Being a Teaching Assistant is a lot like working in the dish pit of a restaurant—lots of grunt work and none of the glory.
I worked as a TA while completing my master’s degree in 2016. Since I worked in the arts discipline, a lot of the coursework involved essays, and students usually wound up in my office hours to discuss these essays (mostly to contest their grades).
In a lot of these student encounters I found myself repeating the same script. I was like one of those annoying automated voice messages you hear when you call into your cell phone provider. You know the ones where you have to sit through an hour-long spiel just to choose one option from the menu? Yeah, that was me. Except in my case, there was no menu because there was only one option, and students got it whether they chose it or not.
This isn’t because I was a bad TA and had nothing else to say, by the way. Trust me. I have a lot to say. Usually I can’t shut up! But in each encounter I kept identifying the same, increasingly worrying, problem: most of my students did not know how to write.
Not in the literal sense—they could put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard). But they were lacking several of the fundamental pillars of good writing. Clear writing. Effective writing.
To remedy this alarming problem I dutifully recited the same six tips. Sometimes the order varied and other times I focussed only on one or two, but I always relayed the same information in some form or another. While I initially wrote these tips specifically with academic essays in mind, I have since adapted them to be suitable for any type of writing.
- Think about what you want to say before you start writing.
Oftentimes we think we know what we want to say, get halfway through a draft, and realize we have no idea what we’re talking about. Yes there are words on pages, but they really say nothing of any value. Usually this happens when we lack clarity on what exactly it is we are trying to say. This is why it’s essential to define one central idea, opinion, or argument before we begin writing—an anchor to keep us from drifting. While this step usually takes us the longest it’s the most important. If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, neither will your reader.
- Craft an outline.
Now that you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, you can focus on how best to say it. I know this sounds elementary, but starting with an outline will improve your writing experience tenfold. What pieces of information will you use to bolster your claim or idea? You can use anything from quotes to research statistics. Write these down in the order that flows most logically. Use bullet points or pictures in your outline to keep it short and simple.
The benefit of writing with an outline is that it will allow you to find flaws in your piece early on, saving you time and stress in the long run. You’re also making it easier on yourself down the road because the body of your piece is essentially done. All you have to do now is follow your outline and focus on the quality of your writing. Which brings me to my next point…
- Avoid flowery language.
Not only is it distracting, but it usually leads to writers using long and complicated words out of context and results in clumsy writing. Maybe if I just thesaurus a bunch of verbose and intelligent-sounding words, I’ll write better… right? Wrong. All this does is make it harder for your reader to understand your piece. Focus getting your point across in the simplest most efficient way possible. Imagine yourself writing for a twelve-year-old. I’m serious. Write as if anyone could pick up your piece and understand what you’re trying to say. Your writing should be strong enough to stand on its own without having to hide behind complex and convoluted words.
- Always have a dictionary on hand.
Said ravenous but you meant radiant? Don’t know the difference? This is why you should always use a dictionary. As a Mac user, I always keep the dictionary icon in my dock, and have it open at all times when I’m writing. If ever I use a word and am unsure if it accurately conveys what I’m trying to say, I’ll look it up. If the definition does not exactly match what I was attempting to elucidate, I’ll use a different word. Know what you’re saying, and use the right words to say it.
- Your first draft will never be your final draft (so start early).
I don’t think anyone in the writing industry has ever felt that their first draft was good enough to be their final. And if they did, I’m sure their editor disagreed. This is because good writing takes time, effort, and patience. Be prepared to go through several drafts before your piece reaches peak quality.
- Don’t let the dread of finishing keep you from starting.
It’s common to put off writing because you just can’t see how you’re possibly going to cram a bunch of information into a nice, neat, well-written package. You think of all the things that have to fall into place for the writing process to go off without a hitch, and this often stunts the development of the piece and prolongs the process entirely. Let yourself start, and understand that you will get it wrong a few times before you get it right. Even just writing a title or a few words will get the ball rolling, and you’ll find your piece unravelling and evolving a lot quicker than you ever thought it would.
Arisa Valyear is a writer, communicator, and content creator currently enrolled in Humber College’s Professional Writing and Communications graduate program. She holds a master’s degree in history from Queen’s University and is looking to build a career as an established writer, one article at a time. While she is interested in writing about current events, Arisa also enjoys writing about education, music, and culture