How to Write Better
I’m sharing my advice with aspiring superb writers in partnership with Grammarly grammar checker.
This isn’t going to be my typical sort of post, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on my own writing and the lessons I’ve learned from graduate school and from working on my own blog. There’s no foolproof formula that you can follow to ensure better writing, because everyone’s different and every piece of writing is different, but there are some general principles that have helped me and will likely help others too. I’m going to focus most on academic writing, but the principles are probably applicable to a lot of different genres.
The first thing to do is read a lot. Read widely and deeply—newspapers, magazines, books, and blog posts, fiction and nonfiction. Read stuff just for fun, and read stuff that makes you think. Read stuff that challenges your opinions.
Try to engage with what you read, too; don’t just read passively. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found this especially helpful for academic work. Try to evaluate whatever arguments the author is making; can you think of reasons why the author might be wrong, or can you see an aspect of the argument that they’ve overlooked? Spotting a weakness in someone else’s article or a gap in current research can provide you with a great jumping-off point for your own work.
Doing all of this will expose you not only to a wide range of ideas but also to different ways of expressing ideas—new words and phrases, new rhetorical strategies—that you can start to add to your writer’s toolkit.
My first semester of grad school was a rather rude awakening. For one of my classes, I had to find, read, and give hundred-word summaries on thirty articles within about a month. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, but at the time it was just about overwhelming. As an undergraduate, I’d hardly ever had to do library research, so I simply didn’t know where to start. I knew how to find books, but finding good articles was something new. I felt like I’d been tossed in the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim.
It was rough, but I managed to get my head above water and write a decent paper at the end of the semester. But more importantly, I’d learned some valuable research skills that have served me well throughout the rest of my grad school experience. Even outside of academia, knowing how to research will allow you to explore subjects in much greater depth.
I’ll admit it: all through grade school and college, I was a terrible note-taker. I have a good enough memory that I never really needed to take notes in class, but I’ve found that taking notes as I read is one of the best things I can do for my own writing. Not only am I able to jot down a lot of quotes and citations that come in handy later, but it helps me better reflect on what I’m reading.
Even if you’re just blogging and not writing term papers, taking notes or keeping a list of interesting links can provide you with inspiration.
The only way to get good at writing is to do a lot of it. Maybe there are some truly gifted people out there who can sit down at a keyboard for the first time and bang out the great American novel, but for everyone else, no matter what their field or genre, good writing takes a lot of work. As the author Orson Scott Card says,
You learn more from writing a 100,000-word novel than from any number of classes. (Except, of course, the ones I teach.) (OK, I was including them as well.)
I also tell my students that every writer has to produce ten thousand pages of pure drivel. Some people have to write all ten thousand pages before they produce anything good. Some of us are luckier and get to have our lousy pages spread out over our whole career, so we can be earning money along the way.
This is one of my greatest weaknesses: I hate editing my own work. By the time I’m finished writing something, I usually don’t want to look at it anymore. But I’ve found that it’s best to sit on it for a few days and then take another look at it. If you start editing it immediately, you’re more likely to overlook your own errors; your ideas are still fresh in your mind, so your mental autocorrect takes over. Come back a few days later, though, and you’ll see it with fresh eyes. And if you can, get someone else to look over your work for you too.
This is something I’ve found especially helpful with my blogging. For the first few years, I blogged in fits and starts, sometimes going several months between posts. When you don’t post, nobody reads your blog, which saps your motivation to post. I finally broke the cycle after joining Twitter. Suddenly I’m able to interact much more closely with lots of interesting people, including fellow editors, linguists, lexicographers, and others. I’ve discovered some other great blogs that I now read regularly. Stuff I read on or via Twitter has often served as the inspiration for my own posts, and as I’ve posted more regularly, my readership has grown.
As I said above, there’s no secret formula for good writing, and even general tips like these might not work for everyone, especially if you’re writing in a completely different field. And I know that this is a bit of a departure from what I normally post, but hopefully it’ll be helpful to someone out there.