Text: Why Writing Skills Matter

Obviously you can write. And in the age of Facebook and smartphones, you may be writing all the time—perhaps more often than speaking. Many students today are awash in text like no other generation before.

So why spend yet more time and attention on writing skills? Research shows that deliberate practice—that is, close focus on improving one’s skills—makes all the difference in how one performs. Revisiting the craft of writing—especially early in college—will improve your writing much more than simply producing page after page in the same old way. Becoming an excellent communicator will save you a lot of time and hassle in your studies, advance your career, and promote better relationships and a higher quality of life off the job. Honing your writing is a good use of your scarce time.

Also, consider this: a recent survey of employers conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 89 percent of employers say that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.”[1] It was the single-most favored skill in this survey. In addition, several of the other valued skills are grounded in written communication: “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” (81 percent); “The ability to analyze and solve complex problems” (75 percent); and “The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources” (68 percent). This emphasis on communication probably reflects the changing reality of work in the professions. Employers also reported that employees will have to “take on more responsibilities,” “use a broader set of skills,” “work harder to coordinate with other departments,” face “more complex” challenges, and mobilize “higher levels of learning and knowledge.”[2]

If you want to be a professional who interacts frequently with others, you have to be someone who can anticipate and solve complex problems and coordinate your work with others,[3] all of which depend on effective communication.

The pay-off from improving your writing comes much sooner than graduation. Suppose you complete about 40 classes for a 120-credit bachelors’ degree, and—averaging across writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses—you produce about 2,500 words of formal writing per class. Even with that low estimate, you’ll write 100,000 words during your college career. That’s roughly equivalent to a 330-page book.

Spending a few hours sharpening your writing skills will make those 100,000 words much easier and more rewarding to write. All of your professors care about good writing.

It’s Different from High School

Because most professors have different expectations, it can be tricky knowing what exactly they’re looking for. Pay attention to the comments they leave on your paper, and make sure to use these as a reference for your next assignment. I try to pay attention and adapt to the professor’s style and preferences. —Aly Button, SUNY student

By the end of high school you probably mastered many of the key conventions of standard academic English, such as paragraphing, sentence-level mechanics, and the use of thesis statements. The essay portion of the SAT measures important skills such as organizing evidence within paragraphs that relate to a clear, consistent thesis, and choosing words and sentence structures to effectively convey your meaning. These practices are foundational, and your teachers have given you a wonderful gift in helping you master them. However, college writing assignments require you to apply those skills to new intellectual challenges. Professors assign papers because they want you to think rigorously and deeply about important questions in their fields.

To your instructors, writing is for working out complex ideas, not just explaining them. A paper that would earn a top score on the SAT might only get a C or D in a college class if it doesn’t show original and ambitious thinking.

Professors look at you as independent junior scholars and expect you to write as someone who has a genuine, driving interest in tackling a complex question. They envision you approaching an assignment without a preexisting thesis. They expect you to look deep into the evidence, consider several alternative explanations, and work out an original, insightful argument that you actually care about. 

  1. Hart Research Associates, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf, 9.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.