How do I better articulate myself in sustained writings ?
March 3, 2011 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I have difficulty articulating my thoughts coherently, when I write on a topic for more than 700-800 words. When I write less than that, I find writing difficult, but not as difficult. While in school, all of my papers were returned with remarks that my paper contained sentence fragments, sentences that didn't fit in with the rest of the paragraph, sentences that were their own paragraphs, and sentence fragments.

I have difficulty articulating my thoughts coherently, when I write on a topic for more than 700-800 words. When I write less than that, I find writing difficult, but not as difficult. While in school, all of my papers were returned with remarks that my paper contained sentence fragments, sentences that didn't fit in with the rest of the paragraph, sentences that were their own paragraphs, and sentence fragments.

18 months after graduating, I applied for the US Foreign Service, had taken the test, (which require to 2 essays to be written, 30 minutes max on each essay) and although I did well (enough to pass the test, hoorah!) on all other sections, I scored very poorly (2 out of a 12pt scale, 6+ is passing) on the essay writing part which "is used to evaluate each candidate’s ability to analyze a substantive topic, organize and develop ideas, and express them in correct and readable English prose. Essays are evaluated using established scoring criteria, such as ability to analyze a topic, clarity of purpose, sentence structure, grammar, and mechanics." However, this is the first time since school that I have notably been declined as a result of my poor articulation skills and I was a bit devastated.

While majoring in the humanities at a liberal arts college, writing papers was a very big struggle for me (I realize, that in general,
writing papers are not easy for most people). During my sophomore year, my professor became concerned
with my paper-writing and referred me to a guidance counselor. With the help of a counselor, I learned some techniques like reading aloud which caught some of my mistakes 'like how that sentence totally does not belong in that paragraph' . Deadlines (either arbritrary ones set by myself to finish a paper, or quit doing research by a certain time and only focus on revising, whether by a guidance counselor, or firm ones by a professor) improved my writing quality somewhat, but I would still would receive my papers back from profs with the mistakes described above and my professors would find my sentences poorly organized even though I thought they made sense.
Even during my revision process, I wouldn't finish revising everything before the last deadline and some of my papers.

I have scored well in multiple choice tests of English prose (like the grammar section of the older version of the SATs, ACTs, and 'English expression' section on the FSO test) with questions like 'Which of the following sentences (A/B/C/D/) best describes the meaning of Paragraph 1 ?' what's the meaning of this paragraph' and 'which word would best express the author's meaning'

I have written over 100 yelp reviews (although most to be shorter, I'm guessing, 400-500 words each), 10 or so blog posts (around 1,000 words, I guess) over the past year and a half in part to improve and maintain my writing skills, and dozens of cover letters (for employment), although after the FSO test, I am a bit dejected and am asking the hivemind how else I can overcome these obstacles ?

If it matters, I am a native English speaker.

(For the record, I wrote all of this in 90 minutes, I made an initial deadline of 60, but realized at 60 minutes that it wasn't enough time to finish my revisions, so I continued with 90 minutes, and force myself to turn it in, even though there may still be some mistakes in this, to display my struggles. I made a brief outline [of a phrase or so of what i was to write in each paragraph] after 15 minutes or so of free writing, quit focusing on read through my question at 45 minutes, but like I usually had done with my academic papers, if I stripped away something didn't make sense or need to be reworded, I reworded it.) These last couple sentences may not make perfect sense, but I know my first paragraphs are weaker, and need to edit them more in the 90 minutes. I skip back to the earlier parts frequently, as I write papers, because I catch mistakes later on, and see that they need to go to an earlier part of the paragraph.
posted by fizzix to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What about taking a basic writing composition course from a community college or continuing education program? I don't think practicing by writing yelp reviews is a substitute for sustained instruction specifically designed to help you learn how to organize and develop ideas, support an argument, etc.
posted by scody at 5:45 PM on March 3, 2011

I'm sure someone else will drop by later with some more concrete advice, but my first impression upon reading your question is that you use too many commas. Way, way too many. A wall of run-on sentences are hard on the eyes, and it's probably one of the reasons why you're wandering into "sentences that were their own paragraphs" territory. Perhaps try mixing shorter, clearer sentences that convey your point with the longer sentences that are probably closer to your preferred style of writing? It might create a better rhythm overall for the person reading it.
posted by misozaki at 5:50 PM on March 3, 2011

Developing an essay is all about laying out structure coherently. It sounds like you're having a hard time with that on longer pieces. I bet somebody will pop in with a specific book or class idea, but either a logic class that works on formulating arguments or a book dealing with composition might do you some good.
posted by zug at 6:02 PM on March 3, 2011

Some people are naturally better at writing than others; while writing can be less of a struggle, it may be that it's never easy for you. That's okay. Here are a couple of books that may be of assistance:

Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
posted by Dasein at 6:04 PM on March 3, 2011

Also, 702 words in this post / 90 minutes = ~7.8 words/minute. That really is quite slow.

My mind also jumped to 'learning disability' but I'm hesitant to suggest it given the stigma associated with learning issues. I know nothing about this issue, just a thought.
posted by zug at 6:06 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also - this doesn't directly answer your question, but may lead to a happier life - find a job that doesn't involve writing. While you can improve, it seems pretty clear to me that you're always going to have trouble writing. If this question took you 90 minutes, a writing-intensive job is going to be agony for you. Why not spend your life doing something that plays to your strengths?
posted by Dasein at 6:08 PM on March 3, 2011

First of all, I don't think your writing is that awful. Your last italicized paragraph does indeed have too many commas, which creates run-on sentences.

You haven't told us your age, which could be a factor. In recent years, the teaching of English and writing has declined in American schools due to budget cuts.

Further, you may have a mild form of a learning disability such as dysgraphia, which not only affects motor skills but can impact your ability to put coherent thoughts onto paper.

When writing longer non-fiction prose (not fiction, which is quite different) I'd advise you to structure and categorize your thoughts before starting to write.

As for the sentence fragment problem: you may not understand the components of a sentence. Generally you need a subject and a verb, occasionally an object. (I hope I'm not talking down to you).

Here's a tip: read your work aloud before submitting it. As a native speaker, you're familiar enough with the language that a fragment or a sentence that's out of place will sound wrong.

Hope this helps! As I said, I don't think your writing is terrible at all.
posted by SueSwift at 6:14 PM on March 3, 2011

outline [of a phrase or so of what i was to write in each paragraph]

This isn't really the best use of outlining, which is more for organizing ideas into a logical framework rather than worrying about wording or phrases. I agree with a previous poster about maybe taking a composition course to reinforce some of the most useful techniques of organizing and writing essays. The class would probably go over sentence structure and design as well, which could be helpful to you.

In the mean time, working on paring down wordiness would really help with your readability. For example:

(either arbritrary ones set by myself to finish a paper, or quit doing research by a certain time and only focus on revising, whether by a guidance counselor, or firm ones by a professor)

-- that's a list of examples of deadlines that you gave, which you don't really need to get the point of the main sentence across. The parenthetical expression by itself isn't incoherent, but it's so long that two things are happening:

1) By the time the reader finishes reading the list of examples, mentally getting back to the main thread of the sentence will be difficult

2) You've got so many elements to it that you're getting bogged down in how to structure the sentence and it comes across as awkward

Now, there's nothing wrong with long sentences; many people can write very elegant long sentences. But it's important to keep in mind that there is nothing inelegant about short sentences, and that they are often preferable. You mentioned stripping away things that didn't make sense, so you're on the right track. I think you need to be more ruthless with your editing pen to pare away even more of your wordiness. Before making a list of examples, stop and think whether your audience will know what you are talking about without them. If you decide you really need them, use only one or two. Any time you can use fewer words without losing meaning, do that.

Also, what sort of a reader are you? One of the best ways to learn to write good prose is to read good prose.
posted by frobozz at 6:23 PM on March 3, 2011

Here's a tip: read your work aloud before submitting it. As a native speaker, you're familiar enough with the language that a fragment or a sentence that's out of place will sound wrong.

Since the OP mentions that they do this already and occasionally think something sounds fine only to have it graded as out of place or wrong, I think the possibility of this being a learning disability issue is stronger.

OP, your writing is not terrible -- terrible would be unreadable or incomprehensible. That being said, I can see that even with your revisions you are struggling. I think you should be assessed for learning disabilities that may be interfering with your ability to write. I would definitely try that route before investing in even a one-off community college composition course.

Please don't let any perceived "stigma" about learning disabilities prevent you from at least investigating the issue.
posted by asciident at 6:26 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, I do about four formal presentations a year. It involves a heavy amount of reseach, a formal paper and a 20-50 slide powerpoint presentation summarazing our findings. Initially as I go through things I flag everything that stands out and either warrants further investigation or might be worth presenting to our audience. I'll then go and start stubbing in an outline. If I know that something is going in, I put it into place - even if it is a fragment of a thought or an unpolished statement. From that, I build a working outline and start filling in the easy meaty pieces. When things get tough or I loose focus, I autopilot a background, and then fill it in. Constantly, I am reading back through my notes, examining my data, and otherise making sure that everything in the final cut either is critical to the story, provides emphasis to the hypothesis, or is an absolute outlier to the data and requires explanation. From there, we write everything thoroughly. Every sentence is reread, rewritten as necessary, and reevaluated. If something isn't working, but needs to be said, it gets thrown in an appendix. We then very the whole package, confirm that everything works. I'll convert the whole thing into a slideshow, cut it back, and we'll talk about pacing, order, and confirm that the client will get it. We'll rework everything as necessary, dry run the whole thing, then test colors on the projectors it will be presented on.

Yeah, if you are just doing 800 words, outline, test for consistency, and confirm that your audience will actually understand what the heck you are saying... if they'll get stuck on it - cut it out.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:29 PM on March 3, 2011

Oh, and I just noticed this (a sentence from your question):

While in school, all of my papers were returned with remarks that my paper contained sentence fragments, sentences that didn't fit in with the rest of the paragraph, sentences that were their own paragraphs, and sentence fragments.

You've got "sentence fragments" twice. This sort of stuff can happen all the time (I know I can do it when I'm posting to metafilter) but the fact that you spent a good deal of time proofing and didn't catch it makes me wonder. Do you have problems with attention/concentration in other areas of your life?
posted by frobozz at 6:34 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Before you think about style, think about structure. 75% of good writing is really just good organization of ideas.

The first thing you need to do is outline. You think you don't need to after sixth grade or so, but it makes a world of difference. Try to do most of your thinking and argumentation at this point so you don't have to do extensive rewriting later. Account for every sentence in your outline. If it's not in the outline, it doesn't go into the paper. Be rigorous about it, even if it seems like you're forcing your ideas into this format unnaturally, until it becomes second nature. If you don't know how to structure your outline, familiarize yourself with the five-part essay, which is a pretty basic template for most essays. You probably learned the five-paragraph version to do book reports in school. In fact, that's what I'm doing right here.

When you're done writing, take a break (an hour is good, a full day is better) and then read your essay over to prepare for your second draft. Make sure you have stuck to your outline. If you see any holes in your reasoning, fix them now. Remember you are revising, not rewriting--you aren't obliged to throw in every new idea you have about your subject. Just make sure that the ideas you do choose to express are fully formed.

Finally, proofread. To proofread, make sure every sentence has a subject and a verb (and an object, if necessary). Make sure you don't have any comma splices. Make sure you don't have any dangling modifiers. (Reading aloud is a good way to catch these two very common errors.) Check your spelling, and you're done. Put your pencil down and walk away.

Yes, walk away. Make peace with your writing and let it go out into the world. Even the best writers can edit themselves into a death spiral. Don't do this. Trust your outline. Stick to your outline. Love the outline. An outline, a second draft, and a good, basic proofreading should get you through most of the writing a nonprofessional writer will need to do.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:35 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thanks for all the responses.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in high school, I am currently under treatment for it.

frobozz: "
Also, what sort of a reader are you? One of the best ways to learn to write good prose is to read good prose.

I'd like to believe that I'm relatively well-read (for example, I read the NYT on a daily basis) and I'm on metafilter more than what my comments lead on.
posted by fizzix at 6:54 PM on March 3, 2011

There is no shame in asking other people to read drafts and give you feedback. I agree with others who say this question is not terribly written. It does have some of the problems you mention (sentence fragments, repetitiveness, a bit of a disorganised structure), but it gets your point across. If the stakes were higher than a metafilter question, you could have gone to a friend or colleague and asked them to read it and give you tips.

I find I get the best feedback on written work if I am very specific in what I ask my reader to focus on. E.g. "Would you mind proof-reading this for typos", vs "I don't think the structure of this piece is good. Can you read it through and give me ideas for reorganising it?" Ideally only ask for one focus like this per reader per read, otherwise he/she may get distracted from your main needs.

Unfortunately writing under exam conditions doesn't permit this sort of outsider revision (although they might if you were diagnosed with a learning disability!). But it is rare that your writing will have to be done under exam conditions, thankfully.

One final tip (that again doesn't work well under exam conditions) is to set a piece of writing aside for a day or longer until you have forgotten what you wrote, and then revise it with a fresh eye. It's much easier to catch errors that way; otherwise you just see what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.
posted by lollusc at 7:02 PM on March 3, 2011

ADHD could be part of it, particularly if you don't enjoy writing you might not be able to maintain focus consistently.

Do you feel more coherent when you speak aloud than when you write?

BTW for the shorter snippets (where you feel coherent) how long does it take you to write them? That might be the length of time you are able to maintain focus.

Maybe you can do a mind map of sorts and write under each topic for that amount of time, then tie it together?

To be honest outlining the traditional way never worked well for me. I'd do a brain dump on a sheet of paper and work from that.
posted by mbird at 7:21 PM on March 3, 2011

It might help eliminate runons if you temporarily (maybe in another file, or a printed copy) delete commas and conjunctions to make very short sentences. It might be easier that way to concentrate on the meaning of each individual sentence and see which sentences 'relate' and should therefore be combined with conjunctions. It can also help you clarify what you're referring to for yourself and your reader. I noticed that several times you use pronouns vaguely, as if by the time you get to the end of a sentence, you've forgotten exactly what subject you were referring to at the beginning.

Example based on your last two sentences:

These last couple sentences may not make perfect sense. [This sentence is about "last sentences", but next sentence is about "first paragraphs"; should these subjects be part of the same sentence?] I know my first paragraphs are weaker. I need to edit them more in the 90 minutes. [What does "them" refer to? The "last sentences" or "first paragraphs"? It's not clear in the original, but re-editing will clarify your meaning to either "these last sentences may not make sense because I need to edit them more" or "my first paragraphs are weaker because i need to edit them more". Or maybe you mean "I need to edit both the last sentences and first paragraphs more". My point is that "them" combined with a runon leaves lots of room for interpretation.]

I skip back to the earlier parts frequently. I write papers. [The first two sentences depend on each other to convey your meaning; they can't be separated: "I skip back to the earlier parts frequently as I write papers."] I catch mistakes later on. [You started talking about "skipping back", and moved on to "catching mistakes", so 2 different thoughts = 2 different sentences] I see that they need to go to an earlier part of the paragraph. [What does "they" refer to? I'm not actually sure, because if you're referring to "mistakes", the last sentence would mean, "I see that mistakes need to go to an earlier part of the paragraph", which I'm sure is not what's meant. Do you mean, "I see that I need to go to an earlier part of the paragraph to correct them (mistakes)"?]

My second suggestion is to try reading your papers aloud backwards (by sentence, not by word). That sometimes helps me isolate sentences. It also forces me to read what I've actually written instead of what I meant to have written.
posted by lesli212 at 7:23 PM on March 3, 2011

Don't pack so many ideas into a single sentence. Write shorter, simpler sentences. Don't be afraid of shortness and simplicity and directness. These are good qualities for a sentence to have.

Stop using parentheticals. I'm not generally against parentheticals, but you use so many of them that they seem to encourage you to write in a loose, disorganized style. They're an excuse for not writing more crisply and coherently.

By the time I get to the end of one of your sentences, I've often forgotten where the sentence was supposed to be going. If you want to read a good book about how to write and especially how to structure your sentences, try Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct or Joseph M. Williams' Style (recommended above).

There are some basics you need to clean up. Line breaks do not belong in the middle of a paragraph. If they do show up in the middle of a paragraph for some reason, take the time to go back and delete them. There is never a space immediately before a question mark. And so on.

I'm not qualified to say if you have a learning disability, but I wouldn't be surprised. I hope you read one of the writing guides that's been recommended, and I hope it gives you some help, but I don't think your issue is that you just don't know the rules.

For instance, in this old question, your title is, "How I understand music reviews better and explain it to others ?" It should be, "How do I..." But you clearly know this, since you use "How do I" in the first sentence of the question and in the title of this post. In the last sentence of that question, you used "than" when you should have written "other than," but I'm pretty sure you, as a native speaker, know the difference between "than" and "other than."

You sometimes mix up verb tenses. Stop and think about whether the tense you're using is appropriate and consistent: are you writing about the past, present, or future? For instance, you say you "had taken the test, (which require to 2 essays to be written..." You're talking about something in the past, and you correctly use past tense with "had taken the test," but then you should use "required," not "require." Also, the first "to" (right before "2") is out of place.

If you try reading the following out loud right now, do you immediately notice anything wrong with it? "I have written over 100 yelp reviews (although most to be shorter, I'm guessing, 400-500 words each)..."

I don't understand what that parenthetical is trying to say, since the phrase "although most to be shorter" doesn't make sense to me. "Shorter" than what? How would you say this out loud if you were talking to a friend? I'm pretty sure you wouldn't say, "I have written over 100 yelp reviews although most to be shorter I'm guessing 400 to 500 words each." That's not how people talk.

Just an idea: try first thinking about how you would say what you want to say if you were talking, and then try to capture that in text. But again, I think it's quite possible you have a learning disability, and if so, I'm not at all qualified to diagnose it.
posted by John Cohen at 7:27 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

How much did you work with the guidance counselor? If that was an on-going relationship for a year or more then quick advice on the Internet is unlikely to make much of a difference.

Given that, I strongly recommend that you find a career that plays to your strengths as well as your interests. You will be far happier and more successful in life. You might want to look for a career counselor that can give you some testing to help identify your strengths and the careers that might match your abilities.

Since you still need to do some writing in your life and most jobs, one idea would be check out your community college. Many community colleges teach an English class for students who are not prepared to do college level writing. This might help you with the basics that you are still struggling with.
posted by metahawk at 8:36 PM on March 3, 2011

FWIW I have no idea if your struggles are related to ADHD or to something else, but just in case it's something else: there's no shame in having a learning disability. I have dyscalculia to the point I can't read an analogue clock, or dial a long-distance phone number or enter a credit card number without either help or a mighty battle. I managed to put together a reasonable approximation of a life by a) knowing that, b) getting a lot of support, c) developing tricks and hacks to help me do the things I regularly need to do to navigate the world.

There are basically no unsolved problems; few of us are the first people to face issues like this. Getting an assessment that leads to a diagnosis might open up a whole new world of tools and options to you. Something like working with a remedial writing specialist and learning to use speech to text software might work for you - I have no idea what the toolset for your particular problem area might look like, but I am pretty sure there is one once you can ID it specifically. Finding it can make a significant difference.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:01 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

First, if it makes you feel better, I'm a really skilled writer and I absolutely bombed/failed the writing portion of my GREs (and I thought I did a GREAT job). It shook me for a long while, and all my writing around that time was pretty lousy. These things have a way of perpetuating themselves.

I used to tutor a woman who spent her whole life being held back in school and told that her writing was very sub-par. She had beautiful ideas and was fairly good at conveying them in writing, much more so in speech. Her first essasy we revised together was about her lifelong struggles with writing. As a linguist, I noticed immediately how the topic and her emotional connection were tied to the quality of the writing. Portions of the text where she was expressing her failures, shame or punishment about bad writing and its consequences were riddled with errors, improper use of simple structures, trail-offs, etc. But the parts where she called upon her support, spoke highly of herself or others, and shared her successes...that's where it all came back together again. It was amazing to witness. I showed her that, and we spent much of our time working through the emotional attachment to the work. After that, it was easy to go back through and pick out the grammar mistakes.

I do see some repeating patterns of struggle in your writing, at many levels of linguistic structure. Your writing is coherent and the meaning comes across just fine. You're clearly capable of expressing ideas, writing complex sentences, using words properly, being insightful about your own work, etc. Maybe you get swamped and aren't realising it, glossing over on your rereads and maxing out on processing when it all becomes a bit much?

Either way, these may have to learn to master them one by one. So, spend a week really understanding subject-verb agreement and how it works. Only focus on that, looking back through your writing and attuning to it carefully in your current and future writings. When you have that one dialed, move onto understanding what a clause is, or how you use commas, whatever. But one thing at a time. It'll take a while, but you'll get there without trying to hold onto and fix 10 things at once = overwhelming!

I think a lot of this is about getting to know yourself, getting to know your writing (are you a person who uses and abuses parenthesis? I am! What about your other tendencies?). And then, most importantly, it's also about untangling and embracing the years of emotional baggage that's all wrapped up in this. So, half head, mostly heart. Good luck. And a big hug. Carry on.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:45 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

One thing at a time. As iamkimiam suggests, start with sentences and go from there.

You'll find a ton of helpful composition resources at Purdue's OWL. (Subject-Verb agreement and a whole bunch more about sentences.).

Good luck!
posted by notyou at 7:40 AM on March 4, 2011

Keep in mind that there is a ton of misinformation out there (and in this thread) about writing. People who sound authoritative when talking about it are often very, very wrong. Many of us will characterize the writing of others as illogical or unorganized or ungrammatical in an attempt to feel more logical and organized and grammatical ourselves. Many teachers and guidance counselors do this. Don't listen to them (or me). People will offload their insecurities onto you if you let them.

My advice to you is to keep writing. Keep doing your Yelp reviews, keep reading the times, keep sharing your work with people and getting feedback.

You write: "I have written over 100 yelp reviews (although most to be shorter, I'm guessing, 400-500 words each), 10 or so blog posts (around 1,000 words, I guess) over the past year and a half in part to improve and maintain my writing skills, and dozens of cover letters (for employment), although after the FSO test, I am a bit dejected and am asking the hivemind how else I can overcome these obstacles ?"

Many would characterize this as a run-on sentence but it is not. It is a great sentence. You left out the word "tend" between "most" and "to" but we all do stuff like that all the time.

Once you figure out what writing community or communities you want to be part, you will begin to learn the conventions of those communities. It usually takes a few years. Be patient. Don't listen to the cranks. Don't listen to people's grammar advice. It is one of those topics where people say the most dubious things in the most authoritative voices.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 7:47 AM on March 4, 2011

Don't listen to people's grammar advice.

This is bad advice. In other words, do listen to grammar advice. Is some of it wrong? Sure. Any field of human knowledge is going to include some supposed experts giving bad advice. So you have to think for yourself. Good grammar and good writing are open to judgment and taste; no one authority has a monopoly. I don't agree with every single little point in Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, but if you read that book and think about what it says, you're probably going to end up a better writer. (It doesn't have to be that book -- as I said, there's no one authority. But I recommend reading at least one of the books that's been recommended in this thread.) Saying that someone who is struggling with writing should ignore all grammar advice is something you're saying for your own ideological reasons, which aren't going to be that helpful to the OP in his specific situation.
posted by John Cohen at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2011

My two cents are worth considerably less than that; my job does involve written communication but not of the sort probably demanded by the US Foreign Service. I studied Engineering at university so I had no real written communication training.

But here it goes. I partially agree with Jagz-Mario: you, like everyone, have a distinct style of writing, a "voice", and you need to avoid losing. However, John Cohen is also right in saying that there are certain rules of grammar and ways of structuring writing that are invariant with your "voice" - you simply must adhere to some rules in order to effectively and efficiently get your point across to others.

I can understand everything you write. It is clear you are intelligent and thoughtful, and I imagine your Yelp reviews, blog posts, and employment cover letters show this as well. However, what was probably different about the US Foreign Service tests, and the experience of having to communicate in a real-world place of business, is that effective communication doesn't come naturally. I found the CIA's Analysis Thinking and Presentation for Intellgience handbook invaluable during university and now at work.

Page 10 of this guide book really hit home for me - if you can't summarise a intelligence briefing / engineering email / forum post into a short title and a one sentence thesis, you are not ready to write about it. And page 18: try laying out your paragraphs in an "inverted" format. Each paragraph starts with a core assertion, and is followed by supporting evidence in decreasing importance. Paragraphs themselves are ordered in importance to their contribution to your title and one-sentence thesis. That way, if someone is too busy to finish reading your email / report (extremely likely in the real world) they can get a good "gist" from a few paragraphs.

I have absolutely nothing to add about creative, non-business-oriented writing! But I hope my two cents helps.
posted by asymptotic at 8:24 AM on March 4, 2011

sorry for the derail but asymptomatic's advice is not related to my own, even though he phrases it as such: "I partially agree with Jagz-Mario: you, like everyone, have a distinct style of writing, a "voice", and you need to avoid losing." I wouldn't suggest that you stay true to your voice.

My advice is much different: Learn the conventions of your chosen community through constant, daily interacation/negotiation with them.

posted by Jagz-Mario at 9:31 AM on March 4, 2011

Thanks again for all of the helpful responses.

Do you feel more coherent when you speak aloud than when you write?
I don't.

After reading my question over just now, I want to clarify that I didn't review some portions of my question including most of my last paragraph (in italics) before I posted it. I set a firm 90 deadline (otherwise, I would have continued to edit it for another hour) and I was still editing my question at the deadline (finding sentences that rephrasing things that I didn't think were clear or belonged in a different paragraph, etc).

-- that's a list of examples of deadlines that you gave, which you don't really need to get the point of the main sentence across
Interesting. After rereading my question a few minutes ago [when I began crafting this response, 11 minutes ago], I didn't find that portion in parenthesis as verbose. Upon rereading it, however, I found a few grammatical mistakes and rewrote it at the end of this comment. After reading your response, I thought my portion in parenthesis was necessary to help the reader understand more clearly what types of deadlines I've experimented with.

Deadlines (either arbitrary ones, set by myself or a guidance counselor to finish a paper and/or quit to doing research and only focus on revising, or firm ones by a professor)
posted by fizzix at 11:22 AM on March 4, 2011

There is a lot of useful information in this thread, but what stands out to me is the issue of editing. As others have mentioned, very few people write perfect, elegant prose in a first draft. Those few people who do manage to produce beautiful prose probably do so because they can edit in their heads as they go; they can anticipate errors before they even make them. For us mortals, though, rigorous editing after the first draft is the ticket to success.

Several posters have advised you to edit your work. Some have suggested strategies (reading out loud, reading backwards, etc.). But all of these strategies assume two things: a) that you can easily identify grammatical errors by simply reading your work, and b) that editing is best done holistically. For some, these assumptions may be true; for others--particularly those who have trouble with writing--these assumptions aren't terribly helpful.

You say in your last comment that you spotted some of your grammatical errors. What are those "grammatical mistakes?" Some are easy to spot, like improper conjugation, omitted words, etc. But the systemic structural issues in your writing are the real culprit here, and no amount of mere "proofreading" will train you to write more effectively.

You might find it more helpful to take a "divide and conquer" approach to your editing. You already know that you have problems with comma splices, sentence fragments, and ambiguous pronoun references. (I won't get into the thorny issue of run-on sentences because, of course, a run-on is not simply a long sentence, but rather a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are fused without punctuation. But I digress.) SO, rather than scanning your writing in the hopes that you might stumble across one of these errors, edit your work assuming you have already made these errors! I realize that sounds pessimistic and positively un-American (joke!), but I found that it really helped my own writing progress. Familiarize yourself with the applicable grammatical rules. Be methodical and go through your writing error-by-error. Begin with sentence fragments. Do all of your sentences contain a subject and a conjugated verb? If you find one that doesn't, fix it! Then move on to comma splices. Interrogate EVERY SINGLE COMMA YOU USE. Are any of these commas placed between two independent clauses? If so, revise the sentence. And so on, ad infinitum.

At first you will be bored, frustrated, and your soul will feel like it's slowly disintegrating. Certainly, this approach won't immediately help you write faster. But, if you do this every time you write, you might find that you will be able to anticipate your own errors, thus avoiding them from the outset and improving the accuracy of your first and second drafts. In this method you are forced to come to terms with your bad grammatical habits (and we all have them). Be the editing automaton! Brainwash yourself to success!

posted by oohisay at 3:37 PM on March 4, 2011

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