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Karl Schellscheidt

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  • BSE, Princeton University '90
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  • Harvard University
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Some Advice on Writing: Tip #1

PK -

eprep test prep video SOME ADVICE ON WRITING:

There is nothing further from the truth than to tell someone there are shortcuts to good writing. There is no magic formula to writing well (or better than you can now) other than to write and write often; good writing comes from working at it all the time. And you will find that the more you work at writing, the more it will give back to you. While I can think of no writer who would ever say that writing is “easy,” I can think of several students of mine who would say that the difficulty writing posed for them was worth it when they realized how much they’d improved in the expression of their ideas. Writing is hard work, but it is time well spent. While you might consider this bad news because you may not be so fond of practicing, why not look at it as good news? If writing well is the result of practicing, then anyone can improve her (or his) writing. Opportunity awaits you! If you’re willing to put in the time, your writing will reward you. But here are some tips to keep in mind while you work at your craft:

TIP #1: Think of writing as a process and not a product:

Here’s the scenario: you’re given an in-class essay question that asks, “What did the character Huck Finn symbolize in Mark Twain’s book of the same name? Answer with examples” Uh oh. You begin to try to figure out the answer in your head, thinking that you can’t actually write until the words begin to show up in your brain. This is the way that most students see writing—it’s the thing you do AFTER you’ve figured out the answer to a question, and it should be free of grammatical errors and should reflect the current conventions of the craft (like full sentences, perfect punctuation, and appropriate capitalization). In other words, your writing should represent your thinking in its final, most perfect state. Wow. No wonder we all have so much anxiety about writing!

But what if you thought about writing as the way to GET you to that best answer? What if writing were the best way to get your brain to start working? This is what I mean by thinking of writing as a “process.” If you think of writing not as the sole “product” that you turn in for a grade, then writing might become something a little less scary. And guess what? Writing is a process that helps you think more deeply and analytically, but we rarely use it this way. So, what if you used writing to help you answer this essay question? Here are some ways you could:


This is a term used for brainstorming ideas. It’s called free-writing because absolutely no rules apply. It’s simply a way to get you to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and write whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or any of the things that you fear need be perfect. Here’s a sample:

Hmmm write about huck? this is tuf scary was huck a symbol of anything? think thinkt think. How much time is left huck was funny and kind of truble maker made friends, lied, huck didn’t like pap but did like jim even tho he tricked him huck is blah blah blah don’t know maybe think about huck in story what does he do—poor, made up crazy stories, is huck believeable is huck brave is huck a good person…….

It’s pretty messy, isn’t it? But the writing is NOT meant to be perfect; only helpful to the writer. Because free-writing “frees” the writer from the worries of spelling, grammar, etc, the writer can focus on the stuff that counts! Free-writing also helps students relax, so they can access deeper thoughts that might have been blocked because of nervousness. This writer was not only able to remember some examples from the book that might help him write a good essay, but also to ask some thoughtful questions that will help him examine Huck as a symbol of something more significant.


Contrary to popular belief, writing is not something writers do when they have all the answers, it’s something they’re compelled to do when they need to figure something out. Mark Twain didn’t sit down to write Huck Finn because he was completely satisfied with the society within which he lived; on the contrary, he wrote his satire to try to make sense of the brutality and hypocrisy he saw every day. (Mark Twain also put this manuscript down for over a year right in the middle of writing it because he had reached a place in the story where he was struggling with how the characters were developing). Similarly, don’t think of writing as something that happens all at once to express everything you’ve figured out; use it to explore all of the questions that still bother you. In that spirit, always pay attention to your reactions to texts, and write down your questions and reactions as they come to you! You have good instincts, and they’ll get better as you use them more frequently. If you’re free-writing as a question or insight comes to you, write that down, too. Can you see how the student’s free-writing above produced some meaningful questions? (“Is Huck believable? Is Huck a good person?”) The best kind of writing revolves around an unanswered question. Besides, who wants to write about something he or she already knows? That’s boring.

If you can think of writing in these different forms, perhaps you’ll begin to see it as a means through which you can access great ideas and even uncover insights you hadn’t thought of before. These kinds of “process” writing will help you to exercise your brain in ways that no other skill can, so give free-writing and generating questions a try and see what your brain has to say about it.

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