“The three ways to immediately improve your writing are: remember your audience, use examples and write a second draft,” says Travis J. Koll, an English Instructor at Ashland Community and Technical College. “Like any skill, good writing takes practice, but there are pointers that can help students learn what to do and what not to do in a shorter time,” he said.
These pointers are collected in Better Writing: Beyond Periods and Commas, a book published by Rowman and Littlefield Education, Inc., that is now available in print and ebook or Kindle at Amazon.com and other bookstores.
“The ability to write well is vital in today’s world,” says Travis J. Koll, “Unfortunately, too many students and others in the general public are terrified of the process and don’t know where to start. That’s why I wrote this book and why I kept it small, casual, and straightforward.”
Koll’s experience with student writers helped him develop guidelines that can help writers of any age construct a business report, school essay, or cover letter for a job.
“Many of us went through school thinking that commas and semicolons were the end all, be all of writing,” says Koll. “The truth is that mechanics are simply a means to an end—that end being the sharing of one’s voice and ideas in the larger community.”
“Semester after semester, I encounter very bright and hardworking students who, for some reason, believe writing well is simply beyond them; but I’ve yet to meet one who couldn’t improve with the right coaching,” he said.
Koll got into teaching as a result of his writing. “I was writing novels and nonfiction magazine articles at night after work, and I found myself helping business colleagues with their writing skills,” he said.
“I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in English, and after the first few classes I was hooked,” he said. “I find working with students and colleagues very rewarding, and, perhaps with the exception of being a best-selling novelist, I really couldn't imagine doing anything else.”
Koll started at ACTC in 2010 after teaching for several years in community colleges, public universities, and online colleges in California, his native state.
“I moved from California, ultimately, to find a good community in which to raise my son, who is now three years old,” he said. “My uncle who lives in Lexington really talked up Kentucky, and I noticed ACTC was hiring. My visit to Ashland convinced me this was the place to relocate my family. It’s a safe community where people know and care about one another.”
Caring about students is also important to Koll. “Too often I encounter students who are terrified of writing and the English class itself, perhaps in the same way that I'm scared of calculus. My goal is to show students that they can indeed improve their skills.”
“Writing well is difficult, even if someone is a natural, but what most often holds people back are their own insecurities and a lack of knowledgeable but tactful guidance,” Koll said. “The road to improvement might be bumpy, but everyone deserves an opportunity to pursue success.”
Here are short guidelines to that success from Better Writing: Beyond Periods and Commas.
1. Remember Your Audience: Writers sometimes focus so much on their own ideas and opinions that they forget or ignore the needs, wants, and expectations of their audience members.
Everything in a text, from the words and tone one chooses to the structure one employs, should be created with that audience in mind. What does my audience expect to see in this text? What information does my audience need and want to know, what can I leave out, and what likely questions or challenges can I anticipate and address?
2. Use Examples or Anecdotes: My favorite activities in elementary school involved show-and-tell. Imagine how dull that activity would have been if, instead of being able to see and touch those prized possessions, you were forced to sit quietly and listen to long explanations about them.
Successful writers know that they must regularly help readers visualize a text’s meaning through examples and little stories. Rather than simply writing that hiking is a wonderful activity, show your readers it is by telling a little story. Instead of just stating that developing a sense of community is important in one’s neighborhood, provide some examples to show the audience why this is true.
3. Write a Second Draft: A second draft is far more than a chance to fix typos and punctuation errors; rather, it is an opportunity to develop and clarify your thoughts, to rearrange and better organize your ideas, and to ensure your text lives up to its potential.
Remember, you’re creating a fabric of words and ideas that must be measured, cut, and tailored to suit your writing goals and then fitted to your specific task, situation, and audience.
Koll shares these and other guidelines with students in his English Writing I and Writing II classes. “The points I raised in the book are central in my writing classes,” he said. “Anyone can use them to become a better writer.”