Savvy Student's Study Skills: Writing

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Two

Writing is Like Reading, but Backwards

There's a close relationship between reading and writing, because the only reason you write something down is for someone to read it. That someone might be you (which is why we'll talk about note taking); it might be a teacher (so we'll talk about essays and research papers), or it might be a friend, company, or potential boss (we're talking emails here, and yes, there are do's and don'ts for email)—but the goal in writing is to put ideas together in a way that make sense to someone else when they read it. So, if reading comes last, writing comes first.

If you think this means we're going to review the ground rules of grammar, you're mistaken. At this point in your life, you've either learned the rules of grammar from formal learning, or you haven't—and if you haven't learned them from formal instruction, the only way you're going to understand them is for a teacher to talk with you about them when they talk with you about something you've written. You can certainly get a quick review of grammar rules here, but the best way to add to grammar knowledge in high school and college is to write something and show it to someone who will be kind in pointing out the grammatical issues. Be brave—no one will be watching, and it can help your writing grow as nothing else can.

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Note Taking

There are a handful of writers who can write without first taking notes, but even most of those writers jot down the main ideas they're thinking about before they start to put together the final written product. This helps them keep the big picture in mind as they're writing. If they forget what they're really trying to say, it's like they're driving a car without having their hands on the steering wheel. We might be able to actually do that someday with automobiles, but for writing, we avoid wrecks by taking notes.

Formal Note Taking

The kind of notes you take depends on how detailed you want your notes to be. If you're writing a reminder to yourself to pick your brother up from sports practice, a reminder on a sticky note or on your phone alarm will do the trick, and probably takes about three words. If you're writing an outline from a book or a lecture of the causes of the American Revolutionary War, that's going to take a little more space and organization—so it's good to think about the depth of your notes ahead of time.

Many students look at the American Revolution example of note taking and think it looks pretty complicated, but it really isn't. Each section starts with a big idea, then includes examples or parts of that big idea. For example, if you wanted to know about the history of rock ‘n roll, you could try and understand it based on the different kinds of rock music; how rock is different in other countries; the way rock changed over time, and the kinds of instruments used in making rock music. That's easy to say, but once you develop written answers to a pretty simple question, the outline of the history of rock looks a lot like the American Revolution outline—and we're talking rock ‘n roll here!

It's easy to get caught up in the Roman numerals, and the abcs used in note taking, but once you understand their purpose, you can adopt the traditional note taking method to your own style. This method of note taking uses the same “big idea, little idea” approach as the American Revolution example, but instead of Roman numerals and letters, it uses the margins of the paper to organize big ideas. Mapping offers visual clues to how ideas are related. Some people like the way the big circles and little circles are used to indicate big and little ideas, while others take one look at this and think, wow, what a mess!

It's important to understand that you need to find a method of note taking that really works for you. Some people are able to use all three of the methods we've discussed, while others develop their own. Whatever method you use, make sure you review it to make sure you're getting the right level of detail— don't write down every word from the book or from the speaker, but don't expect that simply writing down “George Washington” is going to help you remember the battles of the Revolution.

One of the key ways of checking the impact of your note taking skills is to see what you missed on a test or quiz. If your grade wasn't quite what you expected, review the answers and see if they exist in your notes. If they don't—or if they do, but you couldn't easily find them when studying—it's time to tweak your note taking skills…

…and speaking of note taking skills, did you notice the American Revolution Notes indented the Roman numerals starting with number 5, or V? Yeah—big mistake there. They all should be to the far left.

Informal Notes

Note taking from a book or a lecture is actually pretty easy, since a good author and a good speaker organize their thoughts in ways that are easy to follow (in fact, some books put an outline of the major ideas at the end of each chapter). That isn't always the case with a meeting or a class discussion; there may be an agenda to try and keep things organized, but if you're talking about how to solve a problem, the ideas may not come out in any organized fashion. As an exercise, pull out a piece of paper, and try taking notes for this two minute meeting.

When you have to find a way to try and make sense out of a presentation that doesn't have much structure, consider these strategies:

As another exercise, go back to the two minute meeting, and try keeping notes using the mapping approach. Was that easier for you?

Note-Taking and Plagiarism

You need to give very careful thought to the approach you're going to take as you take notes. You may read or hear an idea that you like so much, you decide to write it down exactly as it was first written or said by someone else. On the other hand, you may come across an idea you really like, but it's so complicated that the best you can do is summarize the idea in your own words as you write it down.

You're going to want to develop a way to keep direct quotes separate from summaries that are in your own words, since using someone else's words and ideas in a paper or presentation and claiming them as your own is plagiarism, which is a huge no-no in the academic world. Since schools and colleges put a high value on original thought, any student who tries to cut corners by using someone else's words and ideas will find themselves in trouble, fast. A good number of high school students who plagiarize will find it extremely difficult to get admitted to college; famous authors sometimes get tripped up in their note taking, sometimes putting them in tough situations, and even presenting an idea (or musical melody) that's close to another one can lead to legal action you want to avoid.

The best approach to staying out of hot water is to make some simple rules, and stick to them. Many students will put direct quotes in quotes—it's quick to write down, and easy to remember. This works even for note taking while reading; if you're writing down the idea as it's written in a book, write it the same way you would if the author was in the room, speaking to you. Some students are able to paraphrase and summarize as they're taking notes, but that's a talent that can often slow other note-takers up, which leads them to miss some of the key points of a class lecture. It's best to develop the quote system for now, then learn how to summarize ideas when writing your essays or drafts.

Reviewing Your Notes

We'll talk more about how to study from your notes in the section on Study Skills, but there's a step you might want to take before you start to use your notes to study for the quiz or writing that first rough draft of a paper. Many students will build in about twenty minutes after a class or meeting to review their notes. At first, this might not make a lot of sense. If you just heard what the professor had to say, or if the boss just recapped the meeting, you probably remember what was said.

While that may be true, remember that the goal of notes is to remember what was said long after the meeting was over. Reviewing your notes gives you a chance to find that incomplete sentence and add in the two or three words that will finish the thought, or rewrite the key word that somehow has become a smudge. Some people will use this time to rewrite their notes completely, putting them in Roman numeral form, or using the mapping approach and putting the big idea circles closer together. If, by the end of the session, you can answer the question “What was discussed today?” by giving the answer out loud and only glancing at your notes, you're in good shape.

Personal Notes, or Notes for Poems and Fiction

You've probably heard of creative people who get incredible ideas in unusual places. Whether those inspiring moments occur in class, while studying, or while walking the dog, it's important to find a way to record these small ideas, since they have the potential to become big ideas.

Jotting down these “out of the blue” ideas is certainly easier with the voice-command based note taking apps available on cell phones, or the sticky notes app on most computers. In addition, it's wise to enter these ideas in a journal or notebook, so you'll have one place where all your ideas reside. A journal is also a good idea, since all works of fiction have some kind of structure, and a journal allows you to develop the flow and interaction of those ideas, trying several different approaches to combine the ideas in your journal.

A growing number of students are taking to social media to record their personal feelings and small sources of inspiration, but that idea has its drawbacks. It's certainly true that many people are making a very nice living with online blogs and videos that seem to be spur-of-the-moment recordings that speak for themselves. These blogs have a nice “at home” feel, but only after the less smooth parts have been edited out, and the content develops into an idea that has several examples—a lot like note taking.

It's also important to give yourself the opportunity as a writer to update initial ideas and drafts with a limited audience. There are too many examples of students who have lost friends, college scholarships, and more, all because they posted an idea to the Internet before they carefully thought it through—and if that's the case with a poem or work of fiction, it becomes too easy for someone else to take it, tweak it, and make a successful work that was based on your idea. These rules will help keep your social media presence safe and strong; so will using an old school notebook or journal for keeping your private thoughts private, until they're ready for an audience.

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From Notes to Essay

After you've done a lot of reading, listening, and talking about the ideas presented in a class, it's time for you to share the ideas you've developed based on your study of the subject. Most of this writing is academic, and comes out as essays or research papers. There are many ways to structure both, and each structure has its own set of guidelines to follow—but each structure begins by asking two very important questions:

What do you want to say?

The reason teachers ask you to write papers about books, movies, or class discussions is because they want to know what you think. This may sound pretty basic, but you'd be amazed at the number of students who submit essays that are simply fact-based repetitions of what they've just studied. That kind of writing is important, but most teachers want you to do something with those facts: compare one book to another; analyze the differences between two historic events; evaluate the quality of a play.

As an example, not everyone in your class who reads Twelve Years a Slave will be able to recall every character, but even fewer students will be able to compare Solomon Northrup's challenges to those facing society today. A good essay will do both—and in doing so, it will show you can think at both the basic level of remembering facts, and the more advanced levels of analysis and comparison. These levels of thinking are part of Bloom's Taxonomy, a tool teachers use to develop the way they teach, and a tool that's often used to measure what students have learned. All levels are important, and the highest levels require you to have an opinion about what you're studying. So keep the facts in mind, but keep thinking about how the facts make you feel, and what they remind you of—that's the beginning of real thinking.

What the Teacher is Looking For

All writing is designed for some kind of audience, so it's important to remember who's going to be reading your work, and what they hope to get out of it. Since most of your academic writing is going to be read by your teacher, it's important to understand what questions they want you to address in your writing; how long they want it to be; how they want you to cite any sources you used to write your paper, and any other information you need to supply as part of the reading and grading process.

This might not be as hard as you think. Many teachers are now using rubrics in their grading. These checklists make it easier for them to grade, but it also makes it easier for students to understand what to include in a paper. Some rubrics provide general instructions, while others are more specific (like this one). Either way, they give the student a clearer understanding of the structure and content they should develop for the paper.

“Right”, you're thinking, “but what if my paper has a conclusion the teacher disagrees with?”

The goal of academic papers is to teach students how to put their thoughts together in a structured way that allows them to reach a conclusion based on carefully laid out facts. Logic tells us that if the facts, or premises, are all correct, the conclusion has to be correct—and yet, we've all heard stories about the English teacher who thinks Ernest Hemingway is the greatest author ever published, and gives low grades to papers that might say otherwise.

This is where a rubric can really come in handy. If everything used to calculate your grade is on the rubric, it's going to be tough for a teacher to grade you down just because they don't like your conclusion. Not proving your conclusion is one thing; coming to a conclusion they wouldn't make is another.

Rough Drafts

This is one of the reasons rough drafts can also be a huge help. The ground rules for rough drafts are easy. If a paper is due on, say, the 15th, work on it as though it were due on the 8th. Ask your instructor if you could meet to discuss the rough draft of your paper; that's when they will go over the paper with you, point out its strengths, offer suggestions for improvement, and give you some idea as to what kind of grade it would earn.

The information a rough draft gives you is huge. Not only do you get some free advice on how to get a better grade, you might also get some comments like “I hadn't really considered Hester Prynne's role from that perspective”, a remark that suggests your conclusion is unusual, but OK. On the other hand, if your teacher says “Hester Prynne was a victim of society? Really?”, that's a sign that your conclusion is either underdeveloped, or one your teacher is going to have a tough time with. If it's the former, you have some rewriting to do to make sure you've really made your case. If it's the latter, you have some thinking to do; are you going to stand by your argument, or risk having to spend more time and energy defending your point of view with your teacher?

A couple of words of advice are in order with rough drafts. First, make sure your teacher will accept them. Incredibly few students bother to write rough drafts, even when instructors encourage students to submit them. This means most teachers have the time to read rough drafts, and like to do so—but that isn't everyone, especially high school teachers, who may have never read a rough draft in their career. Being a successful student sometimes means blazing some trails, but you don't want to necessarily burn your bridges. So before you go the trouble of writing a rough draft, make sure it will do you some good.

Second, if you commit to writing a rough draft, make it a good one. I've had situations where something unexpected came up, and a student could only submit half of a final paper as a rough draft. That's OK, since the writing gave me some idea of their approach to the topic. What's more difficult is if the student submits a “rough draft” that's little more than an outline. Outlines are great in establishing a structure, but they often don't leave as much room for specific feedback as a rough draft. In a perfect world, you want a rough draft that requires no updating. You won't always be able to do that, of course—that's why you write them—but write as if that's your goal, and your teacher won't be disappointed.

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Formats for Essays

The best known format for school essays is the Five Paragraph Essay. This approach to writing—introduce your big idea, write three paragraphs supporting the big idea, then write a conclusion—is used by teachers from elementary school to college to serve as a skeleton of academic writing, where the supporting paragraphs get more detailed in high school and college.

This can be a great way to start your writing, since it requires you to build a conclusion based on facts. At the same time, not every teacher is a fan of the Five Paragraph Essay, since many feel that it leads to boring writing that doesn't really interest the reader, or make the writer think about what they really want to say. This is why other approaches are encouraged, that allow the student to use a format like the big idea and mapping methods used in note taking we discussed at the start of this chapter. These approaches allow some writers to be more creative, or go into more detail, than the Five Paragraph Essay. You'll also want to be sure to check the syllabus of your class, since the instructor may have a particular essay format they want you to use—and since they're the reader, what they think matters.

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Formats for Research Papers

One of the most successful high school soccer coaches in Michigan spends a great deal of his practice time having players working in small groups. He once explained that he does this because it's the best way to have players work on individual skills—and, he added, it also is effective because good soccer is really a series of small games between six and eight players at a time.

This approach to soccer makes sense. If you've ever watched a game, you know that there aren't more than a few players around the ball at once, so it makes sense that players learn how to win those individual battles.

The same can be said for thinking of a research paper as a series of essays. If each essay is trying to advance one medium-sized idea, a research paper can be thought of as advancing a really big idea, which has to be supported by many medium-sized ideas. Writing about The Battle of Gettysburg would be pretty hard to do in a one-page essay: it would require a discussion of the Civil War; how the war had gone before Gettysburg that made that battle so important; a detailed analysis of the smaller battles that occurred; what happened immediately after Gettysburg, and how the battle is viewed today. This overview of Gettysburg is a good example of a well-structured research paper.

This approach to a research paper makes the organization of your notes and rough drafts easy to follow, since you're thinking of the research paper as a series of well-produced essays. Some students find research papers more challenging because they are longer than essays, and require more organization, but if you think of a research paper as a series of essays, you know exactly how to keep them organized, and you know how to keep the writing creative and fresh. Like essay writing, research paper writing requires you to have a clear understanding of how you'll be graded, and what the instructor is looking for, so try and get a copy of the rubric the teacher will use to grade your work. In addition, most teachers assigning a research paper will create a series of deadlines students will have to meet by completing parts of the paper, such as a bibliography, a summary, or even a rough draft. Since most of these deadlines will include grades for the work completed, it's important to meet them—but it's even more important to do quality work, since the feedback on these materials will help you write a stronger paper.

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Style Guides for Writing

The essay or research paper format gives you an idea of how to structure your paper, while a style guide gives you directions on how to do things like indent paragraphs, cite references, and more. Some teachers will build the style requirements in with their essay formats, others will tell you what style guide to use, and some will leave it up to you. The most popular style guides are the MLA, APA, and Chicago style guides. You don't have to know each of them by memory, but it is important to know they exist, and know what your teacher is looking for. Make sure you understand the specific requirements for each individual paper, since rewriting something like a citation list can be extremely time consuming.

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Creative Writing

It would take a lifetime to explore the many formats used in personal and creative writing, and many teachers provide introductions to some of the more popular formats used in literature, including intercalary chapters, sonnets, and, believe it or not, free verse poetry, which has its own set of rules. Most students learn about the many forms of creative writing by reading a wide array of authors and poets on their own, and discussing them with other interested readers through local bookstores, libraries, or online chat rooms. Some students are lucky enough to have Creative Writing classes taught in their high schools or colleges as well.

Most students will complete their formal education without ever being required to explore the world of creative writing beyond a basic study of fourth-grade poetry and middle school Shakespeare, and that's unfortunate. Some of the most well-read authors have developed their own approach to nonfiction that brings their ideas to life in ways that make people really think about their ideas, authors like Thomas Cahill and David McCullough. Their use of language is still based on solid research and logical argument, but it goes so far past the basis of the Five Paragraph Essay, it's easy to think they are creating this story from their imaginations—and yet, they aren't.

The requirements of high school diplomas and college degrees makes it challenging for students to find the time to understand why e e cummings never used capital letters, or why William Faulkner rarely used periods. At the same time, non-fiction developed from the observations of the real world help us understand more of the facts of life, while worlds created from pure imagination help us understand more of what the world might become. Both have their place as we find our own voice as authors of essays and research papers, formats that can inspire new thoughts and new possibilities, if done with the right balance of discipline and creativity.

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