How can I become a better writer?
June 25, 2006 10:31 PM   Subscribe

How can I become a better writer?

I run quite a few websites and many dead blogs. I feel like I've got a lot of good ideas/subjects/content to talk about but always find myself struggling to get out what I want to say in more than 2-3 sentences.

What can I do to become a better writer? I'm not looking to write books at the moment...but more towards "article" length.

I guess ultimately I want to learn how to really express my point instead of just spitting out a sentence or two about what I might be thinking on a subject.
posted by JPigford to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend reading "On Writing Well" by William K. Zinsser. It's a very easy read with lots of useful tips that apply to just about any kind of writing.
posted by xulu at 10:45 PM on June 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Practice. And read a lot.

You can read about technique. 50 Writing Tools is a good series of tips you can find online, free. There are plenty of books. But honestly, reading about good technique isn't nearly as constructive as just reading good technique. Books about writing should never constitute more than a small fraction of your reading diet. They can be helpful, but don't overdo it.

There are myriad exercises and etudes designed to impart various skills. I liked Brian Kitely's The 3 A.M. Epiphany and Monica Wood's The Pocket Muse. But honestly, the best advice is the simplest: If you want to become a better writer, spend more time writing and even more time reading.
posted by cribcage at 10:52 PM on June 25, 2006

The best way to get better at writing is to write.

Write a few hundred thousand words. They will most likely suck. Throw them away or stick them in a drawer. Write another few hundred thousand words. They will most likely still suck.

Repeat as needed.

After a few million words you may, if you have the natural talent, become publishable.

While doing this you should be reading. Fiction is probably best if you're trying to improve your prose style, but the important thing is to read.

Damn you cribcage.
posted by Justinian at 11:28 PM on June 25, 2006

That's OK, Justinian. You put it well, and you reminded me of a Chuck Jones anecdote that bears repeating in this context.
posted by cribcage at 12:03 AM on June 26, 2006

Your best lessons will come from the assiduous study of better writers. I can offer a few links to essays which quite impressed me the first time I read them. You are of course free to disagree, but I would judge them among the better essays Ive ever read. They could also each easily be reduced to a single 2-3 sentance summary-- if you remove the descriptive passages, the contextualization of ideas, the extended metaphors, the quotes from other thinkers, the exegesis of those quotes, the humor, the wit, the striking turns of phrase, the historical references, and the satire.

Hendrik Hertzberg comments on George Bush's State of the Union Address. (warning: unabashedly liberal perspective ahead!)

Richard Hofstadter compares the rise of the "radical right" to other historical instances of the use of "the paranoid style of politics." (this was written in '67, by the way)

John Burnside takes a detour off of a country road on a whim.

And, George Orwell famously cautions us on the dangers of unclear prose.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 12:09 AM on June 26, 2006

If you are struggling to get out what you want to say in more than 2-3 sentences, than what you want to say is contained in 2-3 sentences. It is a horrible thing to try to pad your ideas with more prose rather than coming up with more ideas. It is also very common among people who write for a living.

The place you want to get to is where you have so many ideas that you need to pare them down.

I'm not saying this to discourage you. Writing (well) is really hard. I have difficulty believing people who say they find it easy; I tend to think they are either bad writers or just generally stupid. And I'll be out rent if I can't do some passable writing every once in a while.

As far as practical advice, I would say that you probably need to spend more time examining and thinking about your subject and less worrying about the length of a given piece. What new insights do you have about the subject? What would be compelling to your readers? If you don't have answers to those questions, than you shouldn't be writing about the subject. Just find another.

One thing that makes many blogs so tedious is that they endlessly talk about the same subject without offering anything new or insightful. Find the ones that don't do this and see what you can learn. That's what I do. And even if you don't like my writing, it's probably still good advice.
posted by lackutrol at 12:49 AM on June 26, 2006

Also, don't feel you have to equal the people Mr. Smart links to, just think about what they are doing and how they do it, and it can make you more aware of what you can do.
posted by lackutrol at 12:53 AM on June 26, 2006

Read more books, particularly those that could qualify as "literature."
posted by knave at 4:01 AM on June 26, 2006

Read a lot. I mean at least 2 books a week. Read things you don't like, too.

Also, write. A lot. I mean at least 5 or 10 pages a day. Write about things you don't like, too.

First you need to learn how to do it right, then you'll find your style.

Don't be affraid of the trashcan. You'll discard a lot of things. Doesn't matter. Create a "Trashcan" folder and store your early works. Come back a few months latter and try to read them. It's a learning experience.
posted by cardoso at 4:09 AM on June 26, 2006

You must write the crap out of the bowels of your brain.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:34 AM on June 26, 2006

By the way, read that which you want to write like. If you want to write scholarly articles, read scholarly books. Basically, decide what kind of style you want to write in and pursue reading material of that ilk. From my experience, it helps to train the brain to produce in the same manner.
posted by Atreides at 5:05 AM on June 26, 2006

Response by poster: Is it possible that I'm just not made to be a writer? Or can anyone learn to write well?
posted by JPigford at 5:58 AM on June 26, 2006

Practice. Read Bird by Bird.

I don't think anyone can learn to be a genius, but if you practice you can learn to write well. There are thousands of working writers today doing just that -- pick up any magazine.

Go back and read the early posts of your favorite blogs. If the blogger has been going for a while you will likely see a marked difference between then and now.

Did I mention practice? :)
posted by sugarfish at 6:39 AM on June 26, 2006

Anyone can learn to write well, it is a skill like riding a bicycle or framing a house. If you follow the advice above you will become a skillful writer and impress your friends and employers. Writing beautifully is another thing entirely.
posted by LarryC at 6:53 AM on June 26, 2006

Everyone is "made to be a writer." But writing is demanding activity that takes time to learn to do well, time to do well, and continuous learning. One thing you need to do is separate out an understanding of "solid writing practices" from all the commonly accepted "writing lore" on how to improve. Doing this allows you to recognize that what worked for one writer will not work for another, and that there is no easy or single way of doing it. All the good advice in the world isn't going to make you a better writer, nor are classes, or even a degree. What will make you a better writer is practicing it in a structured, systematic way, with seasoned advice, and a proper discipline. Going off of what you said about what your problems are and what you want to write, I will say this:

1) You need to build a discipline of writing. This involves a time to write, a place to write, work designed to improve your writing, and a group of people to share your writing with.

2) You need to build a discipline of reading. Take all the good reading advice found above, and then understand that in-and-of itself isn't going to make you a good writer.

3) Write. Every day and in multiple modes (pen and paper, computer, etc.) and genres (notebook, journal, article, etc.). You say that you want to write articles. Well, every day you should be writing down article ideas, developing previous ones, researching content and writing about it. You need to develop a dialog with yourself through the written word. No one just sits down and writes professional quality content-driven writing. There are innumerable steps to get to that point.

4) Find your community. This might be a class on journalism, or a writing workshop, a few smart friends with the same writing interest, or an on-line site. You need input into your writing, both good and bad (otherwise you'll never distinguish between the two).

5) Complete projects. You need to allow for the fact that you are going to "fail" a lot. Let yourself write through things that you don't like, or aren't good enough. Part of your job is to learn to generate and rework text in a systematic way. This is hard work, and requires a lot of mistakes be made. This dynamic never changes, it just gets more productive.

6) It also sounds like from what you said that you would benefit from some formal writing instruction with a focus on articles and journalism to help develop a rhetorical understanding and vocabulary of how words work on a page.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:56 AM on June 26, 2006

Not everyone can be Raymond Carver, but anyone of average intelligence can learn to write well (at, at the very least, to vastly improve). As the saying goes, it's 90% perspiration. If you're not blessed with the 10% inspiration, at least your prose will still be well wrought.

Most people who think they can never learn to write well have been duped by reading other people's polished work. Yes, I agree with other's here that you can learn from reading good writing. But it's important to understand that the best writers TOIL. They labor over each word. In the end, it flows and creates the illusion that it sprang fully-formed from the writer's pen. But in general, the easier it seems, the more sweat lies behind its production. So you're unfair to yourself if you compare something you spent an hour on to something that took F. Scott Fitzgerald weeks. This does also mean that good writers can't be lazy.

You CAN learn to write well, because much of good writing is mechanics: rules that you can learn. But you have to learn them and follow them (after which, it may be okay to break some of them). For a start, take a look at this thread, join the Metafilter Writer's Group, and read some of the suggestions posted here. I second Zinsler's "On Writing Well" and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

Most of my comments above address style. Now I'd like to discuss content. You say you find yourself "struggling to get out what I want to say in more than 2-3 sentences." Well, as luckutol says, "what you want to say is contained in 2-3 sentences." I'm as opposed to padding as he is.

But you may not need padding. Without seeing a sample of your writing, I can only speculate, but there it's possible you're not writing to communicate. If people could read your mind and feel your feelings, you might only need a couple of sentences to convey any idea. But since your readers aren't psychic or overly empathic, it's likely you're assuming too much prior knowledge.

Take a really close look at your writing and ask yourself what it assumes the reader already knows. Unless they're all common knowledge, you need to explain these assumptions. You need to set up the foundation before you start building the house.

Remember also that a foundation needn't only be intellectual. Sure, your readers may already know that slavery is evil, but do they FEEL it (emotionally and sensually)? Spend a few paragraphs getting us inside the life of a slave -- the chains, the backbreaking labor, the meager rations -- before pouncing on us with your thesis. Remember, there's nothing new under the sun. It's unlikely that you'll come up with too many original ideas. But each FEELING you evoke is original. If you make us happy, sad or angry, it's new -- even if we've been happy, sad and angry a million times before. Feelings are always fresh.

Finally, I'd like to wave my wand and conjure up an ancient Greek philosopher:

Aristotle believed good arguments appealed to the listener in three ways:

" logos, the speaker convinces his hearers of the truth of his argument by appealing to their reason; by pathos he puts them into a favorable mind by appealing to the emotions which color their judgement; by ethos he inspires confidence in his own character and trustworthiness by convincing them of his honesty and goodness, his competence in judgement, and above all his good will towards them." (from "Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language." by Sister Miriam Joseph)

Aristotle claimed an argument would fail if it didn't contain all three of these parts. This is good advice, and it may help you extend your 2-3 sentences without gratuitous padding. Make sure we get your idea (logos) -- and remember to explain all assumptions; make sure you appeal to our feelings (WHY is this idea so important); and make sure you include yourself. You don't need to convince me you're an expert, but it helps if I know why you care so much about the idea, how you've struggled with it, what made you think of it, etc. (It's not a bad idea, when you're beginning, to write in first person and make your prose very personal. Writing is, after all, a form of communication between you and your readers. Eventually, you'll learn how to include your "voice", even when writing in third person.)

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on June 26, 2006

This thread has plenty of good advice. I'll just second sugarfish's recommendation of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and throw in another: Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Every time I teach writing for history majors, I assign this book. If you're writing any kind of nonfiction, I also recomment Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb, and Joseph Williams's The Craft of Research, which contains an excellent discussion of the rhetoric of nonfiction writing as well as practical tips for organizing your work.

By the way, there's a classroom edition of Joe Williams's Style, subtitled Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, that includes exercises and a partial answer key. It's much more expensive than the trade edition, but your local public or college library might have a copy you can borrow. Grumblebee and others are right: writing well takes work. Yeats wrote in "Adam's Curse" that "A line will take us hours maybe;/ Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." Having just published my first book, I know how right he was!

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:35 AM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second "Bird By Bird" by Anne Lamott.
posted by hermitosis at 7:46 AM on June 26, 2006

Not exactly the advice you're looking for but: just because things are short doesn't mean they're not well-written or worth reading. I used to struggle with the fact that many of the things I write are very short (e.g. 61 words) but after hearing from people who were moved by the pieces, I decided to embrace the form and search out work by others who also kept things short (Barry Yourgrau; John Gould; etc.).

After years of that kind of writing, I've now completed a first draft of a novel that is, essentially, hundreds of small pieces laced together to tell one lengthy story. Of course, that's what any novel is. The difference is that instead of "trying a novel" I just did what I always did with the emphasis on keeping them about the same people. Same end result; different approach.

And, just for a contrasting opinion, I couldn't stand Bird by Bird. I quite like Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilburs. It's the best book on writing I've ever read and I'm surprised it's hardly ever recommended by others.
posted by dobbs at 8:04 AM on June 26, 2006

You need feedback on your own writing to figure out what's wrong. Write something, anything, and have someone else read it. Not a friend, but someone critical, like an editor or a sibling (not kidding on the sibling - they're likely to be your most critical peers still willing to read something you wrote.)
Or join a writing group where you read each other's work.
posted by easternblot at 8:16 AM on June 26, 2006

can anyone learn to write well?

Watch the Special Olympics sometime and you'll discover that anyone can learn to do anything well. Talent isn't irrelevant, but it's far less important than hard work and determination.
posted by cribcage at 9:12 AM on June 26, 2006

Try writing offline for a while, maybe even by hand. Online writing, especially blog writing, rewards economy most of the time. Even just 250 words looks and feels very different on paper. Also, try other genres. Write out instructions for doing something. Write a profile of a person. Tell stories from your childhood that don't necessarily have a point. Hell, write letters to old friends. You've got analysis down to lean and mean...sharpening your other non-fiction skills will help you add back.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:28 AM on June 26, 2006

The best book on becoming a writer I've ever read is Brenda Ueland's absolutely lovely and affirming If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit.

So much great advice above, I'd only add that I find not only reading, but immersing myself in any of the things that really stimulate my artistic passions cause me to become much more creatively productive myself. Anything you really love, specific music, film, another person, etc., immerse yourself in as much as possible.

Also, I find that time to be by myself is very important in any creative work--I mean contemplative time, to ruminate over ideas you've read (here, elsewhere online, magazine, book, anywhere), music you've listened to, something beautiful you're looking at (like a sunset), etc. As a teacher, I am very thankful that I have regular periods where my time is my own, and that time is the reason I can continue to be an inspiring and effective teacher.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:22 AM on June 26, 2006

« Older Why am I unattractive to local mosquitos?   |   How do I flip my textbox? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.