Most people don’t write well.
And by “well” I don’t mean brilliantly, creatively, and profoundly. I mean most people—unless they are gifted or (more likely) have put in a good deal of effort—do not write clearly, understandably, or according to basic grammatical rules.
Many books have been written on how to write better (books which would tell me not to use the passive voice in the previous line, but I like the way “written” and “write” sound closer together). These books are useful to a point. I benefited from Strunk and White when I was in college and enjoyed reading Roy Peter Clark’s 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer several years ago. But I find that books on writing don’t scratch where most people itch. They get into things like transitive verbs and active voice and the difference between affect and effect, useful in hedging the driveway but less relevant in knowing how to turn on the lawnmower. Most people don’t need help going from good to great. They need help going from confusion to clarity.
I wish I knew better how to articulate the keys to good writing. When I write it is a very intuitive process. After the fact I can look back and tell you why I did what I did, and looking at an intern’s paper I can point out what needs to be improved, but coming up with the ten most important principles of effective writing has so far eluded me. What I can point to are a few simple practices which may help a great deal.
1. Read. No matter how hard you work at writing, you will not improve unless you do a lot of reading. Read often. Read widely. Read from different eras. Read from different disciplines. Read different styles. Read different genres. Just keep reading—and not just tweets, and status updates, and blogs. Read good journalism. Read long form essays. Read succinct op-ed pieces. Read well-reasoned journal articles. Read short stories. Read poems. And above all, read books. The best way (or is it the only way?) to grow in your vocabulary, in your comfort with the discipline, and in your feel for the craft is to read.
2. Write well whenever you write. You probably practice writing much more often than you realize. The problem is practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. And in this case, what we’re practicing may not be very good. We text without any thought for punctuation or grammar. We write emails with incomplete thoughts connected by ellipses. The Christmas letter ends up being nothing more than a series of lists strung together. Of course, there is time for shorthand and for shortcuts, but if you have to write emails, and you’re going to write tweets, and you work on the newsletter every month anyway, why not make the effort to write these things more effectively? Say what you will about Twitter (it can be a ridiculous medium), but the discipline of putting your thoughts into 140 characters, in some arresting fashion, is actually quite useful.
3. Speak out loud what you’ve just written. Good writing does not happen without great editing. Almost no one writes well on the first try, and if they seem to it’s because they are constantly revising and reworking as they go. If your writing is often awkward, unclear, and borderline unintelligible, congratulations, so is most good writing! The difference is that good writers don’t leave it there. They take the time to make things better. And the simplest way to do that is to go back and speak out loud (not just in your head, actually audibly out loud) what you’ve written down. You’ll hear things that don’t make sense, things that don’t fit, things that can be cut, and your writing will improve.
4. Don’t wait until the last minute. If you are going to do more than hand in a rough draft, you can’t start your massive writing project the night before it’s due. This is just as true on a smaller scale. Don’t be in such a hurry that you can’t reread your email before you send it or let your report sit for awhile before printing it off. It’s amazing how our beautifully written prose can sound so clunky the next morning. Give yourself some distance from the project. Finish your writing ahead of time and then come back and make it shine.
5. Get a good friend to be ruthless. This will be painful, but worth it. If people consistently find your writing hard to understand, confusing, and full of mistakes, go ask a trusted teacher, relative, or obnoxious grammar nerd to tear your writing apart. Tell him you’ll pay him by the error, not by the hour. Tell her you want at least ten corrections per page. Find a friend to hurt your feelings. You’ll feel better eventually. Writing well is not easy, but it is not impossible either.