Simple Steps to Improve Your Writing Over the Summer

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We’re at the end of the term here at Metro Community College and heading into summer. Many new students will be planning to take their first-year writing classes in the fall. For students who may not love writing as much as we do here at the Writing Center, taking their first college writing class can be unnerving. However, taking a few simple steps over the summer to prepare yourself for college-level writing will put you one step ahead in the fall.

  1. Read. It’s that simple. Read as much as you can over the summer. It’s obvious to instructors the students who are readers and those who only read text messages. When you read, read like a writer. What does that mean? Reading like a writer means to read with a critical eye, analyzing the choices the writer has made. If you are reading literary fiction or nonfiction, study the language the writer uses. Read setting details with a critical eye, considering how the writer has avoided telling what something looks like and instead has shown through sensory specifics and literary devices, such as simile and metaphor.

 

  1. Fix your Problems. You know what I mean. Fix those problems you’ve had since 7th grade, when you learned – or didn’t learn – what a comma splice was. College instructors aren’t always going to teach you a lesson on how to fix your comma splices, or fragments, or run-on sentences; they will assume you have learned how to fix them yourself. If your high school essays were marked for the same punctuation error over and over, it’s time to learn how to fix it. Don’t carry the problem with you to college. I know some college professors who will hand a paper back ungraded with more than two punctuation errors on a page. There are hundreds of websites where you can brush up on punctuation and grammar, and many even have online quizzes. Two great ones are Purdue Owl and The Grammar Book.

 

  1. Break up with Semi-colons. For some unknown reason, beginning writers are in love with semi-colons. The problem is that most beginning writers misuse them. Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses, which are complete sentences (as well as items in a multi-word list). You create fragments, another punctuation error, by inserting semi-colons in the middle of sentences where there is only one independent clause. Most semi-colon errors in student papers are made when the writer tries to separate an independent clause from a dependent clause. If you just read this explanation and have no idea what all these terms mean, that means you should use periods. Period.  

 

  1. Brush up on Research Skills. If you didn’t have access to library databases in high school, such as EBCSO or Lexis Nexis, or have a chance to learn the ins and outs of academic research, spend some time over the summer to familiarize yourself with your college’s database resources. Having even a slight familiarity with how to use these resources for your inevitable research paper will save you an enormous amount of time and trouble. We see so many students who have never used databases or even know what they are, that it puts them way behind when it’s time to write their first research paper. Websites, blogs, YouTube, and yes, even Wikipedia, are not acceptable modes of research for college. Use your down time this summer to visit your college’s library or writing center and tool around their online databases. You might even have fun doing it.

 

  1. Keep your Voice. Many new college students have the opinion that the more “academic” their voice in their writing, the better. This is a mistake. If you are using a dictionary to find fancy words when writing a paper, it’s painfully obvious in the final product. Write within the limits of your vocabulary. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s being authentic. Your voice is the one thing that makes your writing unique. Don’t bury it under academic jargon. Just today when I was reading a student paper, I crossed out the word “hence” in the middle of a perfectly good sentence. So throw away the list of academic lingo you’ve been compiling, and go with what you know.

 

Have a great summer!

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ACE IT! 5 Tips on Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

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When presented with the task of writing a scholarship essay, many hopeful students panic. Writing an essay for a class and grade is one thing, but writing an essay for money can be off-the-charts stressful. By following a few basic principles of scholarship essay writing, you’ll be on your way to a winning essay.

ACE IT:

  1. Audience

Every scholarship has its own unique requirements. Just as you shouldn’t take the shotgun approach to resumes, blanketing every company in town with the same resume, you shouldn’t use the same essay for every scholarship you are applying for. Every scholarship provider wants students to meet their specific criteria. If the provider offers specific questions, be sure you are focusing your essay or responses to appeal to that specific provider. Submitting a cookie-cutter essay when you are competing with possibly hundreds of equally qualified applicants will immediately put you at a disadvantage. Know who you are submitting to. Do a little research on the provider, and if the scholarship is in someone’s honor, consider referencing the person to personalize your essay.

  1. Confidence

As you compose your thoughts, communicate a confident, but sincere message. This is all about tone. You want to sound self-assured, but you don’t want to sound like a braggart. Be passionate in your response. If you are applying for a nursing scholarship, you can bet all the scholarship essays will be from caring and compassionate applicants. Confidently communicate what is unique about you.

Don’t be shy about listing your accomplishments. This isn’t bragging; it’s being honest and assertive. If you list specific accomplishments, the deeds will speak for themselves without a lot of fluffing.

  1. Edit

Obviously your essay should be error free. But editing also means choosing your words wisely. Most scholarships have a word or character limit. You absolutely don’t want to waste one single word. After you write your essay and have worked it over, put it away for a day or two and revisit it with fresh eyes. Do you repeat yourself? Do you have a tightly focused, well-organized essay? Avoid vague descriptions or generalized statements. If you are telling a story, use vivid language and descriptions. Be concise, specific and of course, error free.

  1. Instructions

Are you answering a series of specific questions, or are you simply writing a straightforward essay? If you are to answer questions, make certain you understand what is being asked and that you are specifically addressing this question.

Most scholarships have word limits and other guidelines. Don’t get thrown in the “NO” pile because you failed to follow the instructions. If it says it should be typed, double-spaced, then type and double-space it. If the word limit is 500 words, don’t submit a 510-word essay.

  1. Thesis

Even though this isn’t exactly an academic essay, a scholarship essay should still have a controlling idea. Once you understand the instructions, consider what the objective of your essay is. When answering essay questions, a one-sentence answer to the essay question acts as your thesis, with the remainder of the body examples or support for that answer.

Avoid the clichéd sob story. Scholarship committees are often turned off by this type of essay, as they feel a bit emotionally manipulated. Even though many scholarships are based on financial need, you’ll still be judged by your merits. What have you accomplished despite challenges or obstacles?

 

ACE IT

Composing a winning scholarship essay takes some planning, but by following a few basic guidelines, you’ll go to the head of the pack. Remember you could be competing against hundreds, in some cases thousands, of equally qualified applicants. You want to stand out from the crowd, but in a good way! Even though you may be one of thousands, you are still unique, with experiences and knowledge that no one else possesses. Make sure the reader gets a sense of who you are and leave them with a positive, inspiring image of yourself. Make them remember you.

And one last word: many scholarships – too many – go unused due to lack of applicants. Too many students don’t even apply, thinking they have no chance, so why bother? Scholarships are like the lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play. Only it doesn’t cost you anything but a little time and effort to apply.

Don’t be Shifty! How to Avoid Shifts in Sentence Construction

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Shifts in sentence construction refer to an improper change in structure somewhere in a sentence which results in inconsistency. Some shifts are deliberate, but unintentional shifts can cause confusion. It’s sometimes difficult to identify these shifts. The most common shifts relate to shifts in verb tense, shifts in person or number, and shifts in voice.

Shift in Verb Tense

Shifts in verb tense are created when a sentence moves between past, present or future tense. This is especially common in narrative essays, but can also occur in academic essays, which should use present tense. Sometimes, the verbs in a sentence may refer to action that is occurring at different times, which would require different tenses. Otherwise, maintain consistent tense, unless the intended meaning requires change.

Ex.
During the soccer game, Brett’s dad stood up and screams at the coach.

In this example, the first verb, “stood,” is past tense. The following verb, “screams,” is present tense. If he stood up (past tense) he must scream in the same tense, which would be “screamed.”

Ex.
The teacher explains that the papers were due Friday, but the students complained about the due date.

The teacher “explains” in present tense, so the students should complain in present tense.

Ex.
During the baseball game, the sky darkened, the wind blew up, and a rumbling boom announces the impending storm.

The time frame is introduced as past tense: “darkened” and “blew up” are both past, so “announces” should be the past as well.

ESL Hint: Don’t be fooled by the introductory words, “During the game.” Even though “during” means an action is continuous in general, it does not mean that the sentence action is necessarily continuous.

Shift in Person or Number

Is the subject of the sentence the person speaking (first person), the person spoken to (second person) or the person spoken about (third person)? Shifts in person mean mixing these “persons” within a sentence. Students often use second person “you” in academic writing when first or third person is preferred.

First Person = I, we
Second Person = You, your
Third Person = he, she, it, one, they

Ex.
If one lifts weights consistently, you’ll gain muscle mass and reduce body fat.

One may get chicken pox if you do not get vaccinated.

This is one of the most common tense shifts in academic papers. “One” is third person; “you” is second person.

Ex.
If someone must put dissect the frog, they should do it while closely supervised.

In the above example, “someone” is third person, singular; “They” is third person, plural. To repair, change either.

If someone must dissect the frog, he or she should do it while closely supervised.

Or

If the class must dissect the frog, they should do it while closely supervised.

Ex.
Clerks get paid less than assistants, though a clerk does the same type of work.

This is an error in number. “Clerks” is plural, and “a clerk” is singular. Choose one or the other.

A clerk gets paid less than an assistant, though a clerk does the same type of work.

Clerks get paid less than assistants, though they do the same type of work.


Shift in Voice

Shifts in voice refer to mixing active with passive voice. A sentence beginning in active voice should remain in active voice. If the subject acts on something, it’s active. If the subject is acted upon, it’s passive. However, sometimes a shift in voice is justified, though be careful it’s communicated clearly.

Ex.
The visiting team won the tournament, and a trophy was awarded to them.

In this example, “team won” is active voice; “trophy was awarded” is passive. To correct, turn the passive second part of the sentence to active:

The visiting team won the tournament, and they were awarded a trophy.

Ex.
The thieves approached the woman, and she was asked for her purse.

This example can be corrected in the same way as the previous:

The thieves approached the woman, and they asked her for her purse.

As you can see, it’s not always easy to locate shifts in tense, person, or voice. We often know something isn’t quite right, but you have a hard time figuring out what exactly it is.

CORRECTION:

We often know something isn’t quite right, but WE have a hard time figuring it out!

I told you so!