11 things I learned about writing at the Student Learning Commons

Writing is hard, but this list might help as the semester gets going

Image courtesy of Write On agencia de redaccion

By: Melanie Hiepler 

The Student Learning Commons (SLC) is a great resource for getting help with your papers. They provide a free, low-pressure environment where you can meet one-on-one with fellow students to get some advice on an assignment or to improve your learning skills. I have been volunteering as a learning and writing peer educator at the SLC for many years, and I love it. (If you’re a strong writer and would like to become a learning & writing peer educator, click here for more information.) Here are some tips about academic writing I’ve learned during my time as a peer educator. . .


  1. Outline before you write

Or make a mind map. Or draw arrows. Colour-code your notes if need be. Get your ideas onto paper, and then use these techniques to draw out your argument’s structure. Some people find it helpful to just start writing, and to address questions as they arise — that’s good too; just make sure you write and rework lots of drafts. An outline will keep your paper focused and structured, and it will always help you find your way back if you get lost while writing.


  1. Check your thesis, before you wreck your thesis

Generally speaking, a thesis will have two parts: the argument and the “so-what” factor. To make sure your argument is truly an argument, and not a statement of fact, try arguing against it. You may even find it useful to include some of that counterevidence in your paper, because it’ll help you refine your idea. As for the “so-what” factor, think about why your argument matters. Why should your reader care about your argument? What does it bring to the broader discussion of your topic at hand? It might take a while to develop your “so what,” and that’s OK. Keep these questions in mind while you’re outlining and researching.


  1. The Two-bite Brownie (sentence) is the way to go

Use short sentences — they’re easier to understand. As a writer, your job is to clearly communicate ideas to your reader. Using short sentences will help you do that. Plus, if you often find yourself writing run-on sentences, making an effort to keep it simple will help.


  1. Don’t worry about your page count

Focus on quality content over quantity. As long as your argument is sound and your research thorough, the pages will come. That’s what your prof cares more about, after all.  


  1. Write your introduction after the body paragraphs

You can’t introduce something until you know what you’re talking about, right? It feels counterintuitive, but it will keep your introduction concise and efficient.  


  1. Include examples for an exemplary paper

Do you ever get so bogged down in your topic that you just keep rambling and don’t really know what you’re arguing for anymore? Take a moment to stop, and use an example to illustrate your point. It might mean that you have to tweak your argument a little, but that fine-tuning is often exactly what you need to get yourself out of paper-paralysis and advance your argument.


  1. Master the differences between passing voice and active voice

This one is particularly important for arts students. Using the active voice makes your writing stronger and more clear. Consider this: “The dog was taken for a walk” (passive voice) versus “She took her dog for a walk” (active voice). Both sentences describe the same action, but the one in active voice sounds more confident — and it’s shorter, to boot.

Not sure how to spot the passive voice in your writing? Try the Zombie Test. If you can add ‘by zombies’ at the end of a sentence, you’re using the passive voice. Example: “The town was attacked in 1812” still makes sense if you tack on “the town was attacked in 1812 by zombies.” A quick fix is to tell your writer who attacked right off the bat: “The Americans attacked the town in 1812.” No room for zombies there.  

While using active voice is important, it’s not worth worrying about right away if you’re going to get stuck on it. You can always address this issue when you’re drafting and editing.


  1. Drafting, drafting, drafting

Drafting will only make your paper better. Be strategic about it: each time you draft, focus on a different aspect of your paper, starting with big-picture concerns (Does the logical structure of the paper make sense? Does each paragraph have a topic sentence? Have you introduced and contextualised all your sources properly?) and working your way down to smaller concerns (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.)


  1. Read your paper out loud!

After a few hours of staring at a screen, everything starts to look the same. Reading your paper out loud highlights typos, grammatical mistakes, run-on sentences, repeated words, and other unnecessary gaffes.


  1. Print it out. Then write all over it.

Print out a draft and write your edits out by hand. It gives your eyes a break from the screen, and if you’re a hands-on learner, this trick may even help you come up with new ideas as you’re writing. Like with reading out loud, changing the way that you review your text helps new issues and solutions come to light.


  1. Have someone else read your work.

A fresh set of eyes will pinpoint things you need to change. Ask a family member, friend, or roommate to read your work. They don’t have to be familiar with the topic at hand in fact, it’s sometimes better if they’re not, because then it’ll be really obvious if you need to clarify anything. If you want an extra pair of hands from a learning and writing peer like myself, the Student Learning Commons has locations in the WAC Bennet Library (Burnaby Campus), Fraser Library (Surrey Campus), and Belzberg Library (Vancouver Campus). To book a consultation, use the SLC’s online booking system, or just drop in at the Burnaby campus.