Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Become a Better Writer

No amount of advice will get you around the need to practice. The best writing advice, in fact, will always be advice that gives you something to do, exercises to practice. If you're not writing as well as you'd like, it is probably not because there is something about writing you haven't been told or didn't, when told, understand. Rather, there is something you are not doing every or every other day. There's no rule of writing that you've misunderstood, but there may very well be one you've disobeyed. Let me tell you what it is.

For academic purposes, the paragraph is the unit of composition. A paragraph states one thing you know and tells us how you know it; it makes a single, well-defined claim and offers support for it. It is usually at least six sentences long, one of which—the "key sentence"—states its central claim. A paragraph also normally consists of no more than two hundred words and can be written in under half an hour by anyone who knows what they're talking about. Don't say that that's your problem: you don't know what you're talking about. You know a lot of things, and those are the things you want to be better at writing down.

In any case, here's the rule that will make you a better writer if you obey it (you should have no difficulty understanding it): Every or every other day spend exactly 27-minutes writing one paragraph about something you know. Do this at least once and at most six times on any given day. Always decide what you will write about the day before, which means articulating a relatively simple declarative sentence that says something you know to be true for every paragraph you're going to write tomorrow. It's a good idea to write this sentence down.

Include in your decision about what you're going to write a decision about who you're going to be writing for. Have a clear sense of your reader and what the reader's situation will be when reading. That is, don't just imagine Jim down the hall. Imagine a peer working in the same discipline as you, steeped in the same tradition, and, say, engaged in reading the third paragraph of your theory section, or the second paragraph of your introduction, or the first paragraph of your conclusion. What are you trying to say to whom in this moment, given their situation as a reader?

Finally, always decide the day before exactly when tomorrow you're going to write the paragraph. Then, when the appointed hour arrives, just sit down and write down what you thought you knew (and hopefully also knew you knew) the day before. Remember that your goal is to say one thing in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Work on it, struggle with it, for twenty-seven minutes. Then stop, no matter how well it went. Take a three-minute break, and then go on to the next paragraph, or the rest of your day, just as you planned.

It is this experience—that of writing down something you know at a particular time, for a particular length of time, for a particular kind of reader—that will make you a better writer. It's this experience that teaches you what writing is. There is no better advice.*

*Okay, that's probably going a bit too far. There may well be better advice. Perhaps even some that I might offer. There's certainly lots of perfectly good writing advice out there that doesn't suggest exactly this and I can't say with 100% confidence that it's "no better" than mine.

1 comment:

suna said...

feeling disobedient!