Writing–we all have to do it, no matter who we are or what we do for a living. We write emails, blog posts, invoices, press releases, social media comments, cover letters, etc. etc. And yet so many people seem to take pride in being bad writers:
“I hated high school English. I BS-ed all my papers.”
“I just use the grammar checker. That’s all you really need.”
“I’d never let anyone read something I wrote–it’s that bad!”
But is this really something to be proud of? That’s like bragging that you don’t keep up with current events or that you can’t do simple math problems in your head.
Now, I’m not expecting you to go out and become the next Shakespeare. Leave that to someone who really, really loves writing. I’m just saying that as a functioning adult in today’s world, you should try to be the best writer you can–because it really is that important.
First off, you need to improve your process. If you’re writing a report that your boss is going to see, should you really rush through it and send it off without another thought? But on the other hand, spending 3 hours composing a single email isn’t the best idea either.
I’ve found that a simple way to balance your writing time is to write the whole first draft without allowing yourself to edit much as you go along. Just get those words down on paper. Then you can go in afterwards and edit–and not just for typos and grammar mistakes. Edit ruthlessly, cutting out any unnecessary words until you’ve expressed your thoughts in the clearest possible way. Read out loud as you go to ensure that what you’re saying makes sense.
If you haven’t tried writing this way before, this in itself will improve your wordsmithery tenfold. However, if you want to bring your writing up to the next level, you need to learn how to work in some variety.
I’ve always liked this quote from writing instructor Gary Provost:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Get the picture?
And don’t just apply this to sentence length. Vary paragraph length, word choice, punctuation usage (within reason, please). You may have to force yourself to do it at first, but soon this type of lively, interesting writing will come naturally to you.
The last big test of good writing is to have someone else look at your work and give you feedback. There’s only so much you can do to improve yourself–at some point, you have to be willing to take criticism.
There are so many sources for feedback. I want to warn against using a close friend or family member, though–they can give good advice, but don’t forget that they love you and care about your feelings. Which, in this situation, is BAD NEWS. Because somebody who loves you is a lot less likely to tear apart your writing, even if you genuinely need it.
So find someone who can actually give you a useful critique. Join a writers’ group, ask a coworker, or look online. The writing community on Reddit, for example, hosts a weekly critique thread where you can post your work for others to look at. Remember, you want thorough, honest feedback–so be prepared to receive it!
As you become a better writer, something may happen: you may actually begin to enjoy it. Don’t worry! You’re not going to have to start wearing berets and loitering in coffee shops. Just take pride in knowing that you’re now able express yourself in a clear, concise, and interesting manner.