Monthly Archives: December 2014

How to Improve Your Writing

A friend asked me “How can I improve my writing?”
He’s not writing poetry or prose—he just wants to clearly articulate a point. Following is my response to him:

You are a busy guy who doesn’t have time for a writing seminar, or even a textbook. Don’t worry, because you are a smart guy. You can speak your thoughts clearly when you want to. So now, you just need to write them clearly. That will take time and practice, but here is some advice to get you started:

Get a copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White.

You can find free e-copies of this book (like at goodreads.com). But it’s worth buying a hardcopy, because it’s so essential, well-written, easy to reference, small, and cheap. You can find used copies everywhere. Keep it around, for reference, forever. I do.

Read well-written examples of what you want to write.

This is to train your ear, set your standards, and give you ideas. Reading good writing will teach you how to write. Reading bad writing will rot your brain.

Before you write, imagine someone asking “What’s your point?” Think of how you would clearly state your point.

If you plan to write something longer than a paragraph, create an outline. The outline should lead the reader to your conclusion, where you clearly state your point.

Finish a draft, let it rest, then edit.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, because it’s probably the most powerful tool to improve your writing (apart from an actual editor). It helps you improve your draft, and learn about writing in general. If you’re pressed for time, finish a draft, physically get up, go do something that takes your mind to a different place for even a few minutes, and then come back to review and edit. Try to repeat this step at least twice. If you submit something before you feel it’s finished, the feedback will be wasted. If you find yourself changing things, then changing them back, you’re probably ready to call that part finished—making too many little edits can start to kill the flow of your writing.

Sometimes, you might capture a perfect sentence in your first draft. You don’t need to change everything from your first draft, but here are a couple of ways to find the changes you need to make:

Read the draft aloud, as though to someone in the room.
This might be tricky if you’re not alone, but you can get some benefit even if you just imagine this. The key is to imagine a listener—maybe a disagreeing or impatient one—and try to imagine their reactions. If your imaginary listener gets confused, or if you hear yourself saying something complicated, unclear, disconnected, long or awkward, then change it. Restructure it, or break it up. This can help the flow of your sentences and paragraphs. To avoid writing a wandering conversation, remember your outline and your point.

Print out your draft, mark it up, then type it into a new document.
This process takes time, but it inspires you to take a new look at what you’ve written, listen to it, and cut out the stuff that’s not worth re-typing.

There’s the Red Writing mini-guide to improving your writing. If you search, you can find more advice about writing from lots of other, better, writers. I’ll tack on a few quotes here:

George Orwell’s tips on writing (from Politics and the English Language):
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
– Caveat from Red Writing: To reach a particular audience, write for that audience. Some audiences might expect extraneous eloquence or jargon, as a standard or to establish the author’s education or experience. However, the safest bet to improve your writing is to nail down “clarity” first. Then, put in impressive stuff if necessary, where necessary.

 Ernest Hemingway:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit.”

Ray Bradbury:
“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”

The point is this: Everybody writes stuff they need to fix. Everybody gets criticized and rejected. When you get criticized, learn what you should learn, ignore what you should ignore, and keep improving. Writing is like anything else you practice—you’ll get better if you try.