Some Advice on Writing at Kenyon

This post was originally written for the Collegian’s Orientation issue, but, as is the writer’s curse, it was cut due to lack of space. The writer, who is one of The Thrill’s editors-in-chief, came to Kenyon as a prospective English major but ended up in political science — with a minor in English. 

Contrary to this stock photo, please complete your Kenyon coursework in English (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Kenyon has a reputation as a writers’ college, and while that is true, it is not the whole story. Not everyone at Kenyon came here with a passion for writing, and no one who graduates has automatically been transformed into a great writer by virtue of his or her degree. With that in mind, writing will definitely be integral to many of your classes, and it’s worth going over a few pointers to help you get off on the right foot.

Before you begin typing away, always take out a pen and paper and make an outline. Most professors will suggest this, too, but it bears emphasis. It can be as formal or as informal as you like, but make sure you have some idea of what you’re doing before you just start rambling. Also make sure you have a clear thesis. Remember that a thesis is not the same as a topic: “A topic is what you are writing about.  A thesis is the critical nut at the heart of your argument,” says Professor of English David Lynn, editor of the Kenyon Review. “A good, tightly focused thesis will force an essay to write itself.”

That said, at a certain point you just have to sit down and write. Even if it’s terrible, just get it on the page and remember that you can always revise. It’s hard to write an A+ paper from scratch, but much easier to write a C paper and then polish it. The first sentence is always the hardest, and if you can’t think of a good, snappy introduction, dive right in to the meat of your paper and figure out how to get there after the fact (but make sure the route you take makes sense to the reader).

If you get stuck, the consultants at the Kenyon Writing Center will be happy to help. Consultants are students drawn from all sorts of departments, so they can help whether you’re writing a paper for English, biology or history. The Center is located on the ground floor of the library, and you can walk in any afternoon Sunday-Friday and any evening Sunday-Thursday.

Remember to always leave time to edit your paper. Realistically, you’re probably not going to finish a draft a week in advance and go through 10 versions. But please, get it done at least a day early, and don’t be that guy still typing five minutes before deadline. Do not get too attached to anything you write, and never be afraid to revise, reorganize, and cut without mercy — it’s not a joke that you should write 50% past the length requirement. Here’s Professor Lynn again: “Whether in an essay or a story, writers discover what they think as they are writing. This means revision is essential. Real writing is re-writing.”

Most importantly, be open to comments and constructive criticism from your professors. They are here to help you, and they’ve seen it all before. It’s easy to take a few courses and suddenly feel like an expert, but you’re not, yet. A very wise and accomplished professor once told me that whenever he starts to get too big of an ego, he goes back and rereads his college papers, just to bring himself down a peg.

After you think you’re done, but before you print that final copy, comes the part of writing most dear to my heart: copy editing, a.k.a. proof reading. Nothing can undermine your paper faster than a thoughtless spelling or punctuation error. And don’t just trust spell check — Word isn’t going to warn you that your paper for Professor Elliott says “Prof. Eliot” at the top. If you haven’t been to the Writing Center yet, now would be a good time to visit. Either that, or find a proofreader friend who knows their stuff (not there stuff, and not they’re stuff).

If you want to write creatively at Kenyon, that’s great, and you will have plenty of opportunity to do so. But don’t feel pressured to do that — clear and focused non-creative writing is a skill of equal, especially once you start looking for jobs a few years from now. Every corporation, non-profit, and institution needs good writers, who are harder to come by than you might think. And while you might not graduate a great writer, you’ll at least graduate a good one, and that’s a solid start.

Finally, don’t worry if you don’t think you’re a good writer right now. You will get better eventually, and don’t just throw in $10 words in a transparent attempt to sound impressive; it won’t work and it’s unnecessary. “Simple, precise language lives,” says Lynn. “Simple sentences work.”

Want some extracurricular writing experience? Come visit the Collegian and The Thrill at next weekend’s Activities Fair to learn about how to write for us. 

6 responses

  1. I’ll add four things to all this excellent advice.

    First, as an addendum to the advice to have a clear thesis before you begin: have a clear *current* idea of your thesis–a clear working thesis–but remember that it’s just a working thesis when you start. You really should be refining the thesis the whole time you’re writing your essay; it’s one of the reasons we ask you to write essays, so that you have the experience of working with an idea, testing it against evidence, weighing complicating evidence, and letting your evidence complicate your ideas and render them more subtle and sophisticated. Holding too tightly to your initial clear thesis can cause you to ignore or belittle potentially useful complications and nuances.

    Second, and I hope that this is obvious, but it doesn’t always seem to be: please write your own essays. Plagiarism for a college course is pretty much an intellectually bankrupt move. If you’re feeling desperate or panicked, communicate with your professor rather than ripping off someone else’s work.

    Third (and this one is kind of a throwaway, but goes along with David Lynn’s last advice about simplicity): watch out for vague language like “In this timeless classic” or “Throughout human history,” *especially* in the opening sentences of an essay. Get specific. Stay specific. Get interested in the details of what you’re writing about. Get to know those details. Write about those details. Teach your reader about how you see and understand those details.

    Fourth: keep breathing, especially if things get tough. Often it’s worth taking a five minute break from your computer screen (and your phone screen, and all the other screens) just to sit and breathe, or to walk and breathe.

    Rock out, you all.

  2. If I want to be brought down a peg, re-reading my college papers will do it. But if I want to be completely mortified, I have to dig out my papers from graduate school.

  3. Your advice on writing is appreciable. First of all, it’s important to make a clear thesis about the topic. Then gather all the information you have about the topic, personal stories, suggestions from family and friends and any ideas that pop into your head.

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