Top 10 List for Writers

My social media news feeds are abuzz with thoughts of back-to-school today. For many teachers around the US, students have already returned. Here in Michigan and at points north in my home and native land, K-12 students will return on September 2. At Michigan State University, our fall semester officially kicks off on August 27th. It seems I have only nine days to get that syllabus in shape?! Yikes!

In my role as the Director of Graduate Certificate Programs in Educational Technology and Online Teaching and Learning at MSU, I’ve been thinking, with colleagues, about effective ways to support our students’ development as writers. Many students who come to our programs tell us that they haven’t written anything substantive for a long time. Others tell us that they did very little academic writing as undergraduates. Certainly most of our students tell us that they have little experience with multimodal composition. And yet, as a program we expect our students to communicate their thoughts clearly, for many purposes, audiences, and using a range of digital tools.

Though it’s not quite as scintillating as the trending Top 10 lists on Buzzfeed, I’ve put together a list of ten things every student in our Graduate Certificate and Master’s degree programs should know about writing. I’ve prefaced the list with a little context for why the list is important. I follow up on the list with a set of exemplars and two critical questions to help students develop essential metacognitive skills as writers.

Here’s the link to the full document with preface and exemplars, but I’ve copied the Top 10 List here so that  those of you who genuinely think this list IS as scintillating as Buzzfeed don’t have to wait 😉

The Top 10 List

1)   Writing is thinking. Evidence of critical and sophisticated thinking is communicated to others through clear and concise expression of those ideas in written and multimodal formats.

2)   Know your purpose and let it guide you. Ask yourself whether your purpose is to persuade, inform, entertain, question, tell a story? As you write, ask yourself how each paragraph contributes to that purpose.

3)   Think about the Gestalt. When using multiple modes to express your ideas (e.g., images and words) think about the affordances of each mode and the Gestalt of the elements you’ve chosen. When images and words come together, their combination should, in fact, communicate more meaning than each of the components would communicate as individual elements. That’s what Gestalt is.

So, as you compose, ask yourself – what ideas can I communicate effectively with this image? How can my words connect with, expand or enhance the meaning in this image? How can I create something that communicates layers of meaning effectively through the combination of the image and words? Remember that there are lots of ways to communicate meaning – through shape, color, position on the page, structure of words, video, mathematics, graphs, maps…etc.

4)    Writing and multi-modal composition take time. Do not expect to do your best work at the last minute. Life, of course, has its own struggles – and we recognize the constraints that many students face. That said, when you give yourself time to iterate, you will usually be happier with the end result.

5)   Own your status. As a graduate student, you are a member of the academic community. You have a voice and others in this community can benefit from hearing it. As you examine research, synthesize it, and communicate your understanding of a topic, you are actively engaging in a conversation with OTHER members of the academic community who have thought about the same issue. As Dr. Anne Curzan recently opined, academic writing and citation should be thought of as the enactment of this human conversation. Please read her blog post for additional perspective on what we mean by this idea:

Also, please watch this short video, created by MSU graduate student Ha Nguyen, which focuses on the idea of academic integrity and citation within the academic community:

6)   Learn APA style. In CEP 810, we ask students to purchase the APA Style Guide, borrow it from the library or use websites like for information.  The APA requirement is related to #5.  All communities have ways of thinking and writing. The APA style guide can apprentice you into our community of educational thinkers, writers and leaders. Chapters 3 & 4 are about clarity of written experession — please review! APA style also includes knowing how to correctly cite the work of others. Not every piece of writing/creation that you do for your MAET or Graduate Certificate course work will require citation, but when you need to use it, the APA style guide can help you get it right.

7)   If you want to be a better writer, use mentor texts. Read what other academics write, examine the work of former students, read the work of other students in your classes. As you read, read critically. Ask yourself – what makes this argument especially compelling? How did this author structure that paragraph? What turns of phrase has this author used to good effect? The articles provided in your coursework can serve as mentor texts too. You may not be asked to write the same types of articles for your coursework, but academic articles should always have a clear focus, a structure that makes your understanding of the argument easy to follow, and precise language.

8)   Think about your audience. Write for them. Who will be reading your work? What information should you include so that your audience can benefit from your ideas? What assumptions have you made about what your readers know? Can you trust those assumptions? Although all readers construct their own understanding of texts, it is your job as a writer to ensure your intended meaning is as clear as possible.

9)    Understand genre. The conventions of a blog post – a unique, web-based form of writing that usually includes opinion and multimodal elements to support the written text — differ from the conventions of a traditional research report, scientific article, annotated bibliography, white paper, article summary, description, how-to text, a fairy tale etc. The types of writing and expression that we ask you to do in the MAET and Graduate Certificate programs may be new to you. Mentor texts can help you to analyze genre – or the specific way that information is composed to serve a particular purpose. Once you understand the structural or genre-specific expectations for each type of writing/expression, you will be better able to craft your ideas in a way that is consistent with assignment expectations. Please use the exemplars provided below as a starting place.

10)     Nothing is ever perfect. There are only drafts. Revision is part of the process. The feedback you receive on your writing from instructors and peer reviewers is meant to help your drafts become more clear, concise, critical, purposeful, compelling, creative, and powerful.