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home | Education Today | How to Become a Better Writer

How to Become a Better Writer

Tom Woods - April 17, 2013
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To become a better writer, you must do two things.

First, you must read good writing. That means identifying good writers and tracking down what they wrote. Thomas Sowell is an excellent writer. Choose any of these articles at random, and read it:

Reading good writers accomplishes two things. First, it sharpens your instinct for good writing. Knowing what good writing looks like, you are more likely to produce good written work yourself. Second, consistent exposure to good writing makes you painfully aware of bad writing, especially your own. Ask yourself, as you gaze upon a line of your own: "Would H.L. Mencken have written this drab, prolix, pedestrian sentence?" (The libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard recommended Mencken as a good example of someone an aspiring writer should read.)

If you are an absolute beginner at writing, compare your first few efforts with the works of the great writers you've been reading. If you don't notice a major difference, your instincts for good writing have not been properly honed. Keep reading until -- let me be blunt about this -- you are embarrassed by your writing. That is the first sign that you're on your way to becoming a good writer.

The second task is, for many people, more difficult than the first: practice. To become a better writer, you must write. A lot. With practice, you'll find your writing gradually becomes more polished and elegant. Almost without realizing it, you will begin incorporating some of the lessons you have unwittingly been learning while reading the masters.

And by masters, by the way, I don't mean Shakespeare or Milton. I'm talking about modern writers whose prose style you should want to emulate when writing, say, a newspaper editorial or even a letter to the editor. I've already mentioned Thomas Sowell. Pat Buchanan is another good example. And although I disagreed with his politics, I thought Roger Ebert had an excellent command of English prose.

Good writing is not the product of memorizing and observing a series of rules. The subtleties of writing need to be learned by seeing them in action, by absorbing them unconsciously in the works of those who have mastered the literary arts.

Finally, a few minor tips off the top of my head:

Students often think good writing means using big words. Good writing involves using the right words. If a big word conveys the precise shade of meaning you are looking for, use it, but don't force them into your work. And there are some big words that are simply too hideous to use -- "prevaricate," for example. "Lie" works just as well, and sounds less obnoxious. "Utilize" is a word people use when they think "use" doesn't make them sound smart enough, but "use" is fine. And I happen to think there should be some kind of penalty for using the grotesque word "eschew."

Your writing should be as concise as you can make it. Novices have no idea how unnecessarily wordy their writing is. A skilled editor can teach you how to identify and eliminate unnecessary words, but most people don't have access to a mentor of this kind. So start a blog, and force yourself not to exceed, say, 100 to 150 words per post. You will teach yourself how to write smartly and concisely in no time.

Know when to set the rules aside. For instance, ending a sentence with a preposition is a no-no according to the style manuals. Any writer worth his salt, on the other hand, will tell you that one may violate this rule without any qualms of conscience whenever its observance would result in a literary atrocity -- e.g., "That is not the coat for which I've been looking."

Split infinitives are likewise to be avoided, say the sticklers. You should say "to go quickly," not "to quickly go." This is generally sound advice, to be sure, and I try to avoid them myself. But again, if following the rule makes you sound like a fool, then just go ahead and split that infinitive. There is no way to avoid the split infinitive in the Star Trek motto -- "To boldly go where no man has gone before" -- that doesn't make it sound ridiculous.

Becoming a good writer is the task of a lifetime. Start with these tips, and see where they take you.

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