I’ve been very thankful that I’ve practiced writing regularly over the past few years now that I’m back in school. Honestly, for a guy who doesn’t have a lot of time to study, it’s been a life-saver. And in reality, the ability to write here in graduate school is more important than the ability to study. If you can communicate your ideas clearly, you get higher marks on a test than if you know a lot of stuff. You just do.
Think about how important writing is in our digital age: resumes, e-mails, twitter, facebook and blog posts are all writing dependent. In other words, your writing is now on display for everyone to see, for good or ill!
That being said, here are a few tips for the casual writer:
Eliminate unnecessary words. I can magically make you a better writer in minutes. Take something substantial you’ve written recently, and chop it in half. That’s right – eliminate half the words. This is a drill Dr. Kieron Winn taught me at Oxford, and it transformed my writing. I later read William Zinsnerr did the same with his students. This is priceless, especially in the age of “give it to me now!” Take time to read through an author you really enjoy (from the 20th-21st century); I’m always amazed at how much C.S. Lewis can say in a single sentence. The beauty of his writing lies in his ability to cut, cut, cut, then cut again, until he manufactures a perfectly chiseled sentence.
Use simple words. Stephen King taught me this. If you want your writing to sound educated while not being presumptuous, it needs to be natural. Usually, says King, the first word that comes to mind is the right one. Don’t search your mental thesaurus (or please, don’t consult your online thesaurus) unless there’s a word at the tip of your tongue you can’t quite recall. Simple writing is good writing. Multifarious verbiage is tedious.
Spell-check. Duh. But do you? Just take a few seconds and glance over the e-mail you just sent. 90% of the time, I catch something that could have been embarrassing. Trust me; it’s worth the extra 10 hours it will steal from your life.
Outline. If you’re writing something substantial, I’m going to echo your third-grade teacher: outline it. If it’s fictional, consider writing it free-style the first round, then outlining it the second time. One of the key elements to any great story is purposefulness. We can sense whether an author is purposeful within the first few pages, and this determines whether we’ll keep reading. When you outline, you can make every word count.
Illustrate. Pink elephant. Let me guess: two giant block letters popped up in your head, right? Wrong. You thought of a pink elephant as a picture. It’s the way our brains are created. The best teachers in the world think in pictures. Try this: open up to any random page in a Bible, set your finger down, and count how many images are present within 2-3 verses (it may take a moment to process which words you’re accustomed to reading are actually image-rich). No wonder it’s the best-selling book of all time.