Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Reading, Writing, Editing, Time Mgmt, & Study Skills

This is my end-of-the-semester review sheet for my college students, but it would work for any student, I believe. I hope it helps. We are all students of life, after all...

My Best General Tips on All of the Following School-y Topics


·      Make reading active. Read with a pen or pencil in your hand. Use that writing instrument to underline, make margin notes, scribble little stars by important passages, AND—if you really want to remember what you are reading—copy down key passages in the notebook that is sitting next to you. (There’s a notebook sitting next to you, right?)  *Note: students should NOT rewrite a textbook in their notebook. Taking notes on EVERYTHING is pointless and will only lead to confusion about what's most important (and it will lead to lack of retention of the information). Just read a bit. Think about what you read (purpose, tone, thesis). Jot down some key phrases, questions, and ideas. Copy facts you might need to know for a test. That's it!

·      Don’t read in bed late at night unless it’s a book you are reading for recreation (not for college or work). First, you won’t complete the reading you need to because you will fall asleep too soon. Second, you won’t remember what you read because how many people lie in bed with a pen and notebook along with a book? Hardly anyone. If you do, well, good for you, but I can tell you from experience that you will inevitably get big, impossible-to-remove ink stains on your sheets from the pen that will (also inevitably) drop from your hands after you fall asleep. Lying in bed with a pen is like falling asleep with gum in your mouth. It never turns out well. Think about it.

·      After you read, try to talk about the book with another person who has read it (ideally, people in your class). Go out for coffee with people and talk about books (no, really). We need to be sure that we can articulate our ideas about our reading. Try this verbally for starters. Try to articulate your ideas about your reading in your class writing, too. Listen to others talk (aural comprehension). It all helps to enhance your understanding!

·      Ask the questions or make the two points you wrote down in your notebook…because you always, always prepare for a class by planning two things to ask or say, right? (This is my big hint for getting your prof to admire you, and for making an impression, learning something, and upping your participation grade. You can do this for class or business. Just do it. You will feel better about yourself, and everyone will admire your brainpower and self discipline.)


·      When you feel you have nothing to say, free write. This means: write anything, just get going, even if you start off by writing, "I have no idea what to write about. I am supposed to write a persuasive paper about the ethical decisions behind the recent bill to blah blah blah, and I don't get it; I don't have any opinions; I don't know what to say..." Even if you start off doing this, you will eventually get to a point, to some usable material. Just start writing and then see where the writing takes you. You will--maybe after a page or two of scribble--get somewhere, and it’s good training (like running, which always starts hard and then you hit your stride).

·      Write a little bit everyday when you have a big assignment or paper looming. Don’t try to do it all at once. It will not be good writing.

·      Writing is RE-writing. I am a professional writer and guess what my first drafts of my personal essays or creative writing look like? Nothing like my final drafts. Night and day. My first drafts are stupid and boring, and so are yours (probably).

·      So, write until you just don’t feel like writing anymore (make notes at your stopping point about what you might say next; I always do this with my fiction writing, and it’s a lifesaver, trust me. I usually know where I think I want to go with something so I will write, EXPAND MORE ON ALIX’S DREAM HERE, or something like that, and it makes it simple to pick up the writing again when I am fresh. If I did not do this, I would forget everything and be stuck. Try a similar tactic.


·      Always come back to your writing and add more.

·      Then, go over what you already have written and make it better. (Don’t do this before you add more because you will spend all your time/energy fixing the old stuff but you won’t make any progress in terms of content. If you think you’re done with the complete draft, then it’s okay.)

·      Look at it again (REVISE) and read your work aloud. You will hear what sounds convoluted, and the awkward parts can be difficult to see (they are always easy to hear, so make reading your work aloud a habit before you turn it in).

·      Proofread. Self-edit. Let someone else read your work, too, and/or let them listen to you read it. Ask them where they were confused or wanted to know more. Take notes based on what they tell you and be objective, not defensive. Everyone’s work can always be better. Try to make your writing better, and don’t leave it all until the last minute.

·      When we edit ourselves, we do not only add more (expand on our thoughts and keep going), but we also fix errors and CUT what isn’t serving our paper. Do not be afraid to cut parts of your writing. Everything needs to be working toward your goal: supporting your thesis (you have a thesis, right?).

·      Usually, other readers are the best people to tell us where we should cut. This is  always the hardest thing to see in our own writing/editing.

·      Use a service such as or, for book length work, AutoCrit. Grammarly, for example, will show you where your writing is too wordy, confusing, grammatically incorrect (and pay attention here so you don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over!), etc.

·      It is tough to edit your own work! Try to exchange papers with someone and help each other. I have to pay people to edit my work. Try to find someone who works for free but will still do a good job for you.

·      When you get a paper back from a professor, read the notes. Trust me: time was spent reading and commenting on your paper. There’s nothing worse (from a prof’s perspective) than making the same comments over and over and over again because clearly, no one was reading them.

Study skills

·      Take notes while you read (see my comments on reading, above).

·      If there’s anything you want to remember (this is how I memorize information), copy it down. Read it again. Try to copy it from memory. Check how you did (quiz yourself). What did you miss? Read the text and write it from memory again. Keep doing this until you have it memorized and it’s perfect.

·      You can do the above with flashcards, too. WRITE your own flashcards (don’t buy them pre-made). Staring at flashcards will not magically make the information imprint itself into your brain. You have to pick up a pen and write/re-write to get the information memorized. This makes the learning visual and kinesthetic at the same time—a brilliant recipe for academic success.
Read ahead of the syllabus or class plan. You will never be in bad shape if you do this. Ideally, always read a book in its entirety before discussions even begin. Then, read it piecemeal as the discussions happen. Your comprehension and retention of the information will be so amazing, it will feel like you grew a new brain. Try it!

·      Review your notes every night.  Spend about 10 minutes looking over the notes you took for each class. If you do this, you will never have to study again. Never. Can you imagine? No, you can’t imagine it because you have probably never done it before. Try it for two weeks. No more cramming; no more all-nighters. Why didn’t you think of this before? God only knows, but you get it now, so live your life in this new, far easier way.

·      Study sitting up at a table like a Scandinavian student. (I am half Scandinavian, but I didn’t know about this Nordic trick until I was about 28 and in grad school. It totally works—probably because it is much harder to fall asleep when you are sitting at a table). You will need to prop up your books with a little  reading rack. They sell these wooden desks-for-desks in the Levenger reader’s catalog, but you could also use a cookbook holder or something.

Time management

·      We all procrastinate. I am not sure why. Maybe it has to do with dreading a certain task or tasks…maybe it’s because we’re worried about failure or success. Maybe it’s because there are simply too many distractions in life. Well, whatever. We can’t afford to procrastinate. Procrastination makes our lives suck. We must resolve to cease procrastinating and resolve to be more disciplined!
The best tool I’ve found to help with procrastination is (as I’ve mentioned) the Pomodoro Technique. Google it if you missed that class. The Pomodoro Technique calls for you to decide how much time you think a dreaded or overwhelming task is going to take. Break it down into little chunks (20-30 minutes). Work one un-interrupted (this is key!) chunk at a time. Check off your bwat or little sketch of a tomato. Congratulate yourself for a second. Do it again. And again. And again. Take a mini-break. Are you done now? Probably close to it. How awesome are you for buckling down and getting that task off your desk and off your mind? You are so awesome. Now, finish the next horrible task the same way and feel the relief wash over you…you are more productive and less stressed, aren’t you? I told you so. (Believe me, I have the same problems when it comes to work I have to do…)

Know your limits. My writing limit is 3-4 hours. I seriously cannot write for any longer that that. My brain is fried at that point (it's as if a switch turns it off), and I have to stop. If you know your limits, you can plan accordingly and not force yourself into writing garbage all night long because a paper is due tomorrow. 

·      Sometimes, the only solution is to physically remove yourself from the source of all distraction. Use the library. Lock yourself in one of those box-like rooms. Draw the blinds. Turn off your phone. No checking the internet, either! You can do this for 20-30 minutes. Try it. If you don’t feel like stopping for a tiny break after that, don’t. Keep going until you can’t anymore. This really works!

My best wishes for the rest of your academic careers (and your careers after that). It has been a privilege to meet and teach each and every one of you. Thank you!
--Elizabeth Collins


  1. Professor Collins, I enjoyed your class more than any other this semester. Thank you!--early morning student

  2. Well, thanks. I am glad you could enjoy it even as dawn had yet to seriously break. Best, EC

  3. Loved your list! I found a lot of useful information in there for me too. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only adult who procrastinate for some things. But next time, I'll try the Pomodoro Technique for sure!

  4. A fellow writer told me about the Pomodoro Technique. Another writer told me (when I was stressed and sort of freaking out about how much I had to know, that terrible August feeling when the syllabi are due?) to "put it in a box," which means to schedule a slot of time to do this work and then let myself do other things. We get this horrible, overwhelming feeling that a huge, dreaded task is going to take all our time, and so we put it off (and it just feels worse). "Putting it in a box" relieves the pressure and forces us to be productive for a set amount of time, while giving us psychic relief from the pressure.

    Thanks for reading!