How to Be a Better Writer

by Mark on June 14, 2010 · 5 comments

I have always been a very left-brained, math & science type of guy. I used to always get high 90s in math & science classes and low 80s in English and social studies types of classes. Not surprisingly, my first college major was aerospace engineering, and my second major was computer science. Unfortunately, this type of technical ability doesn’t generally lend itself to good writing. Writing never really clicked for me. I absolutely loathed writing essays, and I particularly hated essay tests. I ran across an old high school essay a few years ago, and I was pretty shocked. My writing ability was awful! I couldn’t believe that I was the one who actually wrote it!

I have obviously improved quite a bit since those days. I have received quite a few compliments from people who actually know me pretty well but didn’t know that I could write. It’s actually not all that surprising that they didn’t know I could write, because I have never written a book, or a magazine article, or published a paper, or done anything that exposed them to my writing before I started blogging.

The interesting thing is that I never intentionally set out to be a good writer. It kind of happened by accident, and it happened slowly over time. The Internet, combined with my argumentative nature, made me a better writer. I spent so many hours on Internet message boards crafting persuasive arguments that I eventually became a good writer. One thing that I found extremely helpful was that I felt far less pressure when I wasn’t trying to write to please a teacher.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. I’ve never taken writing classes or read anything on being a better writer, but here are some strategies that have been helpful in making me a better writer.

Strategies for Improving Your Writing

1) Read a lot. I think that this is very important. The more that you expose yourself to the writing of talented writers, the better you will be at writing. I read non-fiction almost exclusively, but fiction would probably work just as well. Books that are less technical in nature are the best for this purpose. This will also help improve your vocabulary and give you a better understanding of the proper usage of words and phrases.

2) Practice. I won’t use the hackneyed cliché that practice makes perfect, because I don’t believe it. The practice needs to be deliberate if you really want to improve, and you will never be perfect. It helps to have something to motivate you to improve. In my case, I was motivated to make more persuasive arguments, and writing well helps you do that.

3) Don’t worry too much about structure. I used to stress out about how to write an essay. I used to worry about the damn rules that my English teachers taught me about how to structure an essay, etc. I used to worry about how to properly prepare an outline. It’s sad how much agony that I would put myself through because I didn’t know the “proper” way to write, whatever that is. I don’t worry about that anymore. I just focus on getting my point across. I just get an idea and run with it. Rather than worrying about structure, I just think of the best way to organize my thoughts, and I let this organization dictate the structure.

4) Write naturally. This is one of the most important strategies that I can recommend. I used to spend a lot time worrying about how to word something, but now I just write like I speak. Your writing should just flow naturally and be conversational in nature. There is no need to be fancy. I personally find it annoying when writers try to write at a level that is above their conversational ability. It just feels very forced and fake, and it distracts from the point being communicated.

5) Use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. One of the surest indicators of a poor writer is a work riddled with grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. Many people downplay the importance of these factors, but I think it is a huge mistake. These errors are highly distracting and disrupt the reader’s chain of thought. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a grammar Nazi. I often end sentences with a preposition when it sounds natural in the situation. The biggest weakness that I notice in most writers is the improper use of punctuation. Punctuation is critical in letting people know when to pause and in giving people visual cues to separate different thoughts. The lowly comma can be especially useful in telling people when to pause, but it is omitted surprisingly often.

6) Give your writing the “smoothness” test. After you have written something, test it for smoothness. Good writing flows smoothly. If you can’t read it fairly quickly, it probably fails the smoothness test. If you feel like you are stuttering and stopping as you read through what you have written, then you should probably try to find a better way of wording it, or you might need to improve your usage of punctuation. I am a voracious reader, so I tend to read very quickly. One of the things that I have noticed is that poor writers always force me to slow down my reading pace quite dramatically. The punctuation, grammar, spelling, and usage are all so bad that I have to go back repeatedly and figure out what the person is trying to communicate.

That’s pretty much it. I just try to make my writing natural and smooth. I let the organization of my writing naturally follow the organization of my thoughts. To the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, I’m willing to break the rules whenever I damn well please if it feels right. I have probably made what some people consider to be grammatical and punctuation errors in this blog post. I’ll get over it.

Just go with it.

1 progmtl June 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

Your writing is clear, concise, and to the point. Simplicity is good, especially for persuasive writing.

I also like that the FIRST point you listed was to read a lot. That is definitely crucial. When you see people making “sound-based” grammatical errors, you know they don’t read much. By sound-based I mean things like writing “would of” instead of “would’ve”. They write what they hear and they haven’t read the correct version in print enough to know the difference.

-progmtl.

2 Mark June 15, 2010 at 10:43 am

That’s a great point. Another one is “supposably” instead of “supposedly.”

3 K June 19, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Another tip is to read aloud what you have written. You will probably find some places to make changes, so make it “sound” better.

Keep up the good work.

4 Mark June 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

K,

That’s another good tip, although I tend to just read it mentally aloud, if you know what I mean. :-)

5 David August 1, 2010 at 4:44 am

Love the comment to English teachers out there at the end of your post! When I first started writing things I would try too hard to make it sound professional and proper. This probably came from the fact that the teachers in school wanted us to write this way. Or maybe it was just me trying to be perfect, which like you said doesn’t exist. The main point of writing is to express an idea, and the best way to be a good writer is being to express that well through your written word.

And I agree, reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing. Thanks for the post, it was a great read and gave me a laugh.

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