just good not good enough
April 26, 2011 2:23 PM   Subscribe

How can I advance from a pretty good writer to really good writer?

I am a good enough writer. It's become clear lately, though, that my writing is weaker than my research & synthesis skills. I'm good at gathering information, analyzing it, and coming up with ideas ... but not as good when it comes to writing it down as clearly as possible. (By way of proof, I always got great grades on in-class exams in law school, but lower grades on takehomes, which makes me think that I'm comparatively better at quick analysis and recall than I am at writing.)

Are there any tricks to get better, other than practice? (And in fact practice might not be enough, because whatever I write is usually good enough to get by, so it's hard to get better that way alone.)
posted by yarly to Work & Money (27 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Although I write in a different field, the thing that has helped me the most is to read things similar to what I am writing. Lots and lots of reading. I find it helps to note when I think something is particularly well-worded and try to figure out why. Then I try to emulate those techniques myself.
posted by chatongriffes at 2:28 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a fellow good-enough writer, I would advise:

1. Writing more. Like, as much as you can stand. AKA practice.

2. Make friends or at least acquaintances with other writers who can read your writing and offer criticism and strategies for improvement. (In school, these are called "teachers.")

A possible third option is to study good writing and attempt to emulate it.

Good luck.
posted by honkeoki at 2:32 PM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Believe it or not, I improved my writing by buying a basic college grammar book and reading it cover to cover and doing the exercises. It really helped a lot. Also, working under excellent writers who critiqued my work helped immensely. See if you can find someone who you think is an excellent writer to critique your work.
posted by bananafish at 2:33 PM on April 26, 2011

Young Ben Franklin, in his quest to become a better writer, would read and then rewrite articles and essays. He would compare his version with the original to see the differences between his style and the original authors' style, and slowly improved his language and clarity.
posted by pluot at 2:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

Strongly suggest you read a tiny book called "The Elements of Style" by Strunk. Does wonders for clarifying and improving your writing. Reading books is good for fiction. Non- fiction should strive for clarity and make it easy for the reader to absorb what you are saying with minimal effort. That involves structuring on your part so that ideas flow naturally.
posted by PickeringPete at 2:58 PM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

posted by Sebmojo at 3:02 PM on April 26, 2011

Good writing isn't about writing, it's about editing. When you've finished your first draft you've only prepared the ground to start the real work. Edit, edit then edit again. Don't try to impress anyone with your cleverness sentence by sentence, just make your points as clearly and economically as you can overall. Remove every word you don't need. If you're not sure whether you need it or not, you don't. Never use a long word when a short one will do. Use shorter sentences most, but not all, the time. When you're totally sick of it, put it away for a day then do one last polish. It's like working with wood, those few extra moments it takes to sand off the edges and corners, even the ones nobody will ever see, not only make the raw materials much easier for you to work with today, but leave the finished piece a joy to handle for everyone tomorrow. Someone with no knowledge or interest in the subject should still find your work pleasurable to read. If they don't, you're doing it wrong.
posted by joannemullen at 3:07 PM on April 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

For legal writing, two words: Bryan. Garner.
posted by Hylas at 3:08 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Recommending style guides like Strunk & White and Bryan Garner's books are like recommending a wax job on a car. They put the polish on the machine. They don't really help you build it.

My advice echoes some given above: Read. Read well. Read just above your level. Read so much that you seem always to be reading. Read the best kind of writing you enjoy. Read instead of watching television, playing video games. When you're tired of reading, write. Write anything. Write at length. Write until your hands are tired. Then take a break from writing by reading.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:14 PM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It's not for legal writing, but I highly recommend a book about nonfiction writing called 'Thinking Like Your Editor,' by Susan Rabiner. Especially if you're the kind of person who likes a little theory to give meaning and direction to your practice. But, nthing all the people who said practice!

Also, along the lines of the Ben Franklin suggestion, it can be very helpful to find specific pieces of writing that you admire that are structurally similar to what you hope to write (for example, if you were trying to write a profile of an interesting person—not that you are—you might read good magazines and find a profile of a person that you like. I don't know what the legal-writing analogy would be. But find this piece you admire, Xerox it, sit down with highlighters and pens, and really pay attention to how it's put together. Working backwards from the finished piece, make an outline of it. How did the writer move from topic to topic? How much space did they spend on each thing? Where are the thesis statements, how does the argument unfold or the subject get developed? Then try to structure your piece similarly.

I had a writing mentor who recommended that method for nonfiction and I've really found it to be invaluable at certain points.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 3:27 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Rewriting is very useful, but I like to read my work aloud. If my points are lost or my structure is feeble, I'll hear it--when I read it silently, it's too easy to mentally fill in words that I didn't actually write.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:18 PM on April 26, 2011

What Mo Nickels said. But be sure that what you're reading is good writing. Seek out authors in your field that are known for their clarity and ability to describe complex concepts succinctly. Read magazines known for their good writing (The New Yorker, The Atlantic etc.).
posted by smokingmonkey at 4:30 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Work on brevity. I hate reading a 300 page book that could have been said eloquently in 50 pages. That kind of fluffy writing is a pain to go through. Say what you mean using as few words as possible. That means that every word will count, and will be the best possible word for that sentence. That means that most words are going to be doing double or triple duty, communicating more than one thing. You have to think of not only the definition, but the connotations, the sound of the word in the sentence (like you're writing poetry, alliteration, rhythm, etc), and the implications of the word.

Many great writers are famous for the care they took to write with concision. You've heard the famous quote "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter" (First said by Blaise Pascal, but probably echoed by many others including Mark Twain). Hemingway, famous for his use of iceberg theory writing, was praised for his understanding of how to "get the most from the least, how to prune language, how to multiply intensities and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth." *

Probably the best thing you can do is to study the mechanics of poetry like a zealot. That will teach you brevity and attention to details of words. Read things like A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver. The sort of intro to poetry that talks about how poetry really works.

Also focus on the big picture and use the smallest words possible to communicate that. I have a degree in theology and learned tons of words like "infralapsarian," "intertextuality," "eisegesis," and "ecclesiolatry:" but the best theology is not ever written above a 3rd grade reading level. Understand what you're saying, and then say it in the simplest way possible. Don't try to sound smart, that is annoying, confusing, and it's not good writing.
posted by brenton at 4:49 PM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Think of your first draft as the big rough rock you just hauled from the quarry. Start chipping at it--rewriting and editing and condensing--until it's as small and smooth as you can make it without losing the image you want people to see.

And never forget--I think I'm quoting Strunk and White accurately from memory decades after I last read "Elements of Style": "Omit needless words."
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:01 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

The way to become a really good writer is basically as follows:

1) Be born with some talent. You don't have to be the next Nabokov but as with any skill there will be some people with more potential than others.
2) Write a few hundred thousand words. Then write a few hundred thousand more. Repeat as needed. It is also help to find someone who can give you useful critiques of your work.

There may be things in addition to practice which will improve your writing. Like reading good writers for some people. But there is no way to get around the writing, writing, writing. It's like asking if there is a trick for becoming a major league pitcher besides practice.
posted by Justinian at 5:09 PM on April 26, 2011

I'm gonna quote from my response to a previous question about improving one's writing:

I once had the chance to interview Allen Ginsberg, and when I asked him at the end for last advice to young writers, he didn't hesitate before saying one word:


posted by mediareport at 7:34 PM on April 26, 2011

Read and *work through* the lessons in 'Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace' by Joseph M. Williams, which directly focuses on clarity & grace, not just 'writing well'. It's a clear guide that breaks down what makes things flow, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel by analyzing good writing yourself (though it's nice to do that as well). After that, practice. I wouldn't necessarily listen to what random people on the internet tell you about this, you know? I mean, I may just be possessive as a Writing Center tutor... but you must have a Writing Center in your school. Use it. That's what it's for.
posted by reenka at 8:25 PM on April 26, 2011

What type of writing are you looking to improve upon? I can give you some of the exercises my professor has encouraged me to develop in my current research class, but it may be somewhat limited to academic history writing and not, say, creative fiction. (Or a legal brief! Yikes!) I'm not a gifted writer, but I am a fairly strong one. Here's what's helped me this semester:

-Read lots of books and articles for your field. Notice the techniques your favorite authors use, and pay attention to how you respond as a reader. How does the author get you as a reader to pay attention to the thesis statement, to the argument, to the significance? What works, and what doesn't? What separates the 'just good' writers from the amazing writers? Look for big cues like "this paper will argue..." but also little ones, like sentence length and paragraph transitions. Then read more.

-Make every word and sentence a deliberate choice. An anecdote may help here: my professors routinely nail us grad students for passive voice in our papers, as in, "Bob was chastised for his decision." Bob was chastised by who? Did I, as the writer, make a choice to leave that sentence ambiguous, or was I just being lazy? Almost every time it's because I'm being lazy. Know the grammar and style rules for your discipline inside and out so you don't make careless mistakes; then, when you do break a rule, it sends a giant signal to the reader that "this is important." It seems silly, but readers pick up on more subtle cues than you'd expect.

-Stylistically, practice using imagery to make an argument. Not just colorful images and word choices for the hell of it, but to help you make an argument about something. (Jim wasn't just "sad," he was "devastated.") Good writing makes the argument clear, but great writing takes the time to tell a story that supports argument. Even in an unimportant one-off paper, taking the time to add a little flavor goes a long way. Just make sure it serves a purpose.

-Structurally, don't underestimate the power of a good topic sentence. The first sentence of each paragraph should give the reader a clear idea about what the rest of the paragraph is about. It also helps you, the writer, understand what the paragraph is about so you stick to the script and don't go off on a tangent. (But all rules are meant to be broken, so you can deviate from that if you have a good reason, blah blah blah...)

-Outline, outline, outline. Write out your thesis statement, and then list out all the things you need to prove in order to make the statement true. Those are the building blocks of the paper, and will become each of your sections. Then create a mini-thesis for each section, and repeat the process.

-Revise, revise, revise. It's awful and terrible to look back over your own work, but it will be stronger for it. And the more distance you can gain from the time you write and the time you revise the better it becomes. Writing something immediately before a deadline and giving it a once over before you hand it over won't help much, because your brain sees what it wants to see and not the problem areas. Likewise, the more eyeballs you can get to read the drafts the better off it will be.

-Shorter is always better.
posted by lilac girl at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to work with an experienced editor.

My legal writing was good, but I didn't reach the next level until I clerked for a federal judge who was also an excellent writer -- and a brutal editor.

She would routinely take a 20-word sentence, and edit it down to 7-8 words. After several months of this, I sort of got the hang of it...
posted by mikeand1 at 9:57 PM on April 26, 2011

Write every day. Get a journal and write one page a day. No more, no less. Mix up the topics - one day do a journal type entry about something in your day, another day write an op-ed (sticking to 300 or 500 words on a topic you're passionate about really helps to improve your writing). Another day try a review of a local attraction. Another day write the letter to your mum you've always wanted to. Another day write a letter to your 16 year old self.

Even if you use the journal just as a journal, sticking to one page a day - and filling that page no matter what - will really help. For me, knowing something is going to be published helps me up my game as well - imagine that this journal will be published at the end of a year.

I also found Stephen King's On Writing an excellent resource, particularly with the motivation needed to write every day. Yes, I need to get back to my day's writing...
posted by mudkicker at 11:07 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

ditto mikeand1. Hire an editor to work over your writing and learn from those mistakes.
posted by JJ86 at 6:02 AM on April 27, 2011

It's been attributed to many writers (Elmore Leonard, Jerry Pournelle, Neil Gaiman to name just three) but there's a lot of truth in the saying that you should think of your first million words as trash.
posted by Hogshead at 7:42 AM on April 27, 2011

Best answer: Howard Becker: Writing for Social Scientists. It's good for everyone.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:54 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another good rule (paraphrased) from Elmore Leonard: Leave out the parts people don't read.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:37 AM on April 27, 2011

Best answer: My best writing needs a lot of gestation, regardless of what type or style I'm going for. I brainstorm several times, I outline a dozen things, try to find ways to fit together lots of disparate elements into something that makes sense, let it all sit for a while between each (really short, 10-20 minute) session, then can usually bang out some pretty excellent short form things in a 3-5 hours session (say, less than 10 pages).

Since you're having trouble expressing your ideas, I am guessing you are not very clear on what, exactly, your ideas are which makes that, I'll be honest, impossible. You might be a verbal processor, in which case you could try using a voice recorder while you talk and listen to it afterwards.
posted by troubadour at 10:10 AM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, and thank you for the reality check, troubadour! May very well be that my problem is that my ideas are not as clear as I think they are.
posted by yarly at 3:21 PM on April 27, 2011

This is a really good article, I think: "The Science of Scientific Writing", with application for any academic writing not just science.
posted by Rumple at 8:23 PM on April 27, 2011

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