communicator, in speech and in writing.

I taught first-year writing classes in the English departments of two Halifax, NS, universities for fourteen years and have seen it all in the thousands of essays I’ve evaluated: from the beautifully-crafted to the downright unintelligible.

I and my colleagues have often wondered how much time our first-years spent learning the fundamentals of good writing while they were in high school. It’s not rocket science, but writing a strong essay does take some practice.

No one likes getting back a paper covered in red (or other colour) ink! Your professor wants to read a paper that is clear, well-argued with lots of supporting evidence, and as error-free as you can make it.

Here are a few tips on how to do that:

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.

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”.

“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.

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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