So you want to improve your writing! (Who doesn’t?)
Perhaps you’re familiar with the 80/20 Rule, which states that 80% of the benefits can be derived from 20% of the possibilities. In practical terms, this means you probably wear 20% of your clothing 80% of the time; if you plan five activities during your vacation, you’ll get 80% of your enjoyment out of one of them; if your company has ten employees, two of them are doing most of the work.
We’re going to move beyond the 80/20 rule to suggest that three, not two, of the ten activities listed below will be most beneficial to your writing. Spend most of your time with the starred activities, and you’ll soon see a major improvement in your writing. Why not get started now?
Here’s my list:
*1. Read. Many good writers (I’m one) have learned most of what they know about writing from reading. In addition to expanding your knowledge, reading will:
sharpen your analytical thinking
increase your vocabulary
improve your ability to spell and punctuate
supply ideas and examples to use in your writing
If you’re serious about improving your writing, you should spend at least 30 minutes a day reading. Reading almost anything is going to help you: It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare or Plato. Read. Start today.
*2. Ask a friend or family member to read over what you’ve written. You’d be surprised how many writing problems can be cleared up by a non-expert – your sister, your next-door neighbor, the person at the next desk. (If you know someone who’s a voracious reader, that’s even better – you’ll get great suggestions.)
Our own brains don’t give us good feedback about what we’ve written. (How many times have I reread, aghast, something that seemed brilliant when I wrote it the night before!)
A friend or co-worker is more likely to notice a word that’s been left out, an awkward phrase, or an unclear point. In my 40 years as a writing teacher, I’ve often thought that my D and C students might have ended my courses with B’s and A’s if they had simply asked someone to read over their essays before I graded them.
*3. Write. Write letters, emails, and postcards. Write comments on your Facebook page. Keep a journal. Create a blog. Write letters to the editors of the magazines and newspapers you read (you do read newspapers and magazines, right? See #1). Volunteer for writing tasks at work. Write stories and poems. Reflect. Observe. Comment.
You don’t have to be self-critical or submit what you’ve written for a grade. Just keep writing. Over time you’ll find it easier and easier to express and organize your thoughts, and your writing will acquire more sophistication and polish.
4. Improve your vocabulary. Buy a word-a-day calendar. Visit a vocabulary website regularly. Carry a dictionary with you, or make frequent visits to www.Dictionary.com. Write down interesting new words in a notebook, and review them often.
5. Use the spellchecker for everything you write. (But remember that it’s not infallible: It may not pick up a word that’s spelled correctly but used in the wrong place, like there instead of their.)
6. Use the grammar checker in your word processor. (But remember that grammar checkers are prone to error too. If your computer suggests a change that sounds wrong to you, get a second opinion from a friend or family member.)
7. Educate yourself about writing. To get over the idea that writing is a dull subject, read a lively book like The Elements of Style (Strunk and White) or Watch Your Language (Theodore Bernstein). Better yet, read both books – and then go to the library and look for more. (My own What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is full of practical tips.)
8. Take an interest in the words that swirl around you every day. It’s natural for us to be so interested in a conversation or news story that we barely notice the words that constructed it. But good writers train themselves to focus on both the message and the words that conveyed it.
Develop the habit of critiquing what you’re hearing or reading (but don’t pass on your critiques if the speaker is a friend or family member!). Was it too colloquial or too formal? Too wordy or too abrupt? Notice when something intrigues or amuses you, and ask yourself why.
9. Experiment. Substitute a semicolon for a period (they’re pretty much the same thing, you know, except that a period is automatically followed by a capital letter, but a semicolon isn’t).
Use your new words whenever you can; explore new ways of expressing your ideas. (Did you notice the semicolon?) It’s not a good idea to try out your new writing skills in an important letter or report. But journals, emails, letters to friends, and creative writing projects like stories and poems offer many opportunities to flex your new writing muscles.
10. Trust yourself. With good instruction, you really can learn how to use commas and apostrophes. You can shake loose some of the myths about writing (You can’t start a sentence with but! You can’t use I or you in formal writing! You have to use lots of big words!).
Reading (we’re back to #1 again) can help you build confidence. For example, when you start noticing sentences starting with but in the King James Bible, the Gettysburg Address, and every book you read, you’ll find the courage to start sentences with but yourself.
It’s fun (and enlightening) to check the validity of the “rules” you were taught by taking a close look at some great writing from the past. And you might come away with some new and useful practices you hadn’t heard of before.
Try everything. Write long sentences and short ones. Incorporate formality, slang, and humor into your writing. In short, give yourself permission to grow. (And remember to have fun!)