Some Advice on Writing

How to develop good writing habits and get practical results

Good Writing Habits

These habits constitute a long-term strategy for becoming a better writer.

Practice. As with almost any human endeavor, getting better at writing requires a lot of practice. Develop a writing habit. Write something, anything, every day. Keep a journal. Write a lot of personal letters or e-mails. Find writing challenges and prompts that require you to write in a variety of styles on a variety of topics. Keep a list of ideas and notes that you can quickly add to whenever you have a sudden flare of inspiration (an app like Evernote, OneNote, or Google Keep is useful, but an old-school notepad is just fine); they can serve as a springboard to a piece of writing whenever you’re ready to pursue them. Often you’ll be struck by the sense that your mind seems to have been developing those ideas in the meantime.

Read widely and voraciously. My experiences and observations as a tutor confirm the common-sense notion that enthusiastic readers become good writers. It ain’t rocket science: the mind is a sponge. Years of reading, especially from challenging and diverse sources, inevitably influences your sense of taste and develops your understanding of language.

Use a dictionary frequently. Even with twenty years of experience as a tutor, I still use a dictionary every day. Why? Because the English lexicon is so vast and complex that there is always more to learn. When you look up a word, you might find that you’ve been pronouncing it incorrectly. You might come to a more precise understanding of its meaning, or discover that it has a lot more meanings than you imagined. Or you might learn something interesting about its etymology that helps you understand how it is related to other words.

Build your vocabulary systematically. Today’s technology makes it so easy look up words, keep track of new words you come across, and review those words. That is extraordinarily helpful. But what’s ideal is to take vocabulary building a step further and study carefully designed vocabulary courses that help you relate words to each other and practice using them. I’ve tried to facilitate that process with the materials in the Vocabulary section of this site.

Listen to what you’ve written—always read your own writing out loud. The ear catches many things that the eye misses, from grammar errors to poor transitions and awkward wording. It can be unpleasant to face one’s own writing so intimately, but you will inevitably find ways to improve any piece of writing by going through this step.

Get and give feedback. Although it can be uncomfortable to take criticism about something so personal, another person’s perspective on your writing often illuminates issues that are difficult for you to recognize yourself. And the process of giving someone else feedback on their writing will help you develop your own skills and insights.

A Few Practical Tips

These tactics will help you get through the sometimes difficult process of producing a an effective piece of writing.

Just start. You may feel unmotivated and uninspired, but if you just force yourself to sit down and start writing something, you may be surprised to find that you can eventually work yourself out of that rut. Getting started is often the hardest part.

Brainstorm out loud and record your thoughts. For some people it can be extremely helpful to talk through their ideas instead of trying to express ideas visually on paper or a screen. If you’re stuck, try this approach.

Plan ahead, and proceed step by step. Young writers often want to just spit out a piece of writing in one shot because they’re impatient, because they find writing unpleasant, or because they’ve procrastinated on an assignment and have no choice. Although the intense focus that people can draw on in such situations can be helpful, this approach is far more likely to result in sloppy writing with major problems in unity and coherence. Your teachers are right: Don’t skip steps. Take the time to do prewriting and/or freewriting, an outline, and multiple drafts. Your writing will benefit enormously from a patient, methodical approach.

Don’t try to sound sophisticated. If you write with that goal in mind, you’ll probably fail because your diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) will sound awkward to an experienced reader. (In helping high school students with their essays, I see this problem constantly.) Instead, write with the goal of clarity in mind. Complex, nuanced ideas require skill and a well-developed vocabulary to express well, but as a general rule, good writing is clear and easy to understand.

Use concrete details. Teachers often talk about showing instead of telling, and one thing they mean by that is that vague generalities are not convincing or memorable. Show what you mean through details and specific examples to make your writing clear, vivid, and memorable.

Write more than you need. In many situations, writing more than you need for the assignment or task is helpful because it allows you to cut your writing down to the length limit—resulting in tighter, more substantial writing—instead of adding filler to meet the minimum requirement, which almost always results in wordy, awkward, repetitive, empty writing. This principle has been crucial for me in helping high school students with their college application essays.