4. Mechanics. Errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation can distract from an otherwise articulate essay, so students need to pay close attention to these important aspects of their writing. The most common errors include these: 

  • Omission or misuse of apostrophes 
  • Misplaced quotation marks 
  • Comma splices 
  • Run-on sentences 
  • Sentence fragments 
  • Misplaced modifiers 
  • Homophone confusion 

5. Timing. Once students know how to develop essays in a pressure-free setting, they're ready to begin writing against the clock. Teach them to divide essay writing into smaller chunks, devoting a certain number of minutes to each segment. At first, walk your teen through the process with (1) verbal prompting, (2) a guide sheet that breaks down the steps, and (3) a clock. As he practices writing timed essays, slowly remove these "crutches" until he can pace himself with the aid of the clock alone. 

6. Practice. Beginning in ninth grade, assign timed writing regularly to keep skills sharp. By tenth grade, and definitely in eleventh and twelfth, teens should be writing timed essays almost weekly. Since no prep time is required, you only need to carve a half-hour time slot out of the week. Find practice questions online by searching for terms such as "timed essay questions" and "SAT essay prompts." 

Teach Grammar and Punctuation 

Finally, lay a solid foundation in grammar and punctuation. While the difference between its and it's may not seem like a big deal to some, using these two tiny words incorrectly can make a person seem ignorant and uneducated. Whether or not they mean to, people often form first impressions simply by reading our writing. Isn't this why our shelves brim with English references and spelling books? Avoiding grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors can help students avoid lower grades, lost job opportunities, and potential embarrassment. 

It's not too late to teach the rules to your teens. And if you didn't quite grasp these concepts during your own school days, it's time to learn or relearn the rules yourself. Buy a second student workbook and do grammar lessons along with your children. Or use a resource like The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation to read up on rules, and then practice with a few simple exercises. 

Make the Commitment 

I once asked my two college grads what best prepared them for the rigors of university-level work. Independently, each one answered, "All the writing you made me do in high school." Writing is simply one of those non-negotiable subjects that forms a basis for academic success. 

Start fresh. Vow to see your writing program through. If you're not using a formal curriculum, you must still commit to assigning writing on a regular basis. Has time been the culprit? Perhaps you need to give up another subject or extracurricular activity in order to devote time to writing. Your child will not survive college without sound writing skills. 

Develop a plan. Grab your writing program and a calendar. Begin planning assignments to help both you and your student stay on track. If you're concerned about the upcoming SAT, for example, your student will need to learn those timed essay skills now, so that he has time to practice this new skill. No matter what, arm yourself with a plan—and stick to it—or he'll slip into old habits of not completing his work. This means: 

  • Determining a schedule to follow
  • Sticking with the schedule
  • Supervising your teen's work and 
  • Commenting on and returning papers on time so he doesn't fall behind

Once your student has learned the basics of essay writing—both timed and untimed—don't let up. Devote the rest of high school to more advanced writing, including longer essays, literary analysis, and research papers.