9 Things I’ve Learned About Writing by Teaching Freshmen to Write

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

The end of this academic year marks my tenth year of teaching freshmen to write. From dedicated writing seminars to writing-intensive literature courses, I have spent much of my time in the classroom trying to help freshmen be better writers.

When I first started, I was a Strunk and White apostle. Good writing was clean, clear, and concise. I still believe that, but what I’ve learned from trying to teach is that much of what makes writing hard has little to do with the sentences on the page. Writing well isn’t just about using commas correctly or choosing strong verbs; it’s also about understanding yourself, your audience, and what the goals of writing are.

So here are nine things I didn’t know about writing well until I started teaching 18-year-olds how to write.


To write the best version of whatever it is you are working on, you’ve got to find some way to care about it. For some folks, this is a grade or a paycheck. For others, it will be the idea or issue itself. In my experience, caring about a grade or a paycheck does not produce the same quality of work that caring about the project itself does.

If you are writing for yourself, this is easier to do. If you are writing for an assignment, you have to figure out what in the parameters of that assignment you can care about enough to spur your best thinking and effort. Writing about what you care about is almost always a better tactic than writing about what you think a professor or boss cares about. The first question you should ask yourself when starting a new project is ‘What about this do I care about the most?” If you can identify and focus on that, you are off to a damn fine start.

Use Your Moods

There is no ideal time to write, but there is an ideal time for every stage of the writing process. In general, brainstorm and draft when you are well-rested, well-fed, and generally feeling good. Your creative and associative mind works best during these times. Most people who like to write in the mornings do so because they have slept, eaten, and caffeinated.

When you are tired and lower-energy, edit, proof, and revise. When you are somewhat fatigued, your creative mind abates and your critical, analytical mind is more active. You are more likely to identify logical mistakes and see the faults with what you’ve done. As strange as it sounds, only working on  your project when you are feeling your best doesn’t necessarily produce the best work.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

This isn’t so that you can “fix” your weaknesses, but to highlight your strengths. I think most people can get much better at writing, but I don’t believe all people can do every writing thing well. Better, maybe, but for most of us, mastery of every writing skill and technique is asking too much. Instead, knowing what you struggle with can help you work around it or replace it with something you are good at. For me, I am good at interpretation, but relatively bad at writing context and supplementary information. So I know to craft writing projects for myself that focus on interpretation and less on reportage and the clear transmission of information.

Get Comfortable with Discomfort

It may well be that there are writers out there who sit down and write, blissfully confident in the quality of their work. It also may well be that I am typing this on the back of a sentient unicorn. But for most of us, writing doesn’t usually feel great. It is a stressful process marked by indecision, procrastination, and fear. Knowing that it is not only OK but also the average experience of writing can help us feel better about the stress. It doesn’t go away, but we can feel less lonely and powerless.

As your writing improves, you will your ability to tackle increasingly difficult writing tasks. If you don’t try more difficult writing tasks, you won’t get better. So if you are trying to get better, writing is always going to be hard. You are going to spend your whole life learning how to write, and then you are going to die. Don’t expect ever to feel like you’ve mastered it.

“Answer” Rather Than “Prove”

Unless you are a lawyer, logician, or mathematician, your writing assignment isn’t about proving something. The five-paragraph thesis model many are taught in high school and after is predicated on the idea that an essay should prove a thesis. This is ridiculous. The vast majority of writing tasks deal with the unprovable. Instead, answer a question as best as you can.

Two warnings here. First, the question should be a real question, not a strawman or a rhetorical question. Ideally, it is a real question you have that is as of yet unanswered. If you are writing about a question to which you already have an answer, you will more likely tell your reader what to think than get them to think along with you. Second, you have to answer the question. The openness of writing to a question sometimes leads writers to think that they can equivocate or dodge. It doesn’t work. Ask a question and then use your writing to offer the best answer you can.

Write for an Audience

Your writing will be better if you have a specific audience in mind. This can be a group of people or it can be an individual. This will help you focus on the aspects of your project that your specific audience needs the most. What do they know? What do they care about? What ideas do they have already?

If a specific audience isn’t identifiable, write for your smartest friend. Your smartest friend is likely to be both willing to listen and skeptical. This is an ideal foil for your writing.

Forgive Yourself for Yesterday, Be Hard on Yourself Today, and Pretend Tomorrow Doesn’t Exist

I don’t have a lot of advice about how to get your behind in the chair and work. I don’t see how, where, and when my students write, so I don’t know what the causes of their difficulty just getting to the keyboard might be. But I’ve had enough conversations with them to know that much of their procrastination comes from regretting having not already worked and misestimating how much they will get done in the future. I think it goes a little something like this. A chance for working on a project comes and goes with no work being done. The next chance for work being done is then infused with some guilt about having not worked and some fear about getting the project done. The stress of working on the project now is then mortgaged into the future, when, presumably, the student will be both more productive and psychologically prepared.

You can see the problem with this.

I tell students who describe patterns like this to hold themselves accountable for work only at those moments when work is possible. Put another way: forgive yourself for the work you haven’t done, but also do not think about how much work you will get done tomorrow or the next day. This only works, though, if you recognize the need to be extremely hard on yourself for working right now.Fighting against both guilt (which looks to the past) and fear (which looks to the future) requires discipline to work in the present.

Focus on Your Voice Rather Than Your Authority

There is nothing easier to do as a reader than to detect claims of unearned authority. Appeals to belief, generalizations, and unsupported claims all signal someone who wants you to think they know what the hell they are talking about. Somewhat surprisingly, the best way to earn your reader’s trust is to admit what you don’t know, understand, or care about.

Anything that creates distance between you and your reader should go. Anything that creates intimacy between you and your reader should stay.

Time is Your Frenemy

Time’s role in a writing project is crucial, and it goes far beyond “give yourself enough time.” Even time management doesn’t quite capture it. I’ve fallen into using the phrase “time deployment.” This makes your relationship to your available time more active than mere “management.” So how should one deploy writing time? Well, different parts of the writing process take different kinds of time.

Two students who both spend twelve hours typing will produce projects of wildly varying quality if one of them sat down and worked for twelve hours in a row and one of them worked for six two-hour sessions. Moving your fingers over your keyboard and making words appear in your document is a task that, for most people, should only be done for about three hours at stretch. More than that and your available mental energy becomes depleted, and your work suffers. The second student will spend a higher percentage of their writing time with plenty of available mental energy. The effect of this cannot be overstated.

The other reason the second student will produce better writing is that they will give themselves the chance to use interstitial time for thinking about their project. Once a project is started, it tends to stick around in your mind, filling those opportunities where your creative mind is available. Many of us notice this happening in the shower or while lying in bed or while driving a car. In each case, your creative mind has a chance to work on your project while you aren’t even at the keyboard. This is a case of deploying different kinds of time to work on different pieces of writing. So, not only does the second student write with more energy, they have actually spent more time “working” on the project at hand, even though, if asked, they will still only say the project took them the same twelve hours.

All of your available hours are not the same and neither are the elements of writing. Mix and match to do more, do it better, and do it more enjoyably.