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Learning to learn 05: Writing

“Writing is refined thinking” – Stephen King


Why try to improve your writing?

This module is about improving your ability to write and therefore, to communicate effectively. In particular, as a student (in any discipline) it’s more than likely that many of the assessment tasks you complete will be in a written form, so the better you’re able to write, the easier it is for someone (maybe your lecturer) to follow what it is that you’re trying to communicate. Clear writing is a signal to the reader that you’re capable of clear thinking; the person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.

When you’re writing you’re trying to answer a question. You may not always realise it but the reader is always asking, where are we going with this? What are you trying to say? When writing, try to keep in mind what the reader is looking for so that you can answer the questions that they’re asking. In the context of this module, we’re specifically interested in the kind of writing that you’ll be engaged in as a student outside of literary studies. In other words, this is the idea of writing across the curriculum, which simply means that there is a school of thought suggesting that the ability to write well should be regarded as valuable no matter what the discipline is.

And as with everything else that we’re talking about in this series the only way to get better at writing is to practice writing.

What is writing?

Before we start looking at how to improve your writing, it’s probably useful to pause and think about what writing really is.

Writing is a medium of human communication that involves the representation of a language with symbols. While not all languages utilise a writing system, those with it are able to complement and extend capacities of spoken language by enabling the creation of durable forms of speech that can be transmitted across space (e.g., correspondence) and stored over time (e.g., libraries or other public records). We also know that the activity of writing itself can have knowledge-transforming effects since it allows humans to externalise their thinking in forms that are easier to reflect on and potentially rework.

The result of the activity of writing is called a text, and the interpreter or activator of this text is called a reader. Writing is, therefore, a powerful way for one mind to cause ideas to happen in another mind. In this light, it seems clear that writing as the most profound advance in our species’ intellectual ability. In fact, historians draw a distinction between prehistory and history, with history defined by the advent of writing. Unlike language, which children can pick up without needing much direct instruction, writing requires years of training to master even the basic concepts.

Why are you writing and who are you writing for?

The answer to each of the questions above sets the tone for how you approach any writing task.

  1. I’m writing because I was given a writing assignment.
  2. I’m writing this for the lecturer who gave me the assignment.

If this is how you think of writing then you probably see it as the result of an external force imposed by the person you imagine is your audience. And if this is the case then you’re going to write what you think that person wants to hear. Which is a pity because it completely misses the point. You should be writing for yourself, as a way of improving yourself, and of improving your ability to think and to learn. Compare the statements below with those above.

  • I’m writing because this is how I bring clarity and strength to my thinking.
  • I’m writing for myself because this is one way that I can improve my ability to learn.

As a student you’re not writing to impress – or comply with – your lecturer, you’re writing to learn for yourself and one way to get better at learning is to improve your writing. If you haven’t thought through the implications of this yet then it may be worth taking a moment to step away and think about this idea.

Reasons for weak writing

There are many reasons for weak writing and we don’t have time to address them all. I’m going to mention three that I think are fairly well-represented among novice writers (and it may be useful to think of everyone as a novice writer).

One of the main reasons that we write poorly is because of something called the curse of knowledge, which is the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what we know. We use technical terms, abbreviations, and assumptions that our readers have no way of knowing because they haven’t been through the same training that we have. By being aware of specific pitfalls, for example, the use of jargon, abbreviations, and technical vocabulary, we can avoid making our audience feel stupid and in the process, become better writers.

Another perspective on the point above is that writers use jargon and complicated ideas to try and hide the fact that they don’t really understand what they’re writing about. The way to address this shortcoming is to make sure that you understand everything you write about and then expressing your understanding in simple terms. The most accomplished experts are able to convey their thinking in clear expression without hiding their meaning behind complicated words.

A final reason for weak writing is the overuse of the passive voice, which is a problem that is particular to higher education. Passive writing hides the doer in the sentence and therefore appears vague and evasive. In contrast, active writing captures the compelling sound of everyday thought and speech. Writers who want to sound smart (maybe this is a reason for why it is so prevalent in higher education) drift towards the passive voice because it is impersonal and they feel it is more “academic”. This is not to say that the passive voice should never be used, only that it should be used when it is appropriate.

See Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style for more technical guidance on how to avoid these and other examples of weak writing.

Classic style

You can learn how to write a lot after a relatively short period of sticking to a schedule. But it takes much longer to learn how to write with style. For the purposes of this module, I am going to talk about classic style as a way of demonstrating the value of this guiding framework for writing. I chose classic style (as opposed to practical or rhetorical style, for example) because I think it is more broadly applicable for students. Practical style may be more useful when thinking about essays but it may not translate to other areas. Classic style is a solid foundation for improving writing more generally.

Writing in classic style is an attempt to tell people something true and important that they didn’t already know and tells them as unequivocally as possible. The metaphor of classic style is seeing the world; the writer has seen something in the world that the reader has not yet noticed and is trying to orient the reader’s gaze so that he or she can see it themselves. The writer knows the truth of things (i.e. understands the concept) before putting it into words, which means that you need to know what you’re writing about before you start the process. When you write you should pretend that you see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the reader’s attention to that thing, and that you are doing so by means of conversation. In this approach, a clear sentence is no accident but rather an intentional effort to show the reader something.

Classic style at a glance

  1. The writer has seen something in the world.
  2. She positions the reader so he can see it with his own eyes.
  3. The reader and writer are equals.
  4. The goal is to help the reader see objective reality.
  5. The style is conversational.

Remember that your primary purpose in writing is to explain something to someone; you are trying to convince your lecturer that you understand the course material. The more clear you can make that explanation, the more likely you are to persuade the reader that you know what you’re talking about. And in order to explain it clearly, you must first understand it. Impenetrable writing is not an indicator of being smart. Writing in plain language shows respect for the readers of your work, including those who don’t speak your own language natively. If the person reading your work can’t follow your thinking, it’s your fault, not theirs.

Grammar, spelling, and punctuation

“If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.”

Wiens, K. (2012). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review.

You may be asking yourself, “Why should I pay attention to the mechanics of writing? I’m studying [insert profession here], not English.” But your ability to argue, convince, persuade, etc may be based almost entirely on your ability to express yourself well, probably through writing. And much of writing well is governed by the rules that dictate how language works. One of the challenges you’ll face as you work on improving your writing is that not all rules can generalise across the entire language. For example, the past tense of bring, ring, and blink are all different and there is no one rule that can help you to predict what each will be. You simply have to memorise them.

Having said that, there’s no reason to spend all of your time bending over backwards to satisfy the grammar police. Some grammatical rules are little more than the personal preferences of self-appointed writing gurus. It’s important to know the difference between the rules of a language and the “rules” of the language (maybe “suggestions” would be a better way to think about them). One of the best ways to develop your writing skills is to develop your reading skills as this will give you some insight into how others use language to communicate effectively.

Stages of writing

First of all, writing doesn’t progress linearly. You don’t write something in the same way that you read it. I think that this is important to note because I get the feeling that many students write from beginning to end and then leave it at that, thinking that the job is done. But you have to come back to the beginning at several times during the writing process to make sure that the beginning is already pointing towards the end. The act of writing itself can change your thinking, and more reading can influence the direction you’re headed, so you may even find that your original destination is no longer where you want to be. A lot of writing is really re-writing.

Pre-writing. Pre-writing includes figuring out who your audience is, what you’ll be writing about (your topic), conversations with others about the topic, including whoever has assigned the writing task, searching for and organising your content (research), and outlining. There are other things we could include in this list but for brevity, we’ll leave it at that. Basically, pre-writing includes all the things you need to take care of so that when you sit down to write you can move through the piece without having to think about where your sources are, or what the aim of the assignment is. It’s important to repeat that writing is not linear and that you can return to any of the stages, including pre-writing, later in the process. For example, after your first draft, you may realise that you need more research material in support of one of your arguments, which would necessitate going back to the research part of pre-writing. Once you have the main ideas outlined and the sources necessary for your writing, it’s time to start preparing your first draft.

Drafting

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”― Shannon Hale

Novice writers will often try to write a perfect first draft. These writers compose a sentence, edit it, delete it, try again and soon find that this perfectionism is paralysing. Also, writing word by word, or sentence by sentence makes the text sound disjointed. At this early stage of writing, the paragraph is the important unit, not the sentence. It’s important to structure the entire piece so that the combination of the main ideas in the paragraphs produces a coherent pattern across the whole.

First drafts are slow and tend to take shape clumsily. This is normal and you find that the next few drafts move along far more quickly, especially if you’ve done a good job of outlining the piece before you started. The other reason that the later drafts are easier is that you know where you’re going so you can more easily read what you’ve written and make choices about what to cut.

The example on the right is an academic article I was preparing for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. This is the third draft, two drafts after I thought it was already pretty good. I did another two drafts after this before I submitted the final version. I’m not suggesting that the essays you write for your course need to be publishable in a peer-reviewed journal, only that paying attention to multiple drafts of a piece of writing is an important part of the process.

Don’t be precious about what you’ve written. Delete what isn’t aligned with the purpose of the writing. I regularly delete 2000 – 4000 words from the first draft of articles I’m working on as I try to reduce the piece to the core ideas. Too often we get caught up in the narrative of what we’re trying to say and end up with a piece that’s 30-40% longer than it needs to be. Another reason that writing tends to be longer than necessary is that we don’t have a strong idea of the aim of the writing, so we end up including information that is only tangentially related to the point we’re trying to make. A clear argument can be made succinctly, as long as you have a good understanding of the argument.

Editing

Editing is what you do to tidy the writing, usually when you’re more or less happy with the general structure of the piece but still need to attend to the transitions between paragraphs or different sub-sections, signposting, syntax, grammar, etc. The reason it doesn’t make much sense to pay attention to editing earlier than this is that you may spend a long time editing a section, only to delete it later when you realise that it doesn’t contribute to the overall text. Examine every word that you write and ask if it serves the purpose of the writing; if it doesn’t then it has to go. Ask yourself, “Am I hanging on to something useless just because I like it?”

While you’re working on different drafts of the piece, you’ll find yourself attending to minor edits, and that’s OK. But you don’t have to get your reference formatting all correct at the first pass since this is easy enough to come back to later. Spelling mistakes as well. Anything that is easy to correct later, should be left until later. The value of writing the first and second drafts relatively quickly is that it gets most of the main ideas out of your head and onto the paper (or screen) as quickly as possible. Subsequent drafts then refine the work, and then you can finally edit it when you’re more confident that what you’ve written is going to stay in the final version.

You only get better at writing by writing more, and more often. And then going over what you’ve written several times, working constantly to improve it. Then, when you can’t improve it any further, send it to someone who is a better writer than you and ask them for help on how to improve it further.

Revision, or responding to feedback

Revision is what you need to do after receiving feedback on your writing, and you should try to get some kind of feedback on any piece that you’re going to submit to someone else. But revision means amending fundamental aspects of the original and as such, it can be daunting to send it off in the first place. If your reviewer is an honest and critical friend then you’re going to get feedback that’s going to challenge some of the basic beliefs around the piece you’ve written. They may ask you to change some, or all of the structure, the way the evidence is presented, the warrant for the text and its claim for significance, its explanation of theory or evidence, or the literatures used. In other words, you may have to revisit almost every aspect of the writing after receiving feedback.

Revision is therefore clearly more than editing. Editing is tinkering with the text but revision is best understood as re-vision. Re-thinking. Maybe even re-imagining what the work means in the first place. It’s about trying to come to a point where you see it again, maybe even for the first time if it’s a major revision. You may need ot bring a fresh perspective to the task and possibly replace your original idea with another. And then you begin the process of re-writing.

Paying attention to structure

Depending on what you are writing, who you are writing for, and the purpose of your writing, you’re probably going to have to structure your writing in a certain way. There are a few basic frameworks that you should be aware of, although the specifics will be different depending on the context. I’m not going to spend too much time here other than to note that most writing pieces will need these basic sections:

  • An Introduction should include the main concepts that the reader needs to be familiar with in order to understand the rest of the text. It should identify the main characters in the story you’re telling, the main problem that you intend to resolve through the writing, and the background or context in which this story takes place.
  • The Body of the text should include the arguments you’re making that relate to the characters and problem you introduced earlier. You can frame these arguments in many different ways, most of which are probably fine, but you should try to be consistent at all times. If you’re structuring your writing chronologically, don’t switch to a different frame e.g. geographical or social. Of course, it’s possible to switch between framings but it can be jarring unless it’s done well.
  • The Conclusion should tie up all of the loose ends in your writing. If you’ve asked questions earlier you should strive to answer them here. If you’ve introduced characters you should bring their stories to a close. Try to avoid having your reader wondering why a certain character was brought in only to never hear from them again. The conclusion needs to resolve the problem that you presented in the Introduction (sometimes known as closing the loop).

Barriers to writing

“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Chuck Close

We all have a series of reasons we fall back on when we don’t feel like doing the hard work of writing (and writing is hard work). But it’s important to recognise these for what they are; reasons to procrastinate. Here are some of the more common reasons we may find to avoid writing.

“I don’t have enough time to write.” Rather than trying to find the time to write, simply schedule time to write until writing every day becomes a habit. The act of sitting down every day and writing is what gets the work done; this is known as “time blocking”. See How to create habits.

“I need to do more research, find more literature, etc.” There’s always more research to do, more articles to read, more notes to make but these should be recognised for what they are; reasons to procrastinate and avoid the difficult work of writing.

“I need a new computer, printer, chair, desk, etc.” Unproductive writers moan about their lack of space to write. But you can write anywhere, with anything.

“I write best when I’m inspired to write.” Inspiration is over-rated. Writing breeds good ideas for writing and the more you write, the better you write.

“I have writer’s block”. See response to the point above. Also, if you really can’t write, you can edit.

“I need to have music in the background.” Make sure that you’re disconnected when you start writing. Disconnect from the internet. Turn off your phone notifications. See How to focus and avoid distractions.

Tips to improve your writing

  • Read. Read. Read. If you don’t have time to read you don’t have time to write. The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader.
  • Write one word at a time. Whether you’re writing a post for Facebook or a 100 000 word postgraduate thesis, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.
  • When you can, choose a topic or approach to the topic that you care about. Your writing will almost always be better when you’re personally invested in the idea.
  • Avoid jargon and big words. Clear thinking becomes clear writing and it’s all too clear when writers use jargon to cover for a lack of understanding. You cannot write well if you don’t understand what you’re writing about.
  • Omit needless words. Remove very, quite, basically, actually, virtually, extremely, remarkably, completely, at all, etc. These words do nothing and add little value.
  • Avoid beginning sentences with “Research shows that…”, “Recent studies indicate that…”, or “New findings suggest that…”. These phrases add little meaning and including citations at the end of the sentence makes the same point.
  • Be selective about what you want to include in your writing. You don’t need to add everything you’ve read on the topic. Leave out everything that does not serve the purpose of the writing.
  • Take care in your choice of words. Write with a dictionary and a thesaurus* next to you. Read to expand your vocabulary. Look up the meaning of words you don’t understand and make a note of them (see critical reading here).

* The value of the thesaurus is that it can help you to find just the right word for the goal that the word is to achieve. A thesaurus is not meant to provide you with an opportunity to demonstrate your vast vocabulary. Choose simple words that do the work in the service of the piece.

Conclusion

There is so much to write about writing and what I’ve presented here barely scratches the surface of all of the possible advice on offer about how to improve your writing. For myself, I’ve spent the past 10 years trying to improve my writing and I still feel like I barely know anything about the process. On the one hand, I find this to be disappointing because I have so much more to learn. On the other hand, it’s inspiring because I have so much more to learn.

There is one very important point to take from this module; the ability to write clearly is evidence of an ability to think clearly. Getting better at writing, along with all of the other skills in this series, will accelerate your learning, which is what makes it a meta-skill. Learning to improve your writing is almost guaranteed to improve your learning, which then helps to improve your writing, leading to a virtuous cycle.


Resources

You can download a summary of these notes as a slideshow presentation.

Readings


If you found this module on Writing useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter here. The newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

There are three other modules in the Learning to Learn programme that you may want to explore:

  1. How to create new habits.
  2. How to focus and avoid distraction.
  3. How to take effective notes.
  4. How to read.
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