Writing

Writing tips, resources, lessons, and exercises for students and teachers

Writing is a complex process that involves integrating all areas of linguistic and literary knowledge; the quest to become a better writer is, therefore, nebulous, highly personal, and open-ended. However, there are concrete steps that writers can take and specific principles they can follow to objectively improve their writing. Although doing so requires effort and discipline, the benefits can be enormous. The information shared in this section of Camilla’s English Page reflects my experience as a tutor working primarily with high school and college students on their writing assignments and trying to help them become better writers in general. While these bits of insight and advice may not be novel or revelatory, they’re widely taught for a reason: they have stood the test of time. Whether you’re trying to improve your own writing or help someone else improve theirs, I hope you’ll find the information and exercises presented here useful.

A Few Thoughts on the Writer’s Journey

Writing is painful but rewarding. Because it is so demanding, writing can often be a painful experience for most of us. (Discomfort is a recurring theme in my advice for writers.) But the rewards of producing a polished piece writing that you can be proud of make that struggle worthwhile.

Revision is the most important step. From the perspective of a long-term effort to become a better writer, the process of revising your own writing—correcting typos and grammar errors, identifying and fixing problems with structure and flow, and fine-tuning your diction and syntax to express your ideas more effectively—is how you grow the most as a writer. If you consistently put time and effort into polishing your writing, your skills will improve dramatically.

Master the rules first; then break them when it suits your purposes. Many great writers don’t follow all of the traditional rules of grammar, mechanics, and writing. But that’s not because they don’t understand the rules—it’s because they have a nuanced understanding of how to achieve the style they want and express their ideas effectively. The process of mastering traditional rules will help you learn how to make careful, effective choices about when and how to break them.

Try writing in different environments. Find places that are conducive to your focus and creativity, whether it be a quiet room, outdoors, or IHOP in the wee hours of the morning with two pots of coffee in your belly. And if you’ve got writer’s block or seem to be stagnating, try moving to a new environment. (Sometimes the simple act of getting up and moving around or doing a small, unrelated task can help.)

Try writing the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. In today’s world, many of us consume so much content (and send so many messages) via computers and cell phones that we have become used to skimming that information rather than paying careful attention to it. Writing on paper can facilitate a higher level of focus, in which each word matters. Consider writing early drafts by hand before transferring them to electronic form. (The process of typing out an existing draft is itself a good opportunity to edit and revise as you go.)

Recognize the benefits of constraints. Many young writers just want to write freely, with no rules or limitations. That approach never results in the best writing. Constraints on style, format, length, and content can be frustrating, but they actually have a magical effect: they make us come up with more interesting ways of expressing our ideas. Bill Shakespeare didn’t produce brilliant poetry by vomiting up whatever thoughts popped into his head. All of the constraints involved in writing sonnets (e.g., 14-line length, iambic pentameter, a specific rhyme scheme) forced him to come up with creative ideas that he never would have had otherwise.

Be patient. Don’t lose sight of the fact that becoming a better writer is a long, difficult process that requires a lot of practice, patience, and perseverance. With that in mind, I’ll end this section with a quote from the social reformer Jacob Riis that applies to any such endeavor:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

In your journey as a writer, be like a stonecutter. (Yes, I am a Spurs fan.)

See Some Advice on Writing for my thoughts on good writing habits to develop and some practical tips.

College Application Essay Advice for the Desperate

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Writing Resources on Camilla’s English Page

See the links on this page for learning and teaching materials on specific writing-related tasks.

Many of the fundamentals of good writing are covered in the Grammar section of the site: topics such as sentence structure, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, usage, and parallelism, among others.

Developing a regular reading habit that includes different types of writing on a variety of topics is a critical element of becoming a better writer. See the Literature section for reading-related resources.

A broad and sophisticated vocabulary is to a writer what a complex palette is to a painter. Without a wide range of words to choose from, your ability to precisely express different shades of meaning will be limited. The Vocabulary section has resources to help you build and refine your verbal toolkit.

Online Resources for Writers

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a fantastic resource for just about every aspect of writing, from specific grammar topics to essay writing, the writing process, different types of writing, and citation standards. OWL’s sitemap provides a complete list of its many pages, conveniently organized by topic.

Reddit has a popular “subreddit” (essentially a discussion board) called Writing Prompts. It’s a community of fiction writers responding in creative ways to a wide variety of topics, giving support and advice to each other, and providing writing resources for members to improve their skills. If you’re looking for motivation or help, it’s a great place to go. The Writing subreddit also has a large community of writers.

William Strunk Jr.’s original Elements of Style, long considered an indispensable guide to the basics of writing, can be downloaded as an e-book in various formats at Project Gutenberg. See the Books on Writing section of this page for information about the most recent edition, which is still under copyright.

Politics and the English Language” is George Orwell’s interesting and highly influential 1946 essay on what he saw as disturbing trends in English, particularly the written language. It is well worth reading and pondering, though it does have its flaws, and critics have had a variety of reactions to it. (See the Wikipedia page on the essay for more information about its critical reception.)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a simple guide covering eight rules for writers: “How to write with style.”

See the Academic Writing page on this site for additional information and resources specific to academic writing.

Books on Writing

Writers Inc: A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning, by Patrick Sebranek, Verne Meyer, and Dave Kemper, is a thorough, easily digestible guide to just about every aspect of the writing process that you can imagine. It’s very useful for high school students in particular and covers every type of writing they are likely to encounter.

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The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, is William Strunk’s classic guide to writing well, revised and expanded by the acclaimed writer E.B. White.

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by the popular novelist Stephen King, is one of the most acclaimed books on writing—it contains good and practical advice in an enjoyable form.

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On Writing Well (William Zinsser) is another highly acclaimed guide that focuses on the principles of writing various types of nonfiction. (It’s subtitled “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” an addition that one can only assume came after it had achieved some acclaim and longevity.)

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Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup) is a text I used in college that has now reached its 12th edition. It is insightful and extremely useful for more experienced writers who want to refine their writing style. The 11th edition is also available as an e-textbook.

Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s