The First Step to Becoming a Better Writer

I coached college students in writing for three years. Here’s what I observed.

JoAnna Schindler
The Startup
4 min readMay 1, 2020


For three years, I provided writing counseling services to undergraduates at a highly ranked university, including humanities students, pre-med hopefuls, future lawyers, athletes, and beyond. From literature papers to med school applications, I reviewed anything with words.

The program that I worked for targeted students from underrepresented and/or underserved communities. Often my students came from high schools that offered suboptimal learning environments: limited funding, overcrowded classrooms, overworked and demotivated teachers, no AP or honors curricula.

“I suck at writing.” I can’t tell you how many students would announce this at the beginning of our sessions, like they wanted to beat me to it. Others would hand me their essays, wincing, as if showing their doctor a nasty wound. “It’s bad. I need help,” they’d say. Many would slump in their chair, glaring at the assignment on the desk before us, and mutter,I hate writing.”

These students expected me to wield my red pen and mark up their paper, handing over all my wisdom in the form of spelling corrections and rewrites like a human Grammarly. That’s not where I started. Sure, spotless technique and clear, concise sentences are elements of effective writing. Alas, I could not mend all of my students’ writing challenges with ink.

My sessions began with a question

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

I’m not here to tell you to write every day or read often, and I won’t provide a list of grammar hacks that will improve your prose. Instead, I’m going to ask you the same question that I would ask my students at the start of our sessions.

“Before we get to your paper here,” I’d say, pushing their typed pages to the side, “tell me: what is your relationship with writing?”

This is what it meant to be a writing counselor, as opposed to a tutor or peer editor. While there’s a technical side of writing — just as there’s technique involved in playing an instrument or a sport — there’s a great deal of psychological and emotional work that we need to do in order to communicate our ideas on the page. I’d compare it to a personal training session. Before your trainer shows you how to do a proper squat, they’re going to ask you about your relationship with health and fitness.

My students responded with:

I’m not good at writing, so I don’t like to do it.

My teacher said I was a bad writer.

English isn’t my first language, so my grammar isn’t always ‘right.’

I usually get bad grades on my essays even though I put a lot of work into it.

I have ideas. I just don’t know how to make them sound good.

All of this, coming from students at one of the top universities in the world. Here’s the thing: writing technique is learnable with practice. These students booked a session with me at their own will; they did not lack motivation, discipline, or potential. If anything, they lacked confidence.

A different kind of pre-writing exercise

In order to thrive as writers, we must believe wholeheartedly in the following:

We are capable of writing well.

We have ideas that are worth sharing.

We are worthy of an audience.

Sometimes, there are external factors that may cause doubt. Larger, societal structures that make us feel small, voiceless. A disgruntled teacher with unhelpful criticism. Anonymous trolls on social media. Acknowledge them. Name them. Understand that they are external and, for the most part, out of your control.

That said, it’s far more challenging to address the criticism that comes from within. But that’s what you do have control over, and that’s where we must begin.

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

So, how do we tackle our inner critic, the voice that’s keeping us from giving ourselves a real shot at improving our writing (or writing at all)? I’d recommend taking time to answer these questions.

  1. What are your earliest memories of writing?
  2. What kind of feedback did you receive on your writing in school, or early in life? (How has this feedback evolved over time? How did this feedback make you feel?)
  3. What were your favorite pieces of writing that you authored, and why were they your favorites?
  4. What is your definition of great writing? In what ways does your writing, as it is now, align with or divert from this definition?

1–3 will help you understand the context from which your inner critic arises. The last one, perhaps the most important question, will clarify your goals. What does this better version of writing that you’re striving for really look like? I’m not in the business of prescribing one, universal definition of good writing, because, in my opinion, that does not exist. I will, however, offer this advice: define your own standard of writing and aim for that. After all, isn’t the goal of writing to communicate your ideas, in your words, and in your voice?

Like the students I worked with, you may feel the urge to skip right to the technique. Tell me how to fix my sentences!

Consider the musicians you love who can’t read music; the artists you see in museums who never took an art class; the poets who break all grammatical conventions. There’s far more to great writing than polished technique – and it starts with you.



JoAnna Schindler
The Startup

Writer & technology professional, based in Los Angeles | I also write at