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The High School Student’s Guide to Becoming A Better Writer

Writing is an essential skill for excelling in high school and beyond. If you’re seeking to level up your writing skills, this guide offers helpful tools and tricks to enhance your writing skills.

Writing is a lifelong skill that is critical for success in both high school and the college admissions process. However, many students struggle with communicating effectively in their writing and feel they lack the resources needed to improve their skills.

With the right habits and tools, students can sharpen their vocabulary and command of language. First and foremost, students who wish to communicate more effectively through their writing must begin with patience—becoming a better writer takes time and practice, and it is important to approach the writing process as one of trial and error. Mistakes you make along the way are learning opportunities that will ultimately help you to grow and become more comfortable with your own voice. At the same time, keep in mind that there are plenty of tools and resources that can help you in the process.

If you want to level up your writing, here are 10 steps you can take:

1. Read challenging and diverse material.

The foundation of good writing is reading. As such, this is likely the most important habit to form early on. As Mary Tedrow writes for Education Week, “Writing and reading are intricately intertwined. One is the inverse of the other: Reading is the inhale; writing is the exhale.” When students read actively and analytically, they will begin to see stylistic choices, commonalities in the writing that they find most compelling, and the inspiration to emulate what they have read.

In order for students to expand their vocabulary and gain exposure to artful writing, they should not only read complex, well-written material, but they should also read in a variety of styles. For example, they can challenge themselves to read research papers on topics that interest them—not just fiction or required class readings. They can also read novels, persuasive essays, personal essays, biographies, and news articles. Becoming a strong reader who can understand different topics and styles is critical to becoming an adept and well-rounded writer.

2. Research unfamiliar words and concepts.

Being an active reader requires students to take the time to look up words that they don’t know or concepts that they don’t understand. Students should read with a pen in hand and a dictionary (hard copy or online version) nearby. Don’t hesitate to look up new words or ideas that you don’t understand. Once you have searched and gained a better comprehension of the topic, go back and re-read the passage to make sure that you understand the idea in its context.

3. Incorporate new vocabulary—but be sure to use it correctly.

Choosing the right words and using them properly in a sentence can elevate a solid “B” paper into an “A” worthy piece. For example, if you find yourself using a lot of repetitive word choices, use a thesaurus to find a new word that might better fit the context. That being said, make sure you fully understand the word and its proper context—just because a word is longer doesn’t mean it’s more eloquent or that it elevates your writing. In fact, just swapping out a more common word for a “fancy” word you see in the thesaurus can make your writing much worse if you don’t fully understand the new word you choose to use. This is where using a dictionary or seeing the new word in the context of a sentence can help ensure that you are using a word in a way that is correct and true to your own voice.

4. Use spell check—and understand its limitations.

If you’re writing using a common online software such as Word or Google Docs, you’ll have access to free spell check to catch typos. The software will also often suggest alternate options for word choice or even sentence structure. This is very helpful, and students should definitely take its suggestions into consideration! At the same time, the software won’t catch a lot of common mistakes—for instance, if you type “dessert” instead of “desert,” the programs may not flag the word as a typo, even if the word is incorrect in the context of the sentence. Another common mistake that spell check will not catch is missing a word in a sentence—for example, it may not suggest that you add “the” to “the cat caught mouse” even if you meant to write a “the” in between “cat” and mouse.” Ultimately, it is important to be aware of the program’s limitations and be meticulous in your own edits rather than trusting the program to edit everything for you.

5. Utilize free tools.

Google Docs and Word have a lot of other useful (and often underutilized) tools. For example, you can use the comment feature to mark passages you might want to revise later or add notes for yourself. You can search the web or your own documents using the “Explore” feature. The programs can also auto-formulate footnotes, and offer pre-made pages with academic formats like MLA, all available for free, so that you can quickly add full citations directly in Google Docs without other services like Easybib. If you’re looking for more thorough writing software, Grammarly and ProWritingAid are popular choices that help with grammar, word choice, and writing style. While these often offer more thorough suggestions, they should still be used carefully, as they do not always offer accurate or grammatically correct suggestions and corrections.

6. Use online tools to identify reliable sources.

A key part of academic and persuasive writing is finding reliable data and sources. One of our mentors’ favorite online resources for published research is Google Scholar. It’s entirely free to use, and helps you search for papers on a topic by date, shows how well-cited each paper is, and provides other useful tools. It functions very similarly to a normal Google search, making it much more intuitive for many students compared to most scholarly databases or journals. You can even save articles as you do research to read later on. However, even with published research, it’s important to make sure your sources are reliable and that you’re using them properly. One common mistake students make is citing a paper as part of an argument, but in reality (often by mistake) the evidence in the paper does not support the argument the student is making! This usually happens when students don’t read or fully understand a paper’s conclusions. In addition, remember that bold, provocative claims require very strong evidence. Resting your entire thesis on just one or two research papers likely will not satisfy skeptics of your argument, especially if the papers you use are less well-known or less often cited. Beyond published research, to avoid issues with the credibility of your argument, rely on reliable news sites, .gov domains, and learn to tell when sources may have biases.

7. Don’t use ChatGPT (or other AI tools) to write a full essay.

When using any digital tool for your writing, it is important to understand how it can help you, where its limitations lie, and how you can avoid common mistakes while using it. This will hone your writing skills all through high school, help you to write successful admissions essays, and better prepare you to write at a college level. While ChatGPT can be helpful in the research process if you are meticulous about verifying the information and sources it provides, it should not be used to write a paper on your behalf. In addition to not actually teaching you how to write properly, it’s very easy to catch, and if caught, you’re likely to fail the assignment. In fact, the creators of ChatGPT already released a tool educators can use to flag texts written with AI. Ultimately, the slight time you save is not worth risking your grade in a class.

8. Practice your writing.

After exposing yourself to a variety of reading material and familiarizing yourself with helpful writing tools, it’s time to experiment with your own writing! Students can improve their writing by simply writing more. Take the concepts and styles you have noted in your reading and try them out for yourself. Whether writing poetry, keeping a diary, experimenting with creative writing, or penning letters to friends, practicing your writing will increase your comfort and help you find your style.

9. Ask for feedback.

Depending on the type of writing you are producing, you can also actively seek feedback on your writing and incorporate it. Feedback and drafting are key steps in the writing process, and learning how other people understand your writing can help you identify weaker areas in your work and catch any recurring errors.

If you’re working on a writing assignment, write a quick first draft and seek out the help of a teacher, mentor, or family member to provide edits and offer feedback on how to elevate your piece. After receiving comments, take the time to understand why the comments or edits are being suggested. This is key to actually learning how to be a good writer—you won’t learn where the weaknesses in your writing are coming from unless you understand your editor’s feedback! The more you go through this process and make it a habit for most of your writing, especially longer pieces, the stronger your writing will become over time.

10. Receive feedback, but be confident in your own work.

While it’s important to seek out feedback, it’s also important to balance your own thoughts with the thoughts of people editing your work. First, don’t get too defensive and reject all their comments and insights—often, we need a fresh set of eyes on a paper to see where we can improve! At the same time, when starting to ask for more feedback, be careful not to overdo it. For example, don’t ask for too many reviewers: having too many individuals all providing their own feedback and perspective may muddle the point of your paper, or could provide you with contradictory feedback.



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