Writing is complicated. I mean, at first it doesn’t really seem that way since it’s just words on a page, but to really craft something meaningful and interesting take training, dedication, and a pinch of talent. I don’t purport to have that last thing, but I do try to keep my skills up to snuff. But enough about me. How can you improve your writing? In many ways, that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I was once a teaching assistant for a writing class, and often my colleagues and I would argue about how exactly we should go about helping students improve their writing. I don’t know if we ever came to a definitive answer, but I can give you some of the basics that will help your writing reach levels you’ve never dreamed of previously.
1. Don’t fret about your grammar.
Sure, it’s important that your writing flows well and is easy to read. But the mistake many make when first starting to write is that they focus far too much on the structure of their piece, and not on its substance. Do I want to read a well-written article about something uninteresting, or an intriguing article with a few mistakes here or there? The answer should be pretty obvious. Yes, your goal should be to combine great grammar and structure with an interesting topic, but that takes time and lots of practice. When you’re just starting out, you need to cut yourself some slack and concentrate on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. The style and grammar will come in time.
2. Stay focused.
The key to any form of writing is to pick one topic or argument and stick with it. In academic writing, you’d be hard pressed to find a Ph.D. who strays too far from his or her initial thesis. Likewise, in an article that’s about improving your writing, I’m not going to start talking about basketball and video games.
One expert, Jeff Goins, describes this process as narrowing your audience. As a writer, you can’t be all things to all people. The best works are written with a specific focus in mind, and it is that focus that attracts a specific group of readers. Interestingly enough, sticking to one topic or argument also tends to attract people from outside of your target audience. For example, if I was writing a political article in favor of some part of the Republican Party’s agenda, not only would I get Republican readers who agree with me, but I would also attract Democrats who disagree with my contention. By narrowing your audience and preventing yourself from becoming too broad in your writing, you become more interesting (and controversial) to readers. This leads me to my next point…
3. Make your points arguable.
Going back to Jeff Goins, he calls what I described in the last paragraph the “paradox of specific writing.” I disagree with him in terms of why that paradox exists, however. He postulates that if an article is popular amongst one group, they’ll be bound to share it with their friends, who often belong to other groups. That might be the case sometimes, but I also think the paradox exists because people like reading things they disagree with, if only because they are interested in hearing a new point of view, or are angered in some way by the author’s contentions. This phenomenon can be seen in the comments section of Goins’ article, where you can witness a smattering of people arguing against some of his points in a friendly manner.
Case in point, I was attracted to the paradox section of his article because, while I agreed with it for the most part, I had a bit of a different stance that I wished to share with you. You might have a different view than I, and may be compelled to comment on this article to give your side of the story. That’s the magic of writing though. It’s supposed to be arguable, flexible even. The best a writer can do is pick a stance, find evidence, sprinkle in some of their own experiences, and present it to the public. When doing that, you’ll always find people who don’t entirely agree, and that’s great because they’ll be nearly as interested in reading your work as those who do agree.
4. Edit your work once, twice, maybe three times.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret I learned long ago and is reaffirmed in a great piece I read about writing marketable articles: “great writing never happens on the first draft.” In fact, if you read the first drafts of most professional writers you’d probably laugh and think you could do better. This ties into the point I made above about grammar. You should not care about how your writing sounds when you’re first putting it on the page. What matters is that you’re writing from your heart, that the words are flowing from your brain onto the page as easily as they flow from your mouth. First drafts are almost like semi-directed freewrites. I usually just let it rip on my first draft, and I’m one of the most picky people I know when it comes to correcting errors in my work as soon as I see them. Often, what separates a good article from a bad one is the amount of times it has been edited. One pass is usually good enough to catch spelling and punctuation errors. Two passes will see that your style is consistent, and that everything flows nicely. Three passes is good for catching all of the minor things that most will miss. For longer works, like 50-page theses or books, more passes are required to make sure everything fits together.
The key thing here is that your brain is smart enough to get what you want to say onto paper, if you give it the chance. Sure, it might not sound great, but look at it this way: once the basic content is on the page, the rest is just the simple act of proofreading and making stylistic adjustments where necessary. Easy peasy, right?
5. Write an impactful conclusion.
Remember back in high school when your English teacher told you that a conclusion was basically a rehash of your introduction? Well, that’s kind of true. As you become more experienced though, you’ll start adding layers onto that general concept. The main thing you’ll want to hit upon at the end of an article is the significance of it all. Why was it important that you just read this? What does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? In the words of the experts, how did the readers “benefit from the information you provided?” As a history major, I spent a lot of time talking about the significance of the arguments I made in essays. It’s the sort of the thing that lets the reader know that the information they took in had some meaning, that it was more than a mindless collection of words and clever phrases.
Let’s put that theory to the test. What was the point of this article? Why should you remember it beyond the next few minutes? I think the answer is quite simple: everyone has to be a writer at some point or another, whether it be in e-mails, articles, essays, or a novel. Being a good writer isn’t easy, I admit that, but if you follow the basic tenets, it’s easy to improve. Everybody has the potential to write about something, to take one of their experiences and transform it into a fantastic article. Why not give it a try? With the knowledge you’ve gained with this article, you now have the tools you need to go out and start a blog of your own, or keep a personal diary, or write an essay on U.S. politics–whatever you wish! Your voice matters, and writing helps you get it out there in a way that everyone, even those who disagree with you, will appreciate.
Featured photo credit: Writing Tools/Pete O’Shea via flickr.com