From early grammar school, most of your teachers have emphasized reading and mathematics. They want you to excel, and these two invaluable companions will take you far in college and in the wider world.
The Cinderella of this academic threesome, the neglected stepchild, is writing.
Reasons for this neglect abound. Forced to write essays, many students undergo the agonies of the damned. Forced to read and grade these essays, many teachers suffer similar mental torments. And unlike the teaching of mathematics and reading, the art of composition is messy, less structured, dependent on the ear and the intuition as much as on the mind. In addition, to become a competent writer requires years of practice, fooling around with grammar and syntax, words and sentences, and undergoing criticism that often seems itself subjective.
Yet to write competently has never been more important. We live in the “age of communication,” and corporations and small businesses alike look for employees who can express themselves in clear, precise prose. They do so because miscommunication annually costs American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars, and that figure does not include the hundreds of millions more dollars corporations spend on remedial writing classes for college graduates.
Nor is it just about the money. Unclear notes on a hospital chart or vague orders in the military can and do kill people. Conversely, clearly written reports and instructions can bring great benefits. An example: A senior officer of the Winston-Salem Police Department once told me the instruction he received in a writing class at the local community college changed the course of his career. By learning to write better, he found fewer of his cases being shot down in court.
So now the question: how can you become a better writer?
First, become a reader. Avid readers make good writers. Reading fiction and nonfiction will not only give you insights into human nature and empirical knowledge, but will also expose you to many different kinds of writing. Your vocabulary will improve. Your feeling for words, sentences, and paragraphs will be enhanced. The more you read, the more you will catch the rhythm and beat — also called style — of various writers. Some of this prose music you will unconsciously adopt as your own.
Second, write. A pianist doesn’t learn scales by listening to CDs, a soccer forward doesn’t learn to dribble by watching movies, a writer doesn’t learn to write by reading columns like this one. You have to write.
So keep a journal. When you write letters and emails, try to shape them into something worth reading. If you’re fortunate enough to find a teacher who assigns lots of essays, then throw yourself into the task of writing these compositions to the best of your abilities.
Then find someone willing to critique your writing. Avoid friends and family members who offer only positive criticism, who can only tell you how wonderful your writing is. Look instead for some red-meat criticism. (First-year college students: your institution likely has a writing center with students hired to critique your essays. If you ignore these centers, if you fail to take advantage of them, then you are either writing the essay the night before it is due or you are a fool).
Finally, look for a good teacher. If you can’t find one, then get some books on writing and use them as your instructors. Below are several useful guides for students and beginning writers.
William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements Of Style 4th Edition (Pearson Publishers, ISBN 978-0205309023, 105 pages) is the best known of these guides. Some teachers and authors scorn the book today as pedantic and dated, but they are missing the point of this slim volume. The entire philosophy of The Elements Of Style may be summed up in Strunk’s command: “Vigorous writing is concise.” Strunk and White aim to teach their readers vigorous writing.
Stephen Wilburs’ Keys To Great Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000, 262 pages, $14.99) is the Strunk and White book writ large. Like those two men, Wilburs emphasizes such ideas as eliminating wordiness, selecting the precise word needed in a sentence, creating a structure and rhythm in paragraphs, and so on. By obeying his own rules, Wilburs gives readers a manual that is amusing and instructive.
In The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way To Better Writing (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2007, 300 pages), Professor Gregory Roper has created a series of workshops based on the ancient practice of imitation as a vehicle to writing. Roper offers passages from such diverse writers as Thomas Aquinas, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway, and then instructs the student to imitate them. For a motivated student, The Writer’s Workshop can be of enormous benefit.
Finally, invest in a dictionary and a thesaurus. On my desk are two old, battered books — Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s New World Thesaurus — to which I daily refer. Accompanying them, and also of value, is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, a thesaurus whose entries show you how and when to use certain words.
These books and good teachers, however, can only take you so far. It’s up to you to do the work.
For nearly 20 years, I have taught writing to students. Many of them have later told me how much my instruction meant to them, how I “taught them to write.” Their compliments always bring a smile. The real reason they became good writers comes not from my instruction, which was often minimal, but from forcing them to write. Many of them were in classes with me in which they wrote 20 and 30 essays a year. I served them more as coach than teacher, more taskmaster than instructor.
They became good writers because they wrote.
That’s how it’s done.