Every student has to take English classes at some time or another. In all of these classes, you’ll have to write stuff (cue theme from “Jaws”).
Given a choice between two classes, “Writing 101” and “Breaking Rocks with Your Head,” most students would pick the latter. Why is that? What is it about writing an essay that makes even the toughest and bravest students quiver in fear? What writing strategies can help you cope?
The Good Old Days
Back in the 19th century, people didn’t have TV, computers, DVD players, or even lava lamps. Not only that, but travel was expensive, slow, and often dangerous. People amused themselves—and went to faraway places—by reading books.
Today, much of your entertainment comes visually. Most people don’t read for amusement any more (though many still do). The result is that for a lot of folks, the only time they read a book is when they have to.
A Good Reader Is a Good Writer
English has rules rules rules rules rules rules rules. Then, when you learn those rules, you find out that those rules only apply most of the time. Our language is messy—there’s no doubt about that. But the way we learn English grammar isn’t by memorizing rules—it’s by using the language. We do that initially by speaking—by conversing. Pretty soon, we get a “feel” for what’s correct and what isn’t.
The same process happens when we read. We acquire an eye for correct grammar and sentence structure; an incorrect sentence just looks wrong. The more we read, the more expert we become at this; the less we read, the more we have to rely on memorizing all those rules. (This is why it’s much easier to learn a foreign language by “immersion” than by studying a textbook.)
So I Fear the English Class of Doom Because…?
Because you haven’t read enough and, therefore, haven’t written enough.
I guarantee you haven’t done enough writing to be really good at it, because writing is something that the vast majority of people regard as a chore (and if the above doesn’t apply to you, please accept my apologies).
If you haven’t done much reading, then you haven’t been exposed to diverse points of view, heard different voices, and—most of all—you haven’t been to other places, in the minds and experiences of authors. As a result, you haven’t had the opportunity to create writing strategies that fit you.
So you fear English class just as someone strapped into the pilot’s seat of a 767 and told to land it would be scared. Critical reading and writing strategies just aren’t in the ol’ skill set just yet. This is not a fault of yours; it’s a fault of modern culture.
Twitter posts doth not a writer make.
No! Don’t Make Me Write an Essay. I’ll Take the Firing Squad Instead!
I strongly suspect that what makes many people blanch at the thought of writing an essay—whether expository, narrative, or argumentative—is their first exposure to the task: a book report. The process of writing your first book report is what we fondly call regurgitation—swallow information, then puke it back up on demand. There was never any of yourself in the process, and if you hated the book, you didn’t dare say so.
Then, you were probably asked to write an essay dealing with some topic or other that your teacher thought was important—or if you were lucky, you got to choose the topic. You struggled with this because while you were (and are) used to describing things, telling stories, and arguing your point, you had done all those things orally and, unless you were some kind of child prodigy, haphazardly.
Essay writing forces you to arrange all your thoughts like ducks in a row. This doesn’t feel natural, at least not at first.
Why English Class Sucks
Here are the reasons, then, why going to English class is like French-kissing a dragon:
- You’re asked to do things you don’t normally do (reading and writing).
- You’re asked to learn and observe a trainload of rules, many of which are totally unfamiliar.
- You are learning forms of communication—reading and writing, learning via text rather than visually—that are not the ways you have learned (in this visual media age) to acquire information.
- You’ll be repeatedly taken out of your comfort zone, unless your teacher is one of those very rare individuals who can engage you with unfamiliar tasks.
Writing Strategies: 10 ½ Ways to Make English Class Un-suck*
*It is too a word! Why? Because I said so!
The following writing strategies are all related to improving your writing skills, even though some of them aren’t specifically about writing. As you’ve probably gathered, I consider the skills of reading, discussing, studying, and writing to be inseparable from one another.
Also, you won’t write well if you hate the whole experience, so I’ve included some writing strategies to make your English class enjoyable (you may think that’s like making a visit to the dentist enjoyable, but bear with me).
1. Approach your assigned reading as an adventure, not a chore. Chances are, your teacher assigned you a book to read because she thought you would enjoy it/learn something from it. Think of this as the opportunity to experience something you never otherwise would have.
I read fifty-plus assigned books in college that I never would have touched or even known about otherwise. I greatly enjoyed the vast majority of those books.
2. You are allowed to express your opinion. Many students need a LOT of convincing here. They struggle desperately to figure out what their teachers want and then give it to them.
This is what I call Stage Two Regurgitation. It’s a little more sophisticated than an elementary school book report, but not much. The truth is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with expressing an opinion that is diametrically opposed to that of your teacher; hating the book you were assigned to read and ripping into it rather than praising it; or taking, shall we say, an “original” stance on a political issue. The key is whether or not you support your position.
3. Realize that the skills you are acquiring have more than abstract value. Those who can write well (and also, are good critical readers) succeed in life. They get the jobs, they get the contracts, they’re admitted to the best schools, they write the best ad copy, they get their clients found “not guilty,” and they write blogs that attract millions of subscribers.
Good writers make the big bucks and spend time with supermodels on a regular basis. They drive around in expensive sports cars and live in huge mansions.
Okay, perhaps I exaggerate. But there’s no debating that good English skills complement and enhance your abilities. Think of your English class as an opportunity to acquire those skills.
4. Write about what interests you. This makes the whole process much less of a chore. You might think that when writing the more advanced version of the regurgitation book report, you don’t have that option—but you do!
How you reacted to the book is important and a great essay topic. Did any situation resonate with you? Did anything relate to your own experience? Did the story make you think about any contemporary issues? Were you moved?
5. Don’t sweat the details—too much. Yes, grammar is important, and you really don’t want to see red marks as if a chicken had walked in blood and then wandered all over your paper.
That said, because of the cultural shift away from reading I mentioned earlier, the grammar of 95% of the population…really bites. So you don’t have to conform to as high a standard. Yes, make your grammar as good as you possibly can. And did I mention our awesome editing service?
6. Craft your own writing strategies. This ranges from thinking up an idea, to drafting an outline, to using wordcraft (not to be confused with Warcraft) to sharpen the blade of your argument (no, still not Warcraft).
This can actually be an enjoyable process. It’s strategizing, which can be a fun and challenging activity. When you write that excellent, incisive paragraph, you’ll feel a little thrill. Doing anything well is pleasurable; writing strategies help you write well.
7. Appreciate the language. English is quite possibly the best communication tool in the history of mankind. English literature dates back a thousand years, and within it you can find great beauty, profound and moving thoughts and stories that will thrill and delight you. “Even” poetry can be a wonderful experience. Wordplay, jokes, silly rhymes, song lyrics—they’re all part of the language. Enjoy it!
8. Don’t goof off. I was going to say something about how I’m the world’s worst procrastinator, but I’ll do it later. Procrastination has an effect on you like that frog that gets slowly boiled to death—you don’t notice the building pressure of a deadline until it’s almost too late.
Chances are if you feel rushed you’ll do a crappy job. You’ll also feel stressed out. Given that the task will take X amount of time no matter what, what do you have to gain by postponing it?
(And yes, a meteor could destroy all life on earth before you have to turn in your essay, but…)
9. Interact. Participate in classroom discussions. Speak up. Share your opinions—challenge those of others. Make penetrating insights—or amusing ones.
Two major benefits from doing this: it makes time go by a lot faster, and teachers notice and reward class participation. If your teacher is mulling over whether to give you a B+ or an A-, I guarantee that if you’ve raised your hand a lot, you’ll get the A-, and if you’ve sat there like a tree stump, you’ll get a B+. What’s more, class discussions can give you great ideas for essays!
10. READ, dammit. I do not mean just your assigned reading. Read some books that haven’t been forced on you. What did you like about the last book you read? Did you like the genre? Did you like the author? Did you like the subject matter—or perhaps the characters? Maybe you have a historical interest and you’d like to read some fiction about the Wild West or the time of kings, knights, and damsels. Make the experience of reading your own!
…and because it’s really the same piece of advice, I’m not giving this its own number:
10.5. WRITE, dammit. I do not mean just your assigned writing. Write a letter to the editor. Tell a story about the day you threw up five times at Six Flags. Write a film review. Write an essay from a point of view completely opposite to the one you actually hold. Write a sonnet. Convince your teacher that Hamlet is really about sushi. Write write write write write!!!!!
Final Thoughts on Writing Strategies to Tame English Class
You want to tame the bucking bronco of English because, like the cowboy, you know that once you subdue the horse, it will not only be useful, it’ll be your friend. This is perhaps difficult to appreciate when you’re sitting in the dust, covered with bruises, clutching a paper with a big “C minus” on it. But you should hop right back on the horse.
Think of it this way. In your other classes, you’ve been forced to learn about stuff like the mating habits of Peruvian oceanic invertebrates or the impact of King Zod of Albania’s Proclamation of the Three Brown Goats in 1175. You have asked yourself—rightly so—what possible good this information can do you.
Well, in English class, the benefit is immediate and easily understood: you’ll be a better reader and writer. And since good writing gets you better grades both in and out of English class, you’ll get an “A” when you write your term paper on the Peruvian flammulated clam.