This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Summer comes as a welcome relief to college students; the memories of the stressful nights plugging away at papers melt away in the sun. However, if you’d like those writing experiences to be less stressful in the coming year, you can take steps now to improve your writing skills and habits.
The foundation of becoming a better writer is simple: you need to write and read more. However, resolving to write and read over the summer is the kind of abstract resolution that never really gets off the ground, so here is some practical advice and free (or low-cost) resources to help keep you on track.
Many writers will tell you that if you want to get better at writing, you have to make it a daily practice. While it may not be feasible or even advisable for everyone to follow that advice, the logic behind writing a little bit as often as possible is sound. A lot of students don’t improve as writers because they put off writing until the last minute. Writing every day (or as often as possible) helps establish strong writing habits, makes the process a little bit less scary, and gives you lots of practice starting essays, which for many is the hardest part.
Writing every day, however, is a hard habit to establish, so you’ll want to be wise in how you go about it. You’ll have the most success if you plan a specific time and place each day to do your writing. Many writers suggest first thing in the morning, but if that doesn’t work for you, set aside 15 minutes of your lunch break or keep a notebook by your bed to write just before you fall asleep. You will also increase your odds of having success if you keep track of your progress in measurable terms. Something as simple as make a mark on a calendar each day you write can work, or you can keep track of the number of words you write each day to see your summer total slowly rise. If you want to keep lots of data, you might try 750 Words, which tracks everything from the amount of time you spend actually typing to the overall mood of your writing and organizes them into nice-looking graphs. The site offers a 30-day free trial and then costs $5.00 a month after that.
While the act of writing is more important than what you write, you may want to bookmark a couple of sites that offer ideas and inspiration. Reddit’s Writing Prompts page offers a plethora of clever prompts and other writing activities. You may also find the community helps keep you on task. DIY MFA offers a broader selection of inspiration and tips on writing and building a community of writers.
If you are looking for a writing book to read poolside or in-between customers at your summer job, consider Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, which excels as both a readable story and a collection of advice from one of America’s most prolific writers. Other classic books on writing that are well worth your time are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, and Mary Norris’s Between You and Me. If you’re looking for the hardcore basics of writing excellent prose, you may want to pick up Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It’s a bit dry to be a good beach read, but it offers clear rules to follow to tighten and polish your writing.
Podcasts offer great way to learn from the expert writers while driving to work or out on a jog or a bike ride. I Should Be Writing offers ten years of episodes and interviews targeted at inspiring writers to get past the mental roadblocks a lot of writers put up. Writing Excuses and Dead Robots Society also feature a great mix of shoptalk and sound advice. Finally, if you are interested in writing stories, you should listen to the four-part YouTube series “Ira Glass on Storytelling.”
If you don’t have a lot of time to practice your writing, summer also offers a great time to brush up on your grammar and proofreading skills. Several websites offer grammar quizzes and reviews, and most exercises only take a few minutes. Grammar Bytes offers humor and fabulous (fictional) prizes alongside clear explanation of rules and examples. Quill offers grammar instruction as well as interactive proofreading instruction. Finally, Daily Grammar offers a number of resources including the option to have a grammar lesson emailed to you daily.
If you have a bit more time, several free writing courses run over the summer. Duke University offers an online version of their English Composition I course is currently running through the end of August. The structure of the course offers an opportunity to engage in the kinds of writing and reading activities that you will find in college level courses. If you are looking for something less formal, you might consider Stunt Writing for Personal Growth, which promises both practice writing and a path to learning about yourself. Each of these courses mixes asynchronous instruction (meaning you complete activities independently whenever you can fit them in your schedule) and peer review feedback.