How can I improve my writing?
September 28, 2013 1:13 PM   Subscribe

My writing tends to be very brief, and it's difficult for me to write long essays that are good. Also, I would like to start writing literary and cultural critiques and would like MeFites' advice.

When I write an essay for an assignment, I usually formulate my point, gather my evidence, and then feel that no further work needs to be done -- the actual writing of the essay, "making it flow", annoys me. I really like writing, so I think it's possible that this is just a result of the assignments being uninteresting or too broad, but I encounter the same problem when I work on my own projects.

I am also interested in literary and cultural criticism. There are plenty of resources that exist to help me get started, I'm sure, but I wanted to see if MetaFilter had any special tips.

Thanks! ^_^
posted by myitkyina to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Start with what you have. Since you have your points, and your evidence, I would pick a few of these to elaborate on. Think about what is interesting about your evidence, and talk a little more about what makes it interesting. Why should your reader care? What is special about this point? Break your essay into sections by point (outline) and add a few sentences per point with an extra level of deeper detail about what you have already said.

But I do not necessarily think that brevity is a bad thing per se, many people do not know how to make their points clearly and if you do, you have already mastered something many people struggle with. Why do you want to write more?
posted by epanalepsis at 1:25 PM on September 28, 2013

Are you in school? This is - no snark - what courses will help you do, if you get a teacher/prof who will give you detailed feedback.

What is an example of the kind of problem you're running into now? Do you start writing, write a page or so, and then just feel like you have run out of things to say, or the rest of it is too obvious to bother with?

The thing that is hard to realize when you're just writing for yourself is this: things that seem obvious to you are not obvious to others, and vice versa. It's hard to get a complicated idea across clearly, and trying to just get your idea across clearly is actually most of the work. As you learn to get better at that, your ideas themselves will improve, along with your ability to convey them. The best way to practice this is to write for someone who will give you clear and specific feedback about where you've been clear and where you've been unclear.

Another great thing to look for in feedback is, objections or counterexamples to your claim. For any interesting claim you make, there's going to be some objection worth thinking about. Incorporating that into your essays is the next step, and to get good at that it helps to have someone who knows enough to read your essay and say "ok great, but what about x?" which gives you the next thing to think about in defending your point.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:26 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Remember that the word essay etymologically means attempt. True essay-writing isn't just expository or explanatory, but exploratory. Outlining is a tool for expository writing; it can be bad for exploratory writing. Instead of writing from the top down, with your entire thesis already worked out, write from the bottom up, starting with an interesting collection of evidence and building your point as you write.

The book about writing you should read is William Zinsser's On Writing Well. But you should also be reading essays to model your own work after — Montaigne and Emerson, to begin with.
posted by RogerB at 1:27 PM on September 28, 2013 [8 favorites]

Check out this thread:

As I suggested there, it is a good idea to 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 1:53 PM on September 28, 2013

I wonder if you have trouble revising your work because you don't have enough distance from it yet. Do you have older writing samples that you can re-read?

Another thing you may want to try is reading the types of literary and cultural criticisms that you are interested in writing. In particular, I suggest identifying a few of your favorite books or articles and re-reading them months or years into the future. I find that revisiting works that I love helps me to articulate what is good about the writing itself.
posted by emilynoa at 3:27 PM on September 28, 2013

Ifdyou feel "making it flow" is an issue, then you may be running into trouble with how you generally approach structuring your work. Reading your question, "flow" doesn't seem to be a problem. You express yourself clearly within a paragraph, so this leads me to wonder if it's the transition from paragraph to paragraph that is causing your problem?

Think about the overall purpose of your writing and plan in advance how each paragraph will serve you in achieving it.
posted by man down under at 3:51 PM on September 28, 2013

To answer your question in the title of your question: write often. It's like exercise. The more you do, the better you get.

Something to consider: there is nothing wrong with writing short pieces. In fact, writing short is a good strategy these days. People are used to reading short pieces. I've been blogging since 2001 and am managing editor of our museum blog. Writing short pieces forces you to become economical with your words and thoughts.

Here's a book you might be interested in: How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:19 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I usually formulate my point, gather my evidence, and then feel that no further work needs to be done -- the actual writing of the essay, "making it flow", annoys me.

I mean, it's possible that you don't actually like essays; the process of presenting enough evidence to convince the reader of the truth of some assertion is a very minor part of what most essays do.

But I'm going to assume you actually do like essays and so I'm going to say read the greats. Depending on your tastes, those might be the classical greats who are now dead (e.g. Emerson, Montaigne, as above) or the contemporary greats. Re contemporaries: I would say, read the essays of Janet Malcolm and David Foster Wallace. Two writers who write a lot of literary and cultural criticism and who write essays about as well as they can be written. Very different styles. Read them as a writer, by which I mean, on every page (and maybe in every paragraph) ask yourself: what choices did the writer make here and why did they make the choice do this instead of something else?
posted by escabeche at 7:47 PM on September 28, 2013

Isn't brevity a virtue if you successfully make your point? My personal handicap is a terrible inability to write in complex sentences. I write like a telegram. stop I start again and stop again stop . A writer friend has commented repeatedly that I'm best when I try not to write fancier than I am capable of. When I write naturally. It may be in an uninteresting style but it conveys information. I have much room to improve but maybe you should focus on your strengths, concise and to the point prose.
posted by Che boludo! at 8:44 PM on September 28, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for your help! ^_^
posted by myitkyina at 11:48 AM on September 29, 2013

I've always believed in writing efficiently and editing to remove needless words, and I struggled to meet page-count limits when I was in college. One word of advice: If you write a killer essay and it's within 10-15% of word count, most professors will forgive brevity.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:29 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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