College WritingYesterday, I received the following email from a local high school student.  I’m pretty sure my reply  was less helpful than she might have wanted, but the questions didn’t lend themselves to the more direct answers I’m guessing that she and her teacher had wished for.  I hope she writes back.

From: <Student>
Date: Monday, April 18, 2016 at 7:15 PM
To: Doug Hesse <>
Cc: <student’s teacher>
Subject: Writing Advice for Incoming Freshman 

Dear Professor Hesse,

Hello. I am currently a Senior attending Denver Area School and have been accepted to the University of Denver. My Senior Literature teacher Mrs. X Y  has assigned my class the task of writing the perfect essay. The assignment requires me to ask a professor or administrator at the University of Denver for advice on how to craft an essay at the collegiate level.

My questions are as follows:

1. What are some of the mistakes that are common among incoming freshman in their writing? What is missing from their essays or what should be cut out?

2. I have heard my peers talk about their writing style and how difficult it is to improve upon. Do you consider writing “style” important to the students development of their writing?

3. What written sources would you recommend an incoming freshman read to improve their writing?

Thank you so much for your time, I look forward to hearing from you to prepare myself for my college career.

Thank You,


From: Doug Hesse <>
Date: Monday, April 18, 2016 at 8:14 PM
To: <student>
Cc: <student’s teacher>


Dear Student,

I’m glad to hear you’ll be joining us at the University of Denver!

Truly perfect essays are perhaps a lot like unicorns: wonderful to imagine but absent in reality.  I’ve published about 70 articles and book chapters and have co-authored four books, but I’ve yet to write a perfect essay.  I’ve written some pretty good ones.

One thing that consistently improves a lot of first year writing is more complex thinking and not being satisfied with a first draft version that happens to satisfy formal requirements.  People write in college in order to create knowledge.  They analyze, synthesize, critique, and apply.  That’s hard work, and the chances of getting it right in a single sitting or single draft are pretty rare.  Writers need to consider what their readers already know and believe and be able to adapt to those readers.  College professors like to see students take risks and then put in the time and effort to craft those risks into a smart shape.

Style is crucial because it conveys the writer’s ethos, his or her projected sense of self.  A style that’s both clear and engaging makes readers appreciate its author and go along with the writing.  Style is just as easy and just as hard to develop as the skill to shoot a three pointer consistently in heavy traffic or to play the Bach cello sonatas.  It takes tons of systematic practice, informed by reading.

I could glibly say that, as far as reading, incoming first year students should read one of my textbooks, Creating Nonfiction, The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers, and so on.  However, there’s no magic single text.  Instead, read a plenitude of stuff. Read the New York Times a couple times a week, at least, especially the editorials and the op eds, but every section.  Read issues of The Atlantic, Harpers, or The New Yorker every month.  Always be reading a novel, and always be reading a nonfiction book.  I’m reading a novel by Neal Stephenson right now and a memoir by writer who spent many summers working as a fire lookout in a New Mexico national forest. Reading widely gives you a fund of knowledge to draw upon, for analogies and allusions as well as simply for content.  It also builds a repertory of sentence rhythms and patterns, a sense of writerly voice.  My first year honors students are reading Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden right now.  If you’re looking for something to read, I recommend that.

Good luck to you!

Douglas Hesse
President, NCTE
Professor and Executive Director of Writing
University of Denver
2150 E. Evans Ave.  |  Denver, CO 80211  |  303.871.3447