5 Ways To Improve Your Writing
Updated: Mar 5, 2020
Sitting down to write does something weird to the human brain. Suddenly, even the most articulate story teller is lost for words. Each sentence is torn from the writer's mind in a painful battle that involves writing and deleting, and writing and deleting, because nothing seems to sound right. Worse, the writer simply sits and stares impotently at a blank screen, unsure of where to start. Don't worry, I'm pretty sure that these are normal human experiences that almost everyone suffers from. The good news is that it is straightforward to implement a process that can make writing a joy.
There are two important aspects of fluent writing. Firstly, you need to properly understand the story that you are telling. Secondly, you need to find a way to treat writing just like any other form of story telling.
Know Your Story
The first aspect of fluent writing is working out what you want to say. This is comprised of two steps, thinking and planning.
This is the missing link in most people's writing process. They sit down to write without really knowing what they want to say. Likely, they have some idea of the topic they want to cover, but have only a vague inclination as to their key messages.
For instance, let's say you are a student who has to write an essay on a given topic. You have collected a bunch of research articles on the topic, skimmed a number of abstracts, read a couple of review articles and sorted the articles by theme. You might even have written a plan, which probably just presents the order in which you will discuss your themes. At this point you sit down to write your essay. For many students, if I now asked you what your essay is about, you would probably tell me the topic, but won't be able to tell me your key message, that is, what is the point you are trying to make in the essay. Instead, if you are lucky, this will emerge as you write. However, sometimes it won't, and even after finishing the essay you won't be able to tell me your key argument.
A better process is as follows. You collect all of the information as before. You then read and think. You think about what the information you are reading means to you. You search for other bits of literature that relate to the ideas that your reading provokes. What you are searching for is your key message, a story that you want to tell, or a position that you want to argue. This is not a retelling of the facts that you have read, but rather your own take on the topic. Your message should generally be able to be expressed as the essay title.
For example, let's say you are writing about the scientific method (the topic). Here are a few essay titles that represent different levels of development of the key message:
The scientific method - this just describes the topic, and the essay will likely just be a description of the general facets of the scientific method (e.g. focus on evidence, experimentation, objectivity, etc);
Objectivity in science - a more specific essay that focuses in on one aspect of the topic, but that is still likely to be very descriptive;
Is science objective? - the essay now seeks to ask a question. However, the direction of the argument is unclear;
The myth of scientific objectivity weakens public trust in scientists - the key message is explicit and clear.
2. Plan Your Story's Structure
Once you have your key message, there is a little bit more thinking to do. You now need to think about the best way to tell the story. Essentially, you know what your conclusion is, and you need to work out the best way to get there.
It is helpful to think about the structure of your piece in terms of the 'facts' that your reader needs to know (the premises), and the sub-arguments that take you to your conclusion. For instance:
All men are mortal (premise 1);
Socrates is a man (premise 2);
Therefore, Socrates is mortal (argument).
Establishing your premises will probably involve describing some of the literature that you have read or citing evidence. Your sub-arguments are the creative and critical part of the work where you combine bits of evidence to tell your story. Finally, you will combine sub-arguments to build your main argument.
Once you have gone through this process you should have a very concise plan that consists of the key message, the most important premises, and the sub-arguments. This is distinct from a typical plan which is often just a collection of themes linked by the topic of the work. In the former case, the writer knows exactly what they are trying to achieve with each part of the work, and how it relates to the key message. In the latter case, the writer only really knows that they are going to talk about the themes, but what they will say and how it relates to the overall piece is unclear.
Tell Your Story (Just Write! )
The aim of the first two steps is to have a fully formed story on the tip of your tongue. You are aiming to get to the point where, if you were in the pub, and a mate asked you what you were writing about, you would be able to regurgitate the whole story to them, quickly and concisely, without too much pain, and without really having to think about it.
Good writing is independent and original. Often people hear this and think that this is a very high standard to reach. It isn't! On the contrary, we all have plenty of original and independent stories ready to go. Just think about an issue that you feel passionately about. If I asked you to talk about this issue, you would be able to speak fluently and engagingly for minutes on end. The thinking and planning process is simply about getting to this stage for the topic you want to write about.
3. Don't Write, Rant!
Humans are great story tellers. The problem is that, for many of us, this ability disappears when we try to put pen to paper. The trick to fluent writing is to find a way to retain this ability.
Most of us only lose our story telling ability when we try to write something more formal. We don't lose it when we write an email to our boss, or when we write things on social media. This then provides a solution to our problem. We need to approach any writing task as if we were writing a 'ranty' email or internet reply to someone who has just disagreed with us on a topic we feel passionately about.
Having been through steps 1 and 2, we should know our story inside and out. There is no need to think about it. Instead, we just need to get it down on paper. We need to engage our 'rant' mode, to tell our story as if it was a response to an argumentative troll on the internet.
When ranting out your first draft, you should only have your plan next to you. Don't consult any of the sources you have read. If you don't remember a fact or a number, don't worry - just leave a gap and move on. Don't check back for details, try to find citations you don't remember, or reread things to see how others have expressed it. If in doubt, just make a note and continue. Above all...
4. ...Don't Read What You Have Just Written
If you are telling a story in a pub, you don't second guess yourself after each sentence. You don't utter 5 words, then stop because you didn't say it quite right, before trying again. Similarly, if someone has annoyed you on the internet, you don't worry about your turn of phrase - you are too angry, and you need to respond ASAP.
As soon as you start to second guess yourself your writing will grind to a halt. Instead, when writing our first draft we want to be in the fluent story telling mode that we use in the pub. This means that we just want to regurgitate our thoughts onto paper, focusing on telling our story without looking backwards. We need to get our words out without worrying whether they are any good. In fact, we need to suspend any evaluation of what we are doing at all.
Similarly, we don't want to think too much about the next thing that we are going to write. Again, this is analogous to story telling in a pub - we don't pause for minutes on end between each sentence - the presence of our audience makes us push on. The same applies to writing. It is fine to pause to gather your thoughts - but for no more than a few seconds.
Of course, this type of process is uncomfortable, particularly because it will run counter to your existing habits. Be strict with yourself. In addition, you can...
5. ...Use a Modified Version of the Pomodoro Method
Forcing yourself to 'just write' can be hard. I like to encourage this by setting myself a target word count to achieve during a given period of time. Typically, I set myself the goal of writing 500 words in 30 minutes. Of course, the number of words to achieve will be dependent on how quickly you can type. What is important is that the number should be large enough that there is limited time for thinking - i.e. if you are to achieve your goal you have to just write. The trick is then to be strict with yourself - there are no excuses for not reaching the goal word count. It doesn't matter if what you have written is terrible (it won't be), success is simply about reaching the target.
Writing solidly for 30 minutes can be quite demanding. For this reason I also like long breaks. Typically, I advocate a 30 minute break after each writing period. You are allowed to do whatever you like during this time - it is a break! The aim is to completely refresh, so that you can sit down and write another 500 words.
Some people will feel quite uncomfortable taking such long breaks - they will feel like they are slacking off. However, if you follow this type of schedule you are writing at a pace of 500 words an hour - this is a lot quicker than most people's typical process I believe.
Editing and Polishing
Once you know the story that you want to tell, your aim should be complete your first draft as quickly as possible. As you write you might be anxious that what you are producing is no good. Don't worry, when you read it back it will be much better than you expected. The fluency that you gain from just telling your story will far outweigh any awkward expressions caused by the speedy writing process. In any case it is much easier to polish a finished piece of work than it is to complete an unfinished piece. It is also at this stage that you should check any facts, add data that you couldn't remember, or add citations that escaped you at the ranting stage.
In summary, for most people, the actual act of writing is painful and takes a very long time. This is because they simultaneously work out what they are going to say (think), write and edit. Actually, the writing itself should be very quick - provided that you work out your story before you start writing and that you leave the editing until after you have written your first draft. Give it a go on the next thing you write.
Dan is a strength coach, educator, scientist and anarchist. His latest book, "Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist", is out in May.