A colleague and I were working on a writing task for our division. As I composed, he looked over my shoulder and pointed out every error and every change he thought should be made. When I expressed my desire to slug him across the face, he was hurt and surprised.
“But that’s how I write. I don’t leave a sentence until it’s perfect,” he said, a tad defensively.
Yes, our writing styles were incompatible. I was later to discover that we were incompatible in several other areas as well, but that’s a topic for another post on a totally different type of blog.
But my experience was a good reminder that people write in different ways, and that no list of tips will work for everyone. I am of the “get it all the garbage out in a draft and you can fix it later” school. My colleague was a “fix each sentence as you go” sort of man. We both have written dissertations and various articles and reviews for publications. So obviously both systems can work.
Still, as someone whose job requires writing and who works with talented writers, I offer the following tips in hopes that you will find something you can use:
- Ignore all advice that doesn’t work. Sure, there is basic advice that works. And if you’re a beginner who has never written an essay or a story or a novel, then, by all means, look for guides and follow their advice. But if your writing process works for you, then don’t change it just because some expert says so. I’ve read books by writers who follow strict outlines for their plots and books by authors who let the characters develop at their own will. Both types are successful.
- Don’t ignore basic grammar and usage. I have been on many search committees for various positions on our campus. One thing they all had in common was how quickly a misspelled word or verb error could get someone removed from consideration. And it didn’t matter if we were looking at potential vice-presidents or file clerks. This is true for written work of all kind; if the message is muddled by poor word choice and bizarre spelling, it won’t be taken seriously. It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. So get over your outrage and start proofreading.
- When planning a writing assignment, assume things will go horribly wrong. I’m not a pessimist; this tip comes from years of listening to stressed students whose papers were not ready to hand in on the due date. They had chosen a day to go to the library, but the computer system had gone down that very day! The printer ran out of toner! They didn’t have enough money in the their print account and hadn’t brought cash to campus! Just as they started to write, their significant other broke up with them! Face it. Bad things happen to good writers. So pad your plan in anticipation of such bad things. You’ll be glad you did.
- Don’t cheat. And that’s true whether you’re a freshman tempted to turn in an “A” paper written by a friend in another section of composition or a journalist tempted to make up a quotation from a rock star. Just don’t do it.
- Read. Write. Read some more. Write some more. Reading other people’s work, both good and bad, allows you to see how other people put together thoughts. Every talented writer I know is also a voracious reader. And if you want to be a proficient writer, then you have to practice writing.
Happy writing, my friends!