Help with my writing skills?
August 2, 2017 3:57 PM   Subscribe

I've found it increasingly difficult to be able to write well. Writing papers in college has been very time consuming and feels very awkward to write. Whenever anyone proofreads my paper, they always comment on how I have very poor and awkward phrasing. When I do write, I often find myself forgetting which word I want to use and struggle for phrases to fit well together. Recently I'm having a hard time writing cover letters and find myself agonizing for hours over one. Does anyone have any tips to write well?
posted by sheepishchiffon to Education (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Try different ways to write.

Handwritten first?

Can you try to speak your paper and record it and then write it?

How about writing it and having your computer read it back to you so you can hear problems?

Writing tutors and the writing center can be great.
posted by k8t at 4:00 PM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think this question you wrote seems fine. Maybe you are overthinking it? Once you start writing, don't agonize over every word or phrase -- let it flow, the way your thoughts would flow naturally when you are speaking. Constant editing and overthinking while you are in the midst of writing something is a good way to make it sound disjointed and awkward. I think the best time to think carefully about what you're writing is before you even start to write. A professor once told me, "Clear writing is clear thinking." Know what you want to say and then write the way you talk.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:04 PM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

For your first pass, just get the general gist on paper. Don't worry about perfect wording. I sometimes use brackets and then put what I want to say in colloquial English, thinking that I'll fancy it up later. So I'll say "[what I want to say here is that this thing works in this way.]" Often, I find that what I put in the brackets is actually fine, and I just use that. Sometimes, my problem is that I'm trying too hard to be fancy, and I'm better off just writing it the way I would say it. Anyway, get the general gist, and then go back and revise it. At that point, you can try to figure out the perfect word or a more-elegant way of phrasing things. It sounds like you're paralyzed by trying for perfection, and you should just try to get your ideas down and then fix them up when you revise. You might also be able to get someone to help you revise. If there's a writing center on campus, they'll probably be delighted to help you with that.

Another piece of advice that I have for reluctant writers is to take a creative writing class. Sometimes people find it easier to write creatively, rather than to do a formal essay. And once you establish that routine, it can help you do more formal writing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:06 PM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I use the technique of the "shitty first draft." I sit down to write. I make my point. I don't allow myself to agonize or revise. When times up, I stop. Then I go back and revise the next day. Bonus: I know this works so I don't write my stuff at the last minute. I budget 2-3 days per page.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 4:07 PM on August 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

It's unclear if you are currently still in college but if so, yes, by all means please go to your writing center(s), if it's above 10k students there are probably multiple writing centers.

they always comment on how I have very poor and awkward phrasing
That's not a very good editorial comment. Ask them how you could phrase it better. If they can't tell you how they might not even be correctly identifying what is awkward or bad.

In general, we all become better at writing with more practice. Write about your day, about your dog, about your friends, whatever you want, just practice.

However, each type of writing is a little different. For each specific thing you want to learn how to do better (cover letters, college papers) read as many good examples of those things as you can get your hands on, and emulate them.

Finally, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has lots of great advice and lessons for many different specific types of writing, including job search, research, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:10 PM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think I have a lot more problems of this kind when I don't have enough sleep. Take a sleep-a-lot vacation, and if you start feeling a lot better, see if that doesn't have a salutary effect on your writing.
posted by amtho at 4:42 PM on August 2, 2017

It sounds like you are mainly concerned about cover letters, so here are some tips.
-Read your draft out loud to yourself or another person. This will show you where things are awkward or don't make a lot of sense.
-Use the exact language from the job posting (or other source, like their website). I.e. if they want someone who "displays fluency between platforms,"say you can do that, in those words. Also in your letter, mention things in the order they were mentioned in the ad.
-Verbs, not adjectives! It's hard to stress this enough, but if you use really strong verbs, that makes a world of difference, whereas adjectives kind of dilute your writing.
-Always active voice, not passive.
posted by mermaidcafe at 4:52 PM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

For longer work, I like to outline what I'm going to say in bullet points before writing it. Then you have the skeleton of the thing built, and you just have to fill in the details. This helps me in that I'm not trying to do all of topic, grammar, word choice, order, sentence structure and spelling at the same time. The basic idea, the topic and the order are already done in your outline.

If you're building a house, you may not want to worry about furniture, paint and floor covering before you've even laid out the rooms. Lay out the rooms first and then worry about the rest of it.

For reference, I consider myself a fairly slow writer, and it took me about two hours per page to write anything decent when I was in school.
posted by cnc at 5:02 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is all solid advice. Have you tried waiting until the last minute? I find that to be an excellent motivator to write fast.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:11 PM on August 2, 2017

A writer friend of mine used to prompt me with this question when I was struggling to phrase something: "what do you want to say?" Most of the time, the verbal answer to that question was a perfectly good sentence, and simpler than whatever I'd been struggling with before.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:17 PM on August 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

One thing that helps me a lot with writing cover letters is to read other peoples' cover letters for inspiration. Ask a Manager has a couple examples. You can start to see how to structure them, how they flow, etc.
posted by radioamy at 5:23 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've read a few memoirs by accomplished writers and one of the things they have in common is a real distaste for writing. They enjoy imagining a story, creating characters and building a world, but the daily task of sitting down and actually typing? They hate it. This is really helpful for me to keep in mind when I'm avoiding a writing task. Getting started is the hardest part, so I try to just start typing. Anything: curse words, nonsense phrases, a page of lines recalling some odd high school conversation from 20 years ago. I have to type, then start typing the assignment or cover letter. It's not a rough draft, it's more of a rough rough rough draft. For something like a cover letter, I may type three different beginning paragraphs. The goal is to keep my fingers moving, not to think about what I'm writing. Then delete any nonsense lines from the beginning, print it out (I prefer a hard copy - you do you) and begin editing it. Circle any words or phrases you especially like, cross out what you hate. Make the changes on your screen, then start typing a second paragraph and do the same thing. Think of it as editing and re-writing your thoughts, not writing a letter from thin air.
A cover letter is the kind of thing a writing center can really help with because there's basically a template you need to fill and they can help you polish the template. Some libraries and universities will offer writing help too (even to non-students).
posted by areaperson at 6:14 PM on August 2, 2017

For college papers, you want as much of the work as possible to be filling in very small, very clearly defined boxes one at a time until the paper is done. Here's what I wrote previously about the pyramid approach.

For cover letters, use a template with boilerplate text. They're not meant to be an intellectual, analytical or artistic outlet. If you're doing anything other than filling out your address, the salutation and the date you're wasting your valuable time. Grab one of those books of prewritten form letters!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:49 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hey, it sounds like you're finding it difficult now, but maybe it used to be easier for you? You're getting great advice on improving your writing here, assuming your writing is the only problem.

I'd also suggest you look at your health, juuuuuust in case. It's great advice to make sure you're sleeping enough, for one thing. If you can possible manage it, I'd also suggest you visit your doctor and mention you're having trouble with, as you say, forgetting words and putting together phrases. You never know.
posted by Andrhia at 6:54 PM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with Andrhia. If you wrote more easily in the past and it's getting harder and harder, what's changed? Possibly you've raised your expectations of your writing, but there are several fairly minor health issues that can cause brain fog, which is what I think of reading your post. It would be worth going to your doc for a workup.

The thing that helps my writing most is giving myself time to set it aside, at least overnight, and then review and edit it.

Whenever possible, templates are great. You don't have to reinvent the cover letter every time, do it once be done with it.

The other thing that's good for your writing style is reading a lot. Without thinking about it you're introduced to other writers' solutions for various phrase-crafting problems.
posted by bunderful at 8:13 PM on August 2, 2017

First, lack of sleep or medication can cause brain fog that makes it difficult to recall words and put them together coherently. If there aren't any health issues, you might want to work with a tutor who specializes in academic and formal writing. Instead of proofreading, you can work together to target your weak points.

Many writers say that the best way to improve writing is to read more. Sometimes people become used to an informal communication style and feel stifled by the requirements of academic writing.

It's easy to understand what your question means, but this sentence is definitely something I would mark if I were proofreading your work: Writing papers in college has been very time consuming and feels very awkward to write. If you can identify what is wrong with that sentence, then you might want to get a book like Style by Joseph Williams and work through the exercises. If not, try working with a tutor who will explain why a phrase is awkward and won't just change it for you.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:21 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

For academic writing, I highly recommend the book "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing" by Gerald Graff. If you google the book, you will come across "sentence starters" from the book that will help you develop your writing. There are many templates to use from the book, and I found it so helpful for me.

Additionally, professional writers always do multiple drafts, and have editors to help them. No professional writer writes something once and is done with it. See if you can get some help with your writing. Try and just write for x amount of time, and then come back later and review what you wrote.
posted by momochan at 9:57 PM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Some writers struggle with sentences because they learned to write without practicing a wide variety of sentence patterns. My freshman composition students hate this book of sentence styling exercises; years later, it's what alumni call out as being the most helpful. Give it a try if you can.
posted by Kalatraz at 1:02 AM on August 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

This was mentioned only briefly, so here now in bold: READ. Good writers are good readers. Read a lot. Read ten poems a day. Memorize them. Yes, seriously. Fill your brain with great writing and even your cover letters will improve, your money back guaranteed.

I also read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird when I was struggling with writing my dissertation and it is famous for a reason. Steven King's On Writing too. Your university might also have staff dedicated to imparting some of this collective-writing-wisdom face to face (yes, use the writing center).
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:50 AM on August 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Above advice is great. As very general advice to improve your writing, I'd suggest reading more. Fiction or non-fiction, whatever your fancy. I find that avid readers have a better sense of flow and grammar.
posted by emd3737 at 5:28 AM on August 3, 2017

You are being extremely self-critical. The writing in your question is fine. Writing clearly is a skill and it improves with practice and training. Free courses may boost your confidence. As far as cover letters go, remember that you are a terrific asset and they would be lucky to have you. Really.
posted by theora55 at 7:02 AM on August 3, 2017

I recommend Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams.
posted by Hypatia at 9:46 AM on August 3, 2017

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