How Can Online Students Get Writing Help?
Writing is a major part of the college experience, whether you like it or not. From essays to exams to carefully worded emails directed at your professor, you will be expected to channel your inner writer to get through just about any degree program. This is even truer for online students. In the absence of physical class time, in-person office hours, or even casual discourse with classmates as you stroll between lecture halls, writing is the primary medium through which you will be communicating outside of virtual classroom discussion. So naturally, your online college experience would be a lot more pleasant if you had even just a basic mastery of compositional English.
The Problem With Writing in College
But of course, countless students will go off to college without sufficient writing skills, or even sufficient writing experience. Evidence suggests that high schools simply aren’t doing enough to prepare students for the writing demands placed upon them at the college level. A survey produced by the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, for instance, that
61% of high school teachers said their students have never written a paper that was more than five pages. As a result, students have not had enough practice to develop a set of sophisticated writing skills.
Meanwhile, most colleges expect that when you arrive on campus, you do so with a full arsenal of writing tools at your disposal. You are expected to bring a certain degree of independence to the processes of researching, writing, and editing. Naturally, the demand for independence is that much greater if you’re learning from a remote location. This means that, for many college students, especially those studying online, there is a disconnect between what you are expected to do and what you’ve actually been taught to do.
So what can you do to improve your writing skills now that you’ve already arrived in college? And are there ways to receive writing support as an online student? This latter question is particularly important because, as an online student, it’s easy to mistake independence with isolation. But you are not alone. Part of taking control over your own education is knowing when to ask for help and where to get it. So before we dip into our writing tips for online students, let’s make a quick visit to the writing lab.
The Writing Lab
If you live or study on-campus, you’re probably aware that your school has a writing lab where you can receive support, assistance, and instruction from helpful grad students or tutors. (Whether you actually take advantage of this resource is, of course, entirely up to you.)
But what about online college students? Where do you turn when you are faced with a challenging writing assignment? Is there anywhere that you can receive help when you’re struggling with general writing proficiency?
Writing difficulties can be problematic enough if you’re muddling your way through a traditional higher education. But these difficulties can be compounded by the remoteness and isolation you may feel as an online student. If you feel that you need help with your writing, the first step should be to find out what resources are available to you directly through your school. The best online colleges will provide meaningful support services including virtual writing labs, specialized tutoring services, and connections to virtual study groups where you can share your writing with, and receive feedback from, your classmates.
If you’re still shopping for an online school and you anticipate the need for extra writing support, factor the availability of these support services into your decision. Get started with a look at the Best Online Colleges 2022.
Or read on for tips that you can use on your own to improve your approach to college writing tasks.
10 Ways Online Students Can Improve Their Writing
Independent learning is a major component of online education, and this includes satisfactory completion of your writing assignments. Don’t panic. There are steps you can take and resources you can take advantage of in order to improve your writing skills and achieve the level of proficiency needed not just to succeed in your courses but also in work and life.
Be Sure You Understand the Assignment’s Expectations
Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent resource for students working through the various stages of writing while completing online courses. That’s because OWL offers a host of instructive resources that can take you from the seedling of an idea all the way to your final draft. This is a great first stop because it can provide the organizational framework you’ll need to initiate nearly any type of academic writing task. In fact, OWL even offers tips for how you can pin down the type of writing requested.
OWL notes that
Many instructors write their assignment prompts differently. By following a few steps, you can better understand the requirements for the assignment.Accordingly OWL suggests:
- Reading your assignment prompt closely;
- Circling the key details such as length, format, source requirements, and due date;
- Underlining key phrases indicating the subject of the assignment; and
- Identifying the basic facts that you’ll use to address these key phrases.
During this stage, you should also make a note of any unanswered questions you might have. Direct these questions to your instructor before you proceed. Clarity is essential as you get started. You don’t want to realize you’ve misunderstood the assignment a week into your work.
Do Some Critical Reflection
Now that you understand the assignment, take some time to reflect on what you hope to achieve within the framework of your professor’s expectations. Think of yourself as a reporter. Your job is to tell the who, what, where, when, why, and how on your specific subject. So begin your work with a simple breakdown in which you answer these exact questions. The answers to some may be fairly straightforward.
- Who? Abraham Lincoln
- What? Economic policies and the Civil War
- When? 1861-1865
- Where? The United States
The last two questions may be a bit more complex.
Why? Why are you writing on this particular subject? In other words, what do you hope to prove, and why does it matter.
And finally, How? How will you prove your point. What arguments will you make. What evidence will you use to support these arguments?
Reflect on these questions before you begin to write. It provides you with the most important thing you’ll need to get started—a clear understanding of what you plan to accomplish with this piece of writing.
Use an Online Template
Now that you know what the assignment is about, make sure you also understand how to structure your essay. Is this a research essay, a persuasive paper, a creative writing assignment, or an opinion piece? If you’re not sure, ask your professor. Once you know, you can find an online template to match any essay format.
A template is a great starting point for organizing your essay. Once you get a sense of what is expected of, for instance, your persuasive paper, you can break those expectations down into small, bite-sized sections. Ultimately, each of these sections will help you build the outline from which your essay will eventually be written. As an online student, you may not have a teacher looking over your shoulder as you organize your essay. But a clearly delineated template can provide you with some basic oversight. Now that you have a template, put it aside while you conduct your research.
Know How to Do Online Research
The web is a virtually limitless resource for knowledge and information. But it’s also teeming with disinformation and distraction. Empower yourself by mastering the art of online research. This begins by first understanding and knowing how to use the resources at your immediate disposal, including your campus library, your school’s online libraries, and the various scholarly journals you’ll have access to as a student. It also means knowing how to use search engines, identify credible sources, avoid unreliable or biased outlets, and knowing how to verify information using primary sources.
Once you’ve gathered and read your resources, harvest them for important details. Recognize the core finding or argument in each source, as well any counterpoints to this argument that emerge from your reading. Think about how you’ll pull these pieces together to further your argument.
You should also be aware that, as an online student, you have certain unique advantages. From your comfortable home office, you can ask questions of your professors, email website administrators, and even connect with the researchers, experts, and authors who have produced your key sources. In fact, if there’s a scholarly article buried behind a journal paywall, email the author and express your interest in the work. Many scholars will be more than happy to share their research for free.
Speaking of scholarly research, make sure you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources; between journalism and tabloids; between scholarly research and opinion; between qualified editorials and factually inaccurate clickbait. Use only the source types specified as acceptable for your assignment, and always identify the type of source you’re using both in your text and through citations. If you plan to quote a clickbait tabloid, identify it as such in your writing and explain why you choose to use it.
If you’re not sure how to differentiate sources or provide proper citations, check out the Purdue OWL’s awesome Citation Machine for help.
Organize Your Thoughts
Organization is a key component of prepping for the actual writing process. Remember that template you found online? Now, you get to make it your own. Turn that template into an outline and begin filling in the blanks. The ideas you pulled together for your Critical Reflection will form the basis for your introduction, including the primary argument or thesis statement that you will ultimately set out to prove.
This thesis statement may be the single most important sentence in your essay so take your time on this one. Use this sentence to lay out exactly what you hope to achieve and how you plan to do it. For instance:
Abraham Lincoln’s economic policies hastened the onset of the Civil War in 1861 by magnifying ideological differences over slavery, threatening the Southern agrarian economy, and empowering a national banking system.
Full disclosure: I’m not really sure if this thesis is provable or true, but you get the idea. This thesis contains a primary argument and proposes three facts to support this argument. These are the primary ingredients you’ll need to cook up an outline. Each fact should form the basis for a section in your outline. Fill out each of these sections by plugging in your research. Each section should ultimately provide concrete, source-based evidence to support your supporting claim.
Say Something Meaningful
Now that the information is organized, it’s time to add your own ideas, to imbue the subject with meaning, to add something new to the conversation. There are a few different ways to do this, and your strategy may depend on the nature of the assignment. However, Purdue’s OWL offers some insight on how to approach this task. Referencing the John Swales’ CARS model for introductions, Purdue identifies a Three Stage Process for finding your angle:
- Step 1: Establishing a Territory (claiming importance, making topic generalizations, or reviewing previous research);
- Step 2: Establishing a Niche (counter-claiming, indicating a gap, raising a question, or continuing a tradition);
- Step 3: Occupying the Niche (outlining purposes, announcing present research, announcing key findings, and indicating article structure).
The key takeaway? There are a lot of different ways to leave your stamp on a subject. Think freely about this and find ways to say something unique and meaningful in this area. As an online student working independently, you may find your professor more forgiving of clunky prose if the evidence of your meaningful critical thinking comes through in your writing.
Write Without Distraction
Now that you have your thoughts gathered together, make sure you work in an environment where you can actually hear them. It goes without saying that, as an online student, you must establish a physical sanctuary where you can study, learn, and write without interruption. But there’s more to it than that.
Particularly as an online student, you are in the unique position to be interrupted by a billion beeping alerts, flashing notifications, vibrating devices, and opened tabs. We are built to multitask. When it comes to writing, resist the devolutionary impulses that have bonded us to our machines. Put your phone on airplane mode, turn off your alerts, disengage from your social media, and envelope yourself only in the information and stimuli you require to write on your topic.
Run Your Writing Through a Grammar Checker
If you have concerns about your mechanical precision as a writer, run your writing through a grammar checking application like Grammarly. It’s perfectly acceptable and ethical. Frankly, your professor will appreciate it. Don’t make changes blindly based on the recommendations of a grammar checking program. As with the spell check tool that comes with your word processor, every flagged section should be reviewed and changed only with your discretion.
Proof, Edit, Revise, Repeat
The first set of eyes to review your work should be your own. OWL says
When you have plenty of time to revise, use the time to work on your paper and to take breaks from writing. If you can forget about your draft for a day or two, you may return to it with a fresh outlook. During the revising process, put your writing aside at least twice—once during the first part of the process, when you are reorganizing your work, and once during the second part, when you are polishing and paying attention to details.
Be aware that you’re looking for a few things in your review aside from the obvious typos and grammar mistakes. First, are your ideas organized naturally, do they flow into one another in a logical sequence, and does your evidence support your argument? Is the writing clear? Is there a simpler and more accessible way to say that which isn’t clear?
As you review, put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Does the writing provide a full enough understanding of the topic, a clear delineation of the argument, and a cohesive relationship between the introduction and the conclusion? Are the key takeaways clear to the reader? And not to be overlooked, is there any fluff that can be sheared from the writing?
Be sure that every sentence and idea serves a purpose in your piece. Anything that doesn’t advance your argument or the reader’s understanding of the subject should be eliminated. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out The Hemingway Editor. This instrument uses statistical analysis of your writing to encourage the type of terseness for which Hemingway was famous. Use this instrument to trim the flab but, just as with Grammarly or spell check, use it only in tandem with your own discretion.
Talk to Your Professor
If you are an online student struggling with your writing, this is the single most important thing you can do. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to each of your online instructors and make sure they understand that you are taking steps to address your difficulties as a writer. Most will be happy to work with you or refer you to resources available either through your online school or through another online resource.
And if you happen to live in close proximity to the school affiliated with your online degree program, you may be able to visit an actual writing lab for help. To reiterate an important point, remember that, first and foremost, working independently does not mean you must struggle in isolation. Reach out and discuss your writing issues. You aren’t alone. There are countless others just like you, studying both online and in traditional classrooms, who deserve a college degree but who may not have been given the tools and experience to write during the critical K-12 years of their education.
And take comfort in knowing that it’s never too late to learn!
As an online student, it generally falls upon you to develop your own strong study habits. But that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a few great resources. With that in mind, we invite you to jump to our Study Guides and Study Starters, where you’ll find a bounty of excellent tips and tricks for improving your academic performance, whether you’re studying online or learning on campus.
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