How to Write

CBS Library's writing consultant Thomas Basbøll gives study advice in a series of 5 short articles.


Student writing on her laptop

Think of your reader. Each paragraph (100-200 words) will take about one minute to read. It will tell the reader one thing you know and how you know it. Even if you write 2-3 paragraphs an hour, you still have 20-30 times longer to write one than the reader has to read it. This gives you an enormous advantage and the trick is to learn how to use it.

Spend the first minute or two writing a simple, declarative sentence you know to be true. Now, ask yourself what the reader finds difficult about this claim. Is it hard to believe, or hard to understand, or hard to agree with? Support it with evidence, elaborate what you mean, or defend your idea accordingly for another 10 minutes or so. Spend the rest of the time making the paragraph as simple as possible. If you have time, try reading it out loud.

Many students make a deliberate effort to use unfamiliar words to say perfectly familiar things, thinking that this is what it means to write “academically”. Try to avoid this. It takes a little courage, but often the simplest possible statement of what you know is also the best way to write it. Some of your ideas are complicated enough as they are and they will give you all the occasion you need to show you have mastered the terminology of your discipline.

Knowing who you’re writing for is knowing how to write. But it’s not very useful to you think of your teacher or examiner as your reader. Instead, imagine that your reader is one of the most serious and competent students in your class. If you can make your ideas clear to them, your teacher will recognize this competence. The reader of an academic text is always an intellectual equal. You are trying to make difficult ideas clear to someone who is roughly as smart and knowledgeable as you, not to someone who knows much than you about the subject.

Most importantly, keep your prose in shape. Write a paragraph about something you know every day if you can. If you do, you won’t need anyone to tell you how you’re doing. You’ll feel it.

Interested in more?

  • For more, watch the “How to Write” lecture (53:53 min).

Other articles in the series

The page was last edited by: CBS Library // 11/20/2019