I’ve kicked around in my mind the topic of writing since I read Joanne Jacobs’ advice on KitchenTableMath. She lays out six solid tips on how to write effectively, then recommends on her own site an excellent book. I am by no means an expert writer [on this blog I mimic my speech with asides that are brackets, hyphens that are pauses/clauses, and other unconventional elements], but I’d like to weigh in.
Writing skills are on the decline – if you haven’t already, gloss over this essay written by a prospective English educator. And we can see it in the private sector, which may be the best indicator of how specific skills are valued. Those who write well have a leg up in the job market; if you’ve seen half as many incomprehensible cover letters as I have – or struggled to write one – you understand.
When young people are given only one shot at communicating, they fail at an alarming rate. Can you blame them? They aren’t used to “high-stakes” writing – that is, the way it always used to be. As a young writer and educator, I can’t claim enough experience to bemoan the modern state of writing and wax nostalgic over better days. I can, however, explain the emergence of some glaring problems and how we might go about fixing them.
The primary culprit responsible for the degradation of writing skills – aside from problems in our education system, which is a separate issue – is the proliferation of the internet and its lack of accountability. This isn’t a condemnation of the internet or technology. The reality is that students and young adults are used to fast-paced give-and-take communication, just like a spoken conversation, that makes saying the right thing irrelevant. There’s no need to write a clear, succinct sentence when you can correct an interpretation instantly or detail as needed any facet of your statement. The kids are used to this convenience – they expect it – and have trouble with communication that follows a more traditional format.
We can also blame the machine behind the madness. Students are using computers as they IM, Twitter, or exchange messages on Facebook. There’s no need to think about which word to use or how to structure a sentence when you can backspace your way out of any mess. Spelling has suffered, too; the auto-correct and spell-check features have rendered a great deal of thought – including classic skills necessary for quick, effective writing – useless.
Unfortunately for the younger generations, they can’t always engage in such a familiar, conversational method of communicating. Much communication still goes one way – from you to the reader via a static medium – with feedback that’s far from immediate. Timed writing, like the SAT or school exams, are handwritten and leave little room for error; others, like job applications, can be typed and edited but not explained after submission.
The good news? There’s hope for writing. There are things big and small that can improve writing skills, including harnessing the same technology that’s done harm.
The Big Ones:
1. Ask for help. You probably haven’t stopped to notice, but there are lots of talented writers in your life. They might be teachers, friends, co-workers or neighbors – it really doesn’t matter who they are. Most good writers will be more than willing to help you develop your skills.
2. Write often. Writing is one of those things that takes practice. Treat all communication as writing: e-mails, IMs, notes on the kitchen table. Think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how you’re going to do it and then do it.
3. Step back. Consider your audience every time you write. After all, they’re the ones reading. Think of writing not so much as the exposition of your own thoughts, but as relaying a message to someone else. Reading your writing aloud (or having others read it to you) will help you understand how well you’re communicating and what you need to work on.
The Little Ones:
1. Treat IMs and e-mails as real writing. Capitalize, punctuate properly and choose the right word. Pretend like you can’t take back anything you’ve said and you’ll get better quickly.
2. Read good writing. You’re only as good as what you read. Read quality writing and you’ll get better; read subpar writing and you won’t. It’s that simple.
3. Write for a large audience. It’s easy to write exclusively for yourself. Write a short letter to the editor of your local paper to reach an audience.
4. Write letters. You know, those things that came before e-mails? Write to your grandparents, your cousins, or to an old friend. And when you do it…
5. Write by hand. Typing saves time, but nothing forces quality like writing by hand. Not being able to delete or spell-check automatically makes you think harder about what you’re writing.
6. Relax. No one is inherently good at writing. If you’ve yet to win a Nobel or Pulitzer, don’t worry – you’ll get better.
7. Relax. Seriously.
8. Write for different audiences. Would you write the same way to your boyfriend as you do to your boss or teacher? Practice writing to men, women, older people, younger people, strangers, friends, family and co-workers. You need to master several different styles.
9. Write some fiction. Even if your stories are terrible – mine certainly are – write some fiction here and there. Practicing creative writing will make you a more versatile non-fiction writer.
10. Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips. It’s free, it’s concise, it’s interesting. Once a day you’ll get an easy-to-understand, relevant tip that will help your writing.
11. Subscribe to Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast. Or you can read it on her site. She’s a gem.
12. Mix up reading, writing and speaking. Read what you write. Write about what you read. Say aloud what you write and what you read. Listen to music and transcribe the lyrics. Make these three different uses of words interact. They’re natural roommates, not just in communication, but also in practice. The sooner your mind gets used to these three skills working together, the sooner your facility with language and its uses will impress.