I want to be smart so I can write clever Askme Headlines
January 28, 2009 1:45 PM   Subscribe

What are some easy, relatively quick ways to learn to write better, think clearer, and express myself better?

There are a thousand reasons that I'd like to learn more about everything, not that anyone should need a reason to want that. Basically, when I'm writing on Mefi or on my blog, I keep finding myself grasping for words to express myself and coming up short. I know my grammer stinks as well. I want books, movies, and other means and mediums by which I can raise my intelligence quota a little. I'm interested in not just learning to write better, but learning to think clearer, argue my beliefs and values better, and feel more enlightened all-around. Extra points for pointing the way to free and/or 'fun' (ie: Nintendo DS games) paths to enlightenment.
posted by Bageena to Education (24 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Focus on reading, and the writing will come naturally.

I'd recommend starting this by reading a major daily newspaper every day (like the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal). It's probably best for you to read the printed version (not online), so that you're exposed to things you might otherwise skip.

The Opinion & Editorial pages would be especially worthy of your attention, given that a typical column is an argument, buttressed by evidence and rhetoric, constrained by a word limit.

You might also want to spend time on the crossword puzzles to further develop your brain's linkages between words and meaning.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:55 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should probably add that I'm 27, I did graduate High School (where I excelled at English and ate a fat one when it came to Math), but have never gone to or taken any college courses.
posted by Bageena at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2009

On Writing Well by William Zinsser will improve your writing. To improve your vocabulary and mastery of grammar read more.
posted by caddis at 1:58 PM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I just noticed that I misspelt grammar. *sigh*
posted by Bageena at 2:02 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

In terms of better writing, I like this short blog post by Scott Adams.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:03 PM on January 28, 2009

"Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell, taught me how to write. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," by Mark Twain, taught me how not to write.
posted by grumblebee at 2:07 PM on January 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Here's an idea I just made up, based on not really anything, but makes some sense to me.

Pick a short article or piece of writing that you really like, which exemplifies the type of writing you'd like to do. Read it a few times, paying close attention to the content. Then put it aside and try to rewrite it. I'm sure you'll find there's a piece of content you know is in there that you want to put on paper, but just won't quite be able to as well as you know the author did. After you struggle for a bit, look over at the original and the particular way the author expressed the idea you're trying to capture will really jump out at you, hopefully implanting in your mind for you to use in the future.

To be honest, I haven't tried this. I got the idea because this is how I really learned proofs in math. I could read a proof and line by line go, "Ah, yes, that makes sense." But then when I was through it, I'd try to recreate it, and get stuck on things. After struggling for a bit, I'd look over at the original proof, see how it was done, and have a real "Aha!" moment, which would solidify in my mind that step.
posted by losvedir at 2:12 PM on January 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

losvedir, no less a historical luminary than Benjamin Franklin himself used your method to improve his writing:

"About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by for a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. I then compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them. "

(from his autobiography, text grabbed from here.)
posted by fermion at 2:55 PM on January 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

There aren't any quick and easy ways. The way to improve is the same as how you improve anything that's difficult: practice, practice, practice.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:31 PM on January 28, 2009

That's fascinating, fermion!
posted by Pomo at 3:32 PM on January 28, 2009

Oh, and to try to actually be helpful and relevant...

I find that I naturally tend to imitate whatever style of writing I've most recently been reading. When I was doing papers in university, I would find the style of certain magazine article authors, bloggers, or fiction writers creeping into my work, for better or for worse.

I sort of liken it to how some people seem to absorb spoken accents without even realizing it.

So, in short...keep reading material that is well-written and of a style you admire!
posted by Pomo at 3:34 PM on January 28, 2009

This thread might be helpful. My answer in it is the same thing I would say to you.
posted by Nattie at 3:57 PM on January 28, 2009

Best answer: One of the qualities the writers I admire most have in common is a sense of spareness in their writing. In a delicious cosmic irony, it was Faulkner who said "kill your darlings." I think about this constantly.

I organize my thoughts through writing, not generally beforehand. This often leads to ornate, imprecise prose. I am BAD/indulgent with this in non-fiction writing, but I've got a more defined process for the more literary writing:

In my creative work, this means I exercise it all in one go and allow myself a lot of flowery bullshit. Then I take about a month, more if I can help it, to let it get real ripe and purple. When I return to it, I open a duplicate file and hack every extraneous word away from it. I keep two (or more) versions so I don't mourn the loss of anything I've cut, but I almost never rescue anything from an older draft.

Remember Nabokov's brevity: "(picnic, lightning)."

When I edit, I am constantly asking myself "What is important here?" Yesterday, I reduced 1000+ words down to this:
If I ever mention Carver, he’ll correct me mid-sentence.
“Lish,” he’ll say.

I tell myself this: don’t forget the way you would grow to hate him.
Then I decided to get rid of it all together. He might be the best one to read to appreciate the richness of simplicity.
posted by snizz at 4:11 PM on January 28, 2009 [5 favorites]

There was a notable author who taught himself to write by copying Dickens longhand. Wouldn't recommend that tack myself, though.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:55 PM on January 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, your post is well written and clear.

When I write I like to use short sentences. I try to use one idea per sentence to avoid writing a convoluted mess. While my professors thought this was too simplistic I like this style. I've always held the opinion that in order to really understand something you should be able to break it down into parts small enough that a 10 year old can understand. Just break your ideas down into clear, crisp sentences and write them down one at a time.
posted by valadil at 5:11 PM on January 28, 2009

Find books that match the sort of style you're looking to write in. Read them often.

I'm writing a novel right now and I've found it immensely helpful to spend my downtime immersing myself in books written in the way that I want to write. At the very least, it'll help with vocabulary and grammar.
posted by HonorShadow at 5:42 PM on January 28, 2009

I teach persuasive writing to law students. There are two ways of appearing "smart." First, you can write something so complex, obscure, and abstract that no one can refute your bullshit. Second, you can write simply, clearly and directly. If you have something interesting and true to say, then the second method is better. On the other hand, if you are forced to say something boring or false, then pick the first method (and then change your life).

When I write (and particularly when I edit) I don't feel smart. I feel pretty stupid. All my ideas are brilliant, of course, before I have to write them down. Then, when they are on the page, they are usually pillowed in excess verbiage, cliche, and random writer's tics. Once I strip those away with successive edits . . . well, sometimes the idea just wasn't any good at all.

Maybe that's why I have so few Metafilter comments.

Anyway, if you are ready to feel stupid so that you can write something true and interesting, I have a few suggestions:

1) You should be able to easily identify the subject, verb, and direct object (if present) in every sentence you write.

2) Your subject should be concrete ("Metafilter") not abstract ("conceiving")

3) You should eliminate all passive voice.

If you do these things, you and your readers will know when you have a good idea.

A cheap resource is Strunk and White, which you can find in almost any used bookshop near any college or university.

Finally, I edited this comment, like, eight times, and I still think it sucks in large part.
posted by ferdydurke at 6:21 PM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Deeply, deeply internalize this:




etc., etc.

I'm not kidding.
posted by Toecutter at 6:52 PM on January 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

A couple thoughts I've happened across, from writers I respect: Hunter Thompson spoke of being young, getting a feel for writing by opening books to passages he liked, setting 'em by the typewriter and typing them out. Joyce Carol Oates has talked of the value of editing, editing, editing. If someone with her ability improves her writing through rigorous editing, good enough for me.

Sure, that speaks to writing more than thinking, but they are interconnected. Me thinks that if you become accustomed to editing and/or somehow get a feel for the work of writers you respect, some of that transfers into the thought process.
posted by ambient2 at 12:08 AM on January 29, 2009

Tell a story with your writing. It's amazing how much technical writing is so poorly written.

Always strive to keep a sense of mystery in your writing - each paragraph should be about a problem and the steps that were taken to finding the solution. As the science shelves of your nearest bookstore can tell you, even the seemingly dullest of scientific minutiae can be made interesting in the right hands. It's certainly interesting to the scientists involved.

Try to put things chronologically - even when you're writing about technical matters. The fact of the matter is, at some point everything mankind's world was created, discovered or solved, and it's that bit of mystery that drives good writing.

At every step of the way, convey the (1) mystery or problem to be solved, (2) the intense desire of the person to reach that goal and (3) the problems that stand in their way.

Watch some good documentaries (just flip to the documentary channels) to see how this is done. James Burke's "Connections" (the first series especially) is good at putting a narrative around ordinary items that makes them seem exciting. Think about what's *not* being told to the audience to keep them in suspense. Plenty of documentaries put these questions to you just before the commercial to keep you hooked.

Consider these two statements:

"In 1492, backed by the Spanish government, Christopher Columbus set sail to find a trade route to India, but landed instead on what would become know as America."

"In 1633 Galileo was convicted of heresy for proposing that the Earth rotated round the Sun. Yet 150 years earlier, Christopher Columbus set out to sail west around what he believed to be a round planet in order to discover the easternmost port in existence, in India. His own government refused to back him in such a foolhardy venture, and he was forced to go to Spain, who had the foresight to realize that if they could find a faster way to India, they would gain considerable advantage in commerce. Imagine his surprise when, upon setting sail in 1492, he didn't discover a faster trade route to India - he discovered a new continent."
posted by Muffy at 10:55 AM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


For me, the word "edit" doesn't fully evoke the level of change that "rewrite" does.

Take something you wrote a while ago. Read it with new eyes.

Put it away, somewhere where you can't see it.

Now, write it again.

A month or two later, take them both, read them as if they were new, compare them.

Put them away, or don't, but write it again.

Write it a dozen times.
posted by kristi at 11:00 AM on January 29, 2009

Previously, and here, and here too.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:28 PM on January 29, 2009

Because you mentioned a desire to improve your grammar and also requested easy/free/fun mediums to learn this material, I highly suggest you listen to the podcast "Grammar Girl"; these are humorous podcasts that explain basic grammar and common grammar mistakes within minutes. Give it a try, you can download it on and ipod and play it when you have 10 minutes of time.
posted by Wolfster at 8:34 AM on February 1, 2009

You should consider combining Toecutter's and snizz's answers above. First, start out by writing organized, structured notes. Then, start writing -- as you try to find the clearest ways of communicating with your reader, you will find that you have to work out details in previously fuzzy parts of your thinking. Through an iterative process of organizing, writing, and thinking, you will find that clear communication arises naturally from clear thinking.

Limitations of short-term memory make it difficult to hold too many ideas in your mind at any given time. For complex concepts that require multi-part reasoning, it is helpful to reduce the load on your memory by getting your ideas down on paper (or on screen, as it were).

Also, you might be interested in this PDF presentation on "How to Write More Clearly, Think More Clearly, and Learn Complex Material More Easily." The advice here is somewhat general, but it's still a good read.
posted by tickingclock at 3:55 AM on February 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

« Older I don't want Word to always be on top   |   Video editing for a ten year old? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.