Given that I am both a student and a blogger, I tend to write a lot. Readers of this blog will know that my writing is certainly far from perfect, but I think that I have developed a number of useful strategies for improving the quantity and quality of my work. Of course, several of my “strategies” are nothing more than personal taste. But then again… I have pretty good taste. It’s also important to note that I don’t always follow my own advice, but that has more to do with my laziness than anything else. Finally, I want to be clear that this post is about the writing process – researching, organizing, editing, etc. – and not about style. This is because I think style questions are almost entirely personal and, therefore, should be left to the writer. So, without further ado, here are my 5 major tips for improving your writing.
- Read a lot: Reading is the single best way to improve your writing because it both exposes you to other skilled writers and introduces you to new content and arguments that can inspire your own work. One important caveat to this is that I am not a big fan of reading books on how to write well because most of the advice is obvious, and the rest is subjective (for example, nobody will ever convince me that the passive voice is poor form). Instead, I recommend reading many different authors and finding the aspects of their writing that appeal to you. Reading widely also allows you to encounter different writing “traditions.” By “traditions,” I simply mean unified styles of writing. For example, political scientists write differently than economists, narrative fiction is written differently than textbooks, and journal articles are written differently than newspaper articles. Each “tradition” emphasizes different aspects of writing – logic, clarity, emotion, etc. – and thus having a solid familiarity with many different “traditions” ensures that you have an extensive range of stylistic tools from which to choose.
- Always have a couple of pieces on the backburner: Sometimes writing comes easily, but frequently this is not the case. Therefore, it’s important to have a few half-baked ideas constantly floating in the background because it gives you something to work with. But it’s important that these “ideas” are more than just a title; at the very least, they should have an introductory paragraph or abstract and a basic bullet point outline. This approach ensures that you don’t forget your idea(s) and guarantees that you never start with a blank page (something I always find a little intimidating).
- Give yourself a lot of time: This advice is less true for smaller pieces like blog posts, but it’s absolutely crucial for bigger assignments (especially if they involve lots of research). More time is always useful regardless of the task at hand, but it’s particularly important in the context of writing because it allows you to create some distance from your work. Oftentimes I find that when I write a lot in a short period of time, I end up getting too involved in the writing. In other words, I write, read, and rewrite my paper so many times that I can almost recite the entire essay from memory, and this causes me to overlook otherwise obvious problems with my work such as typos and incoherent argumentation. When you have enough time to put your paper aside for two or three days, however, you can reread it with fresh eyes and, as a result, vastly reduce the risk of submitting a paper with obvious mistakes in it.
- Use outlines sparingly: It is, of course, important to have some idea of which topics you want to cover and how you want to organize your paper. But it is also crucial to give yourself flexibility and freedom in the writing process. I do not think that I have ever written a single paper that turned out exactly as I envisioned it at the onset. And this becomes obvious when you consider my general writing process, which involves heavy research at the outset, a first draft that often uncovers holes in my argument or problems with my research design, more research, a second draft, and then several serious rounds of revision. In short, writing is an iterative process that is affected by a range of influences. Your original idea influences your research; your research influences your first draft, which itself influences your research by revealing problems and deficiencies; and the whole process of wrestling with these different ideas and problems influences your later drafts and, eventually, your final product. This process isn’t terribly efficient, but it does result in a superior product (at least in my experience) that makes it worth the effort.
- Get help and develop a thick skin: We all have blind spots, especially when it comes to our work. Therefore, it is essential to leverage the expertise of others when writing and editing because it is simply impossible to write consistently interesting and well-structured pieces without input from friends and colleagues. I have found that the ideal number of commenters ranges from around 4 to 10 (though substantially more for big research papers), as any fewer risks missing important insights and perspectives, and any more creates confusion due to contradictory advice and excessively wide-ranging suggestions.