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How to become a better writer

Sep 28, 2018

In an increasingly interconnected world, writing skills are vital across just about every industry. And yet, last year a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that “Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing.” Why so many students have trouble achieving even basic proficiency in writing is a larger question than can be explored in a single blog post, but there are concrete steps you can take to become a better writer today.

You don’t need to have dreams of being the next F. Scott Fitzgerald to better your own ability to write. Indeed, treating writing as a discipline rather than the byproduct of a magical strand of inspiration is a good first step towards writing well. Here’s what we recommend.

Read. A lot.

Chefs eat. Musicians listen to music. And writers read. Every great craftsperson and creator will consume an enormous amount of the thing they’re trying to create. This is the only way to develop taste–that inner barometer that helps you know what is and isn’t good. For instance, if you’re looking to write your college essay but just don’t know where to start, reading successful sample essays from previous applicants can be good to get the gears turning and hone in on exactly what you want to say.

Write, write, write.

You don’t have to believe Malcolm Gladwell’s controversial assertion of the ten thousand hour rule—in which high achievers spend ten thousand hours practicing in order to become truly great—to understand that practice is the most important part of becoming a better writer. Practice doesn’t mean sitting and waiting for the perfect sentence to come to you. It means sitting down and writing, rain or shine, garbage or golden prose–because that’s the only way you’re ever going to get better.

It is an oft-quoted writing maxim that you have to get out the one million bad words inside of you before you can get to the good ones. That’s more intense than most people are looking for, but this spirit of the quote is applicable to even the most novice writers: You have to keep going and know that words #10,000-11,000 are going to be better than #1,000-2,000.

Be honest and self-critical

Simply consuming and churning out a large quantity of work is only a necessary, but hardly sufficient, condition for becoming a better writer (as may be evidenced by any overzealous college student in a writing seminar who reads only to say they’ve read and writes only to hear the sound of their own voice). You need to practice to get better, but you need to practice the right way for it to have any effect.

To that end, make an earnest effort to be honest with yourself about the quality of your writing. If something doesn’t feel right or sticks out for its clumsiness, don’t become complacent and assume that the reader will understand and forgive the weakness. Constantly look for ways to improve clarity and style. Writing involves translating your own ideas into language others can understand, so try to approach the writing from a different point of view than your own to see if it’s as accessible as it might appear to you.

Keep it simple

Forget fancy words and meandering sentences. Aim for brevity and clarity. Like this.

Reading aloud

Our ear for language is a beautiful thing—if you’re a fluent speaker, you’ve heard thousands and thousands of hours of it being spoken. This means that when something doesn’t sound right, we’re better at detecting it by speaking aloud rather than simply reading it on the page. Reading your own writing aloud may be awkward or at times even painful and embarrassing, but you’ll almost always find something that needs fixing.

Give your writing time to cool

We all know the feeling of spending hours and hours on a project only to find that we are so immersed in editing and reshaping that we are unable to see the forest through the trees. When you find yourself in this headspace, it can be valuable to set aside your writing and do something else to clear your mind. Ideally, you can put it away for long enough to come back with entirely fresh eyes, but sometimes you just won’t have that kind of time. If you’re in a crunch, even ten minutes of doing something else can be good for seeing your essay in a new light. If you can’t even spare ten minutes, re-reading your essay in a new font or on your phone rather than your computer can help it feel new and different.


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