Now, I don't think that all undergraduates can't write. When people complain they obviously over-generalize the problem. I do believe, however, that many undergraduates fail to understand how poorly they write and many don't take the initiative to improve their writing. And I can relate. I was a terrible writer when I started college. Thanks to curriculum changes in many states over the past couple decades, high school students are receiving less and less grammar instruction. I actually learned more about the mechanics of English grammar when I started studying Italian (just another reason to learn a second language!).
When I began my master's program, I had to work really hard to improve my writing, and to be honest, it remains a weakness. Unfortunately, the only way to truly transform your writing is to write (not the answer most students want to hear)! There are, however, some quick tips you can follow that will immediately improve your papers.
1) Don't Write the Night Before
Writing is the process of thinking. So writing a first draft is an important step in the process of developing your argument (a.k.a what you want to say). But if your first draft is your only draft, your ideas will tend to be underdeveloped and unclear.
2) Don't Write Your Introduction First
Because writing is the process of thinking, you often haven't fully developed your ideas until you have written the majority of your essay/paper. Starting with the introduction is like trying to do a double axel on your first day of skating lessons. Since your introduction should outline your entire paper and succinctly convey your argument, it's much easier to write at the end instead of the beginning.
3) Be Clear and Concise
Cut the clutter! Extra words do not make you sound smarter. If you can say something in three words, say it in three words. In addition to unnecessary words, don't overuse the thesaurus. Using words incorrectly or in an awkward way doesn't improve the clarity of your writing.
4) Be Specific
Use specific verbs and nouns. Instead of stating "the war caused great damage," explain exactly what kind of damage and why it was considered great. For example, "World War II destroyed important urban centers as well as agricultural lands. Europeans struggled to rebuild after years of destruction."
5) Focus on Writing Strong Topic Sentences (and Transition Sentences)
The main idea of your paragraph should be clearly spelled out in the first sentence. This is called a topic sentence. It may feel like you are revealing the secret of your magic trick, but this isn't a magic trick, it's a paper! Show your cards and make sure your reader knows exactly what you are trying to say in the first sentence.
6) Mix Up Your Sentence Structure and Length
Just like hemlines, some sentences need to be shorter than others. This keeps your writing, like your wardrobe, interesting. Following up a long complex sentence with a shorter, more straightforward statement is a great way to emphasize an argument or point.
7) Watch Your Verb Tenses
Usually you should pick a verb tense and stick with it. If you start writing in the present tense, you should continue writing in the present tense. Obviously this is not a universal rule and tenses were created for a reason. For most of the undergrad papers I read, however, verb tenses are randomly switched. This makes the paper more difficult to read. Remember, if you are talking about the past, use the past tense consistently!
8) Use Active Rather Than Passive Verbs
Don't lean on "to be" verbs. These are passive and can usually be replaced with more active and specific verbs by inverting your sentence structure. You can't completely avoid using "was" and "were" (I've actually had students try this, and it's a disaster!), but you can minimize their use to write a stronger paper.
Passive: This shirt was designed by Marc Jacobs.
Active: Marc Jacobs designed this shirt.
By switching the order of your sentence, your subject (Marc Jacobs) becomes the active agent and you can use a more specific verb (designed) instead of was.
9) Dates and Places go at the Beginning or End of a Sentence
And "however" is usually stronger in the middle of a sentence, rather than the beginning.
Yes - In 1492 Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
Yes - Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.
No - Columbus, in 1492, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
OK - However, many students still struggle with paper writing.
Better - Many students, however, still struggle with paper writing.
10) Proof, Re-read, and Proof Again
I'll be honest, I am a terrible proof reader. I tend to read quickly and what I think is there rather than what is actually there. Knowing my own weakness, I always enlist a trusted friend to proof (hi Britt). It is also a great idea to read your paper aloud. If you stumble over some of the wording, odds are your reader will too.
Hopefully you find these tips helpful! If anything, they make a great paper editing checklist.
Happy end of the semester writing!