Life tips from a writing class

It’s the end of another semester. My Professional Writing and Presentation Skills students are getting ready to fly from the proverbial academic nest.

blackboardWay back, on that first day of class, I told them all that this course would be one they would remember for the rest of their lives. I promised they would be getting life skills that would help them going forward. Of course I saw many eye rolls when I said that, but I told them to stick with it, come to every class, listen, and participate – and at the end of the semester, they could tell me if they agreed.

It’s now the end of the semester and every single student agreed that they learned important life lessons from the class. Oh sure, I taught them how to organize writing and incorporate best practices when formatting documents, but because *I* was their instructor, they also learned lessons like:

  • Have an interview outfit pressed and ready to go at all times in your closet. You never know when you’re going to need it.
  • Wear your interview outfit if you have to go to a wake or funeral. Don’t *ever* wear jeans when you are paying last respects.
  • Gentlemen, don’t wear white socks. Have some dress socks in your drawer and while we’re on this general topic – leather shoes (not sneaks) are what you wear to an interview.
  • Ladies – skip the perfume and watch your accessories. Don’t show up at an interview looking like a pack mule with a purse, backpack, and portfolio.
  • Bring an interview packet (folder with resume, copies of awards, distinctions, articles and a business card) for *every* person you will be meeting with.
  • Speaking of business cards, *everyone* should have some. At a minimum it should state name, email, phone and your title or field. Liberally sprinkle your cards when networking.
  • During an interview – smile and show enthusiasm.
  • At some point during every interview say “that’s a great question.”
  • Have a proper handshake. When you’re shaking hands with a woman keep it firm but don’t crush her hand. Save the limp fish handshakes for the Queen of England.
  • Look people in the eye when talking to them.
  • Find a home position in your lap for your hands during an interview. You can certainly use your hands when talking but always return them to their home position.
  • Sit up straight. The best way to do this is to think about extending the space between the bottom of your ear lobe and your shoulder. If you do that, you’ll automatically sit and stand up straighter. (Wish I could give credit to the article that pointed this out but I don’t know where I read it.)
  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Time is valuable. Always thank someone for spending their time with you or taking the time to read something you sent.
  • After each interview send a follow-up letter. In that letter thank them for the interview, compliment some aspect of the company, and show enthusiasm for the position.
  • Even if you didn’t get the job, you got free cover and follow-up letter, resume, and interview experience. Be grateful for those opportunities and take what you’ve learned to your next interview.
  • 3 is the magic number. Use 3 examples when you are making a point and you can’t go wrong.
  • Trying to get people to change their behavior is the most difficult task. You need to show people *why* changing their behavior will benefit them. You have to show what the value of the new behavior is to *them.*
  • Take a deep breath before you attempt to answer an essay question on an exam. Read the question and then organize your answer by visualizing “beginning”, “middle” and “end” buckets for your thoughts.
  • You don’t have to start your document at the beginning. Instead start where it’s easiest and then keep going.
  • Make sure that your conclusion matches the points raised in your introduction.
  • Don’t drink soda.
  • Don’t ever smoke.
  • Don’t chew gum, at least not in my class. Trust me, if you could see what you look like, you wouldn’t.
  • Street drugs are usually cut with nasty stuff. Have respect for your body and just don’t do them.
  • When you see someone walking a dog, tell them what a beautiful dog they have. You’ll make the owner smile and nine times out of ten they will reach down and give their dog a pat.
  • And of course because it was a writing class, my students learned the most important lesson about writing anything. – Remember when you write it’s not about you, dummy, it’s about your reader. Absolutely everything you do has to be done with your reader in mind. Organize the information and create a “map” so your readers can find what they are looking for. Use language your reader understands. Incorporate graphics to make your document more interesting. And always, always answer your reader’s question of “What’s in this for me?” at the very beginning of each document.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

14 thoughts on “Life tips from a writing class

  1. Thank you for the reminders and tips, your students should know they were lucky to have you. It is clear that you go beyond your call of duty. If I may ask, during an interview is it wise to use short stories to make a point? If so, how does one share without getting caught up in the story itself and forget the point?

  2. I’ve been wearing white socks and Chaco sandals together lately, in spite of Jami’s moderating influence, clear evidence that I have slipped out of the ‘gentleman’ status. My hair is too long, too; perhaps I am headed toward ‘curmudgeon’. Of course, it isn’t snowing here, either.

    • If you’ve put enough time into this thing called life and if you are *really* good at what you do then you can dress the way you please. You’ve earned it.

  3. Great advice. I would be interested to know if your students in turn gave you great advice or life lessons as well. What is the best lesson or tip that a student gave you in being a writer?

    • That’s an excellent question. Teaching (for me) is always give and take – my students learn from me, I learn from them. In particular, this semester I’ve learned tips about teaching that also apply to writing.

      Students learn better when stories are involved. My dyslexic children taught me how to teach and that’s by using lots of stories, examples, and visuals. Guess what? That’s how almost *everyone* likes to learn. Teaching does not have to be boring neither does writing.

      Everyone carries a burden. I had students who had very difficult semesters with sick kids at home and even losing jobs. While I can give them support (and lots and lots of it) it is not my job to give them a crutch. Life is tough. There are no guarantees. You have to work (and sometimes with tremendous effort) for what you want. I saw many students rise to the occasion this semester. If you want to write, you have to write – let nothing get in your way.

      However, you also need to be able to tell the difference between life events and life challenges. A student who had been struggling with his big-time chronic health issues all semester and who had missed many of the classes came up to me after class. He was angrily defending his work, saying that although he had missed classes he had handed in all the work. I asked him to wait until the other students had left. Then I turned to him and told him that I admired him. He clearly had a difficult situation but he had done the best he could do under the circumstances. I wasn’t going to punish him for being sick. Instead I told him that I respected his effort. From his smile, I could tell that he hasn’t heard that message from many people in his life. Compassion pairs nicely with teaching and with writing.

  4. I really wish I had someone who had told me all of this one semester. I recently switched advisers at my school (because mine went on medical leave), and she’s been whipping me into shape. Slowly but surely, I’m learning “how to adult,” but every once in a while something hits me like a freight train, and I can’t handle it. I might save these for later.

    • I definitely have a tendency to “mom” my kids (seriously, in my class you get told to spit out gum and to sit up straight.) I do it, because I know that a lot of those social skills are missing these days.

      But I also do it because I’m invested in every single student. It’s my job to make sure they learn and I take that responsibility to heart.

      • “Mom-ing” is totally fine. I had a professor who was that way. No hats. No gum. No giggling. She made me an excellent public speaker. We need more teachers like you.

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