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The Dartmouth
April 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Arabian: Writers Blocked

College-mandated writing requirements are insufficient. Students should pursue other avenues of developing this crucial, life-long skill.

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue. 

Dartmouth prides itself on instilling exceptional written and verbal communication skills among its students — both defining components of a liberal arts education. The admissions committee deliberately selects candidates based on their compelling personal statements, and professors teach first-year students how to write through not one, but two, required courses: WRIT 5 and a first-year seminar. Unfortunately, these College-mandated courses for students to improve their writing are not enough, and other opportunities remain few and far between. Incoming students should proactively pursue extracurriculars, such as journals or clubs, to improve their writing abilities and critically evaluate their own skills rather than relying on professors or their classmates.

Providing high-quality feedback for others is both incredibly difficult and time consuming. As editor of The Dartmouth Opinion section, I initially spend at least 35 minutes reading each article submission; my co-editor reports spending a similar amount of time. Of course, most articles require additional rounds of editing — two, three, sometimes four. Articles selected for publication are then submitted to the executive editors, who provide further commentary and analysis. Ultimately, the editors collectively spend hours on each opinion article submitted for the week before they are made available online. Editing requires such investment due to the multitude of considerations that go into quality writing: syntax, tone and logical structure, to name a few. To help a writer improve their writing in every aspect is nearly impossible — especially if an article is not particularly strong to begin with.

The undergraduate admissions committee often boasts about the impressively low student-to-faculty ratio at the College. However, as many students observe, most professors are still unable to provide actionable guidance to students for improving their papers due to the number of students under their charge. Of course, students may encounter professors who paint the document in all sorts of colors — highlighting a paragraph, re-writing a few lines and leaving thoughtful comments. Your WRIT 5 and first-year seminar will probably be chock-full of helpful advice and individual feedback. Unfortunately, however, this is the exception, not the norm, at any institution, including our own. Most professors will simply provide letter grades with a mere smattering of comments, unless you actively seek further clarification by attending office hours or sending hyper-specific emails. As both professors and peers do not have the time required to fully develop your writing, you must take responsibility for honing this crucial, life-changing skill and should actively pursue opportunities to hone your writing in a variety of contexts.

Given its difficulty, why should you bother learning how to write? After all, not everyone is an aspiring poet. Nor does everyone want to be a lawyer, as I do. Regardless of your chosen path, however, strong written communication skills are the essential building blocks for a successful career. The engineers among us will need to outline their proposals and build relationships with members of their team. Entrepreneurs and non-profit founders must advertise their services and write grant proposals. Each of us, regardless of career, must learn to advocate for ourselves — arguing that we deserve the opportunities given to us. Moreover, we live in the digital age: Emails and online messaging dominate the communication landscape, so clarity and persuasiveness become even more crucial. While writing may seem less useful in certain careers, such as the visual arts or athletics, these individuals will eventually need to negotiate contracts or maintain correspondences. No profession is left untouched by this necessity. Writing and communication bridge understanding, foster collaboration and are the backbones of progress in any field.

Fortunately, there are as many ways to learn how to write as there are potential applications for writing. The College benefits from a wealth of organizations that challenge students to pursue their own original pieces. I admit that I am partial to this newspaper, but there are a multitude of other publications and journals that will hone your communication skills equally as effectively. “The Dartmouth Law Journal,” “The Stonefence Review” and “World Outlook,” which focus on legal writing, creative writing and international relations analyses, respectively, are just a few of the many journals available on campus. These publications offer students the opportunity to engage in scholarly publication, honing their research, writing and critical thinking skills while contributing to academic discourse in their field — yes, even through writing comedy pieces for the “The Dartmouth Jack-o-Lantern.” If you are interested in music, a cappella groups often even write and produce their own original songs. Regardless of your political leanings, intellectual interests or personal background, there is a space for you in the world of writing at the College. And the truth is that all students are innately talented at one form of writing or another — we are all here for a reason. Whether you enjoy poems, music or expressing your opinions through newspaper articles, find where your passions lie, then find a space on campus that will let you explore them.

This will require an incredible amount of effort on your part. No student has the time or the energy to edit your materials as much as you do, so you should approach each of these journals and clubs with a willingness to put in the work. In a similar vein, challenge yourself to take classes that require a lot of writing, regardless of your major. Within these classes, seek out the feedback you require: Attend your professors’ office hours, ask hyper-specific questions on re-structuring your paragraph or forming your argument, and you will get much more useful guidance than you would otherwise. If you are still unable to obtain edits, be your own editor, critically evaluating your own writing. The formula is quite simple: the more you write, the better writer you will become. This will take some time, and you will not always succeed; sometimes you may feel you are becoming a worse writer, but that is all part of the journey. Remember, even the most polished diamond was once a rugged stone. Over time, persistent and deliberate cuts will reveal your brilliance — find yourself a chisel.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.