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Advice for confident everyday writing?
July 20, 2014 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for related resources (online & offline) for improving my writing skills for everyday work.

I've always wanted to improve my writing efficiency and grammar because I feel inadequate when I'd submit essays or papers for class. Now that I have some free time I think it's a good time to work on it.

I was partially inspired by this recent Mefi FFP for a quick example of the link:
"As revealed in the manual, the CIA is a prescriptivist scold, a believer in the serial comma, and a champion of “crisp and pungent” language “devoid of jargon.”


After spending too many hours online reading different forums and blogs I've come to the conclusion that my writing style feels insecure and less assertive than I want. I often use repetitive sentence structures, vocabulary, awkward grammar/phasing, and less than accurate verb tense. I prefer to use some informal extraneous fillers for example, like, so, IMHO, FWIW, some times, and I think. Yes, I can cut out the words but then it feels too blunt when I send the reply.

Most of my writing in my free time is via email correspondence or forum discussions. I'm not writing blog articles or anything for a wide audience.

Basically, I'm looking for advice to make my writing concise, assured, and clear as possible. I like reading and writing has always been my method of communicating ideas to people. I promise to use my new knowledge for good and not starting flame wars =)

I'm not particularly looking for a verbose or ornate style of writing. I do like reading verbose writers but I don't think I have enough patience or practical skill to attempt it myself for informal writing.

Also, I could send anyone a sample of my writing if I'm somehow unclear in my question if they are interested in specific examples. Thanks.

I have attended a few basic college writing courses and visited the writing center before in the past.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Education (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your question is clear, concise, and detailed. Are you really sure you're not just being hypercritical?

I do have one piece of advice that's helped me a lot, and that's that I do not write for hostile audiences. Unless you're paying or grading me, I am not going to waste my time repeating myself or responding to disingenuous nitpicking.

And there is a very vocal but I suspect relatively small subset of people who are hostile. If you start writing for those people, you find your writing clogged up with apologies and caveats and other handholding.

My favorite thing about writing is probably that you can go back and see what you said. This is a very common scenario: You write something with a qualification like "sometimes" or "I've been told," and a hostile reader will strip out that qualification and accuse you of speaking in absolutes, or of holding an opinion that you don't. So, if you're not careful, you start including extra qualifications preemptively. Long introductory paragraphs to clarify your own often irrelevant opinions, or long expositions explaining something that is already perfectly clear. And that just muddies up your argument and makes it more difficult for good faith readers to get at your point.

This can be uncomfortable at first and make you feel like you're being terse or blunt. Just look at what you've written, and if it says what you mean, leave it at that. Some people will nitpick and intentionally twist or misconstrue it, but there's not much you can do to placate those people anyway, so don't even try.

PS if this isn't clear enough, I'm not going to get snippy if you tell me that or ask me what the hell I'm going on about. It's a difficult thing to articulate and, ironically, I'm not sure I'm explaining it well, and I know I'm not doing it concisely.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:08 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]


For general inspiration toward concise writing, I still love Strunk and White. Their specific grammatical advice isn't the part to look at (much scorn is heaped on it), but instead the spirit of the "omit needless words" dictum and some of their examples. The lazy verbal habits we get into today are different from the ones they saw, but you'll be able to identify similar habits in your own writing - adding qualifications etc. So write, and then edit those things out. See how many you can remove; see if you can make a sentence stronger by making it shorter, or using a more precise verb.

For e-mails and electronic communication, your message needs to be even shorter. Most people don't read at length in email. So again, write and then go back and shorten it ruthlessly. Be sure to end your email by saying what you want the person to do, or the question you want them to answer. If possible, as a single sentence all by itself, or bullet points, so it doesn't get lost visually.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:21 AM on July 20


Check out resources on plain language.
posted by kbar1 at 12:08 PM on July 20


If your goal is writing which effectively informs or persuades a Western academic or professional audience, then I highly you recommend read this website and work through every exercise. A lot of them sound simple (okay, downright dumb), because individually a lot of them are simple, but in aggregate they formed the single best course I took in all of undergrad. [1]

For example, you mentioned that you often used "repetitive" sentence structures and vocabulary, and one of the Little Red Schoolhouse's surprising lessons is that this is a good thing. If you want to refer repeatedly to the same thing, the clearest way to do that is to repeat the same words. If you want to highlight differences between two things, the clearest way is to repeat the same sentence structure in describing both things, so that the differences stand out clearly.

[1] Well, actually, my course did not use this website, but both descend from the 1980 "Little Red Schoolhouse" lectures at the University of Chicago. Skimming over a few pages, it looks like this website reproduces pretty faithfully the content from the course I took.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:59 PM on July 20 [2 favorites]


Strunk and White leapt immediately to my mind too. It's a timeless classic. Another terrific book is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Your local library will have both of these.

This NY Times post has some writing tips and links to a number of other resources for writing well.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:43 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Your question indicates to me that you're a clear, concise, and thoughtful writer, so you're already in a good spot. You're already a better writer than 99% of the people out there.

It seems that you're looking for some kind of instruction manual, and I don't know if that exists. I do like Strunk and White, mostly because they encourage writers to be direct, omit unnecessary words, and eschew jargon. The two main things that will improve your writing are 1) practice, and 2) reading well-written stuff. Think about the topics you like reading about, and read the best writers on those topics. If you like reading about politics and culture, the writers in the New Yorker and Harper's are very good at elucidating complex subject matter with simplicity and flair. If something is worth reading about, there are almost always good writers writing about it. Find those writers in the fields that interest you and read them as often as you can.
posted by Leatherstocking at 8:34 PM on July 20


ernielundquist: "Your question is clear, concise, and detailed. Are you really sure you're not just being hypercritical?

I do have one piece of advice that's helped me a lot, and that's that I do not write for hostile audiences. Unless you're paying or grading me, I am not going to waste my time repeating myself or responding to disingenuous nitpicking.
"

Hmm--it is possible that I am overly self-conscious about my writing ability. TBH, I've become accustomed to the teacher or professor marking up my papers for future rewrites. I tend to write in a bare-bones style because I worry if I might end up adding too many ideas in one sentence.

Thanks for the advice about being more direct in my writing and you're correct that I may be thinking of too much other people's opinions.

Leatherstocking: " The two main things that will improve your writing are 1) practice, and 2) reading well-written stuff. Think about the topics you like reading about, and read the best writers on those topics. If you like reading about politics and culture, the writers in the New Yorker and Harper's are very good at elucidating complex subject matter with simplicity and flair. If something is worth reading about, there are almost always good writers writing about it. Find those writers in the fields that interest you and read them as often as you can."

When you recommend practice do you mean doing grammar or writing exercises then having it critiqued by someone else? I tend to keep a daily journal and I could practice blogging about events too. I have been reading some new non-fiction books to expand my library and Mefi is, as always, updated with well-written articles.

I worry sometimes that I might be missing the forest for the tress when I read dense writing or articles. For example, should I be taking note of any particular habits when I'm reading good writers? I like to clip eloquent quotes or paragraphs from larger works for references. Also, Pocket is a amazing tool for longer articles to read offline.

Thanks everyone else for the links and book recommendations. I will bookmark them =)
posted by chrono_rabbit at 9:58 PM on July 20


When you recommend practice do you mean doing grammar or writing exercises then having it critiqued by someone else? I tend to keep a daily journal and I could practice blogging about events too. I have been reading some new non-fiction books to expand my library and Mefi is, as always, updated with well-written articles.

I recommend nothing more complicated than reading well-written things and writing as much as possible. If you don't write regularly for work or school, blogging sounds like a great way to practice writing and express yourself. Write about whatever interests you.

It seems to me that you've got a good hold on grammar. There may be a few nitpicky grammatical things that we all could learn (none of us will ever learn them all), but I think you may be focusing too much on achieving technical perfection. You already understand the mechanics of writing very well. By writing about things that interest you, you can work on developing a style and learn how to convey complex ideas effectively and advocate for a position.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:27 AM on July 21


I was trying to remember this book yesterday, and it has now come to me: Writing with Style by John Trimble. Entertaining, while delivering great writing tips. For instance, here is Trimble's example illustrating the importance of the final serial comma:

"The prisoners in that cell included an unemployed actor, a murderer, a junkie, a man obsessed with flying saucers, an Indian millionaire with a constant craving for waffles and assorted females -- all of them coexisting in surprising harmony.

"Are the 'assorted females' among the prisoners, or are they only on the mind of the Indian millionaire? We'll never know."
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:08 PM on July 21


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