How to Improve Writing Skills and Thrive in Seminary

For some seminary students, writing research papers is a weighty part of seminary—and knowing how to improve writing skills can be challenging.

In this excerpt adapted from Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook, H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest explain how to improve your writing skills and not just survive—but thrive—in seminary.

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You may feel overwhelmed when it comes to paper writing because you have never been taught how to write an academic paper, or you may lack confidence in your writing ability in general.

Simply writing more doesn’t always yield better results, but deliberate practice will help your writing improve. If writing is a persistent struggle for you, we suggest that you either book regular sessions with your university’s writing center or invest in a writing tutor.

You should also seek to learn from good writing as you read. There are certain strategies that are common to all great writers, and there are numerous examples of great writing in the library (and also poor writing, which will teach you what not to do). As you read, listen to the author’s tone and observe the style. If you like it, try to mimic it.

What follows are five specific guidelines for how to improve your writing skills.

1. Know the nature of the assignment.

When it comes time to put your own thoughts on paper (and ideally before), keep in mind what it is you need to be writing. Sometimes it will be a personal reflection. Sometimes your professor wants you to interact with a single book. Other times it is a full-blown research paper in which you need to interact with multiple sources. Find out the specifics!

As soon as you begin a class that has written assignments, be sure to understand thoroughly what the teacher is looking for, especially if the syllabus is not very specific.

When you are choosing a paper topic, check with your professor or the TA to be sure you are on the right track. Common feedback you will often receive is:

  • Your argument is too broad.
  • You are covering three topics. Pick one.
  • Your thesis statement or research question is unclear. I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say.

All of these things are helpful to know before you start writing to make sure you do not waste time going down a dead end in your research. Get feedback as soon as you can.

2. Start assignments early.

Once you know what the teacher is expecting, you need to start as soon as you can. Managing your time well is one of the keys to putting yourself on track for writing success. Since professors provide a syllabus on the first day of class that lists all the assignments, you have months to plan in advance of the deadlines.

The benefits of starting early cannot be stressed enough. First, by avoiding cramming, you avoid the guilt and stress associated with it. That in itself is worth its weight in gold. If you value your health and mental well-being, not to mention your academic record, you will start early.

Second, it takes time to be creative. If you don’t think you have a creative mind, that may be because you haven’t given yourself enough time to be creative. By planting your paper topic in your head, you’ve given your subconscious an opportunity to work on it—on the bus, visiting your parents’ house, in the shower, eating dinner, doing the laundry, or just zoning out. When ideas come to you, all you have to do is jot them down with a note-taking tool.

Third, getting an early start will give you an opportunity to take advantage of the writing help that is available to you. Have your first few papers done well in advance so that you can take it to the writing center or go over it with a tutor. If you have peers who are willing to proofread, this gives them time to do that.

Fourth, starting early will also give you time to proofread your own work. Proofreading your own writing is not particularly effective when it is done immediately after you have finished. You need time to distance yourself from when it was written. That way, the material is not as fresh in your mind and you come to your paper a little more impartially. Trust us; if you do this you will, at times, wonder what you meant! Refine. Refine. Then refine some more.

Remember that good writing takes time, so make every effort to give yourself that time.

3. Engage with your sources.

When writing research papers, you are expected to enter into the conversation of the topic at hand. This is difficult because you will almost always be speaking from a position of less knowledge than the authors you read. We understand that you would feel more comfortable summarizing the arguments and discussion that you read—but summarizing is only a portion of a research paper. You are also expected to enter into the conversation. You need to critique what you read, agreeing with some authors and not others.

This engagement needs to be done while you build your own argument based on the research you do. So your own argument will be at times based on points which some authors make and at times in opposition to what some authors say. Whether you agree or disagree, you need to be able to articulate why.

4. Maintain proper style.

Writing research papers is not like other kinds of writing. Research papers require a particular style, and the sooner you learn to write using this style the better. Here are a few tips for helping you maintain proper paper-writing style.

  • Unless the paper is meant to be a personal reflection, avoid using the first person if possible (I or we). Related to this, avoid colloquial language.
  • Avoid rhetorical questions and questions that you immediately answer. Instead, make statements.
  • Have a clear introduction and conclusion. The introduction should state what you are intending to say, and the conclusion should recap what you have said. Nothing new should be stated in your conclusion.
  • Eliminate wordiness in your writing. Use a thesaurus to discover words that convey the precise meaning of a concept or idea.
  • Prefer the active voice. It is stronger and more direct than the passive voice. An example of a passive sentence is: “The dog was seen by the boy.” The active form is: “The boy saw the dog.”
  • To emphasize text, use italics or bold, not quotation marks. But use even these sparingly.
  • Avoid both run-on sentences and sentence fragments.
  • Avoid the use of superlatives or absolutes, such as “most,” “all,” “best,” and so on. In most cases, these are statements of opinion that cannot be verified. 
  • Avoid weak adverbs, such as “very,” and avoid overused words, such as “like.”
  • Pay close attention to subject-verb and verb tense consistency.
  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, clarity—all of these things matter, so don’t be sloppy.

5. Get feedback from the grader.

Once the paper is turned in, your work is not done. If you want to become a better writer, you need to seek out feedback. Some professors are better than others at offering feedback on assignments, so be bold and ask.

Book a time with your professor or TA to go over what you did well and where you need improvement. You won’t need to do this for every assignment, but do it as much as possible in your first semester or two. Soon, you will have come so far in your writing skills that you could be the tutor.

6. Keep writing.

Like almost every new skill you’ve ever acquired, academic writing is a skill that you will develop over time. And like every new skill, you get better with practice, by not giving up, by wanting to get better, and by cutting yourself some slack during the learning process.

Learning how to write well will make a big difference in your life and career going forward. Even if you never write another paper, your overall communication skills will improve. You will gain skill in articulating your thoughts on a subject, learning from some arguments and rejecting others. You will be more comfortable engaging those with whom you disagree. You will be more confident in critiquing the arguments of others. In short, this skill will teach you to think and articulate your thoughts well, which will help in whatever ministry or career you find yourself in.

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Read more articles on how to equip yourself for the seminary journey in the 2021 Logos Bible Software Seminary Guide, or browse the articles below.

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