Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wood Writing Guide - Getting Better

Lately I've been thinking about the many students who want to improve their writing but are unsure where to begin. Students have reported success using style guides, reading their work aloud, and employing resources such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab. But there are a couple of other steps that I've found to be personally helpful. I stress here that I am hardly a writing-mechanics expert. I barely know my participles from my predicates, and I'm OK with that. But I've developed some confidence as a writer with the aid of these two steps:

1. Write every day

Writing is an opportunity to express yourself, to train your mind, to exercise your opinions, and to "thicken" your experience of the world. All too frequently, we plow through our days with little to show for the effort. I can think back on entire months of my life that seem little more than a blur. But when I write - every day - in a diary, in a letter, in a blog, in whatever medium, I find it easier to remember my experiences. The act of writing weaves my days more richly into my memory.

On a far more practical note, the act of writing parallels (so I'm told) the act of physical exercise. The initial strain of working out, jogging, strength training, swimming, etc., begins to ease as your mind and body develop a tolerance for - and eventually a desire for - the work. Write every day, keeping track of your strengths and weaknesses. Build up your confidence by observing incremental improvement in your mastery of mechanics, your avoidance of clichéd and hackneyed phrases, and your ability to marshal facts to advance a point. Write. Every day. Even if you're only writing for an audience of one.

2. Read every day

Of course, just like a public speaker must have an audience in order to usefully practice a speech, a writer ought not live in a vacuum. Read the words of others. Imagine those people as a potential audience for your words. Or more simply imagine them as colleagues from whom you can seek advice. When I read an article in The New York Times, or I savor a delicious passage from Tom Wolfe, or I work through a dense essay of academic scholarship, I focus on the form as well as the content. How does this author employ semicolons? How does this author paint such vivid word-pictures? How does this author employ proper citation? Reading the published works of others, preferably those that are edited or peer reviewed, offers a free master-class in my own craft.

One of the fascinating aspects of this exercise is a growing awareness in the diversity of writing styles and, more intriguingly, the variances in "correctness." Reading The Economist, I noticed that British writers place periods ('full stops,' they'd say) outside of quotation marks while U.S. writers place periods within quote marks. Reading good prose, I've also found that some of the most strictly taught rules of grammar and punctuation are joyfully abandoned if they obscure the purpose of the work. And I've certainly developed an eagle-eye for typos that, no matter what, almost always manage to slip into published work. It's humanizing to find that we all screw up now and again. Mostly, reading every day reminds me that the written word is vibrant with contradictory uses and strategies for its improvement. I think I've become a decent writer because I read folks who are much better than me. Every day.

Try it. Review your schedule and carve out a little time to write and read every day. Start with a quick blog entry and a pass through one local newspaper article. Then add to your routine, mixing it up with international journalism, serious fiction, and even poetry. Start here and get there in incremental steps. Do it every day. You will get better.

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