Seven ways to improve your writing

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By Francis Moran

Like my friend Ian Graham over at The Code Factory, I subscribe to what he calls “the law of three.” That is, if something is mentioned three times in a short period, you should do something about it. Well, two different people over the past week asked me for advice on how to improve their writing. I shared some of my usual tips and I pointed each of them to a couple of posts on this blog where I previously wrote about our fondness for the The Chicago Manual of Style and about my personal approach in quizzing job applicants to determine if they are real writers or not.

Then this morning, my regular email from the excellent Daily Writing Tips was all about online style guides, making it the third mention in short order about ways to help improve your writing. So I thought I’d share some good counsel from my own experience and from Daily Writing Tips.

1. Read a really good newspaper every day

I’ve been telling eager writing students this for years, especially if they’re looking to get into the journalism or communications professions. But it holds true for any writer because excellent journalism is a daily lesson in effective writing. Journalists are trained to impart solid information in very quick order while avoiding superfluous wording and hyperbole. I can’t think of a better definition of what ought to constitute good writing in almost any business context.

Here in Canada, we are extraordinarily fortunate to have the Globe and Mail, in my opinion one of the top five English-language newspapers in the world. While the Globe and the others make my list mainly for their journalistic strengths, the Globe is my personal favourite because of the consistently high quality of its writing. My other top writing pick, London’s The Guardian, is now within easy reach for all of us, thanks to the Internet. Read either — or, even better, both — of these newspapers every day with a critical eye for how the stories are written and you’ll not only become a better writer, you’ll also be very well informed.

2. Practice makes perfect

If you want to be a writer, you must write. Malcom Gladwell in his book “Outliers” suggested that besides talent and opportunity, it takes a lot of hard work to become proficient at something; in fact, 10,000 hours of hard work. If I have spent just one quarter of each working day writing — and many, many days I have spent much, much more than that — then I have logged in excess of 15,000 hours at my keyboard. So maybe by now, I’m getting good at it! How many hours have you put in?

A fascinating study out of Stanford University suggests that text-messaging and Twitter updating are actually improving the literacy standards and writing skills of today’s young people, a sharp contradiction to conventional wisdom that would suggest the shortened words and fractured syntax usually employed in these communications forms would erode writing skills. Turns out, according to writing and rhetoric professor Andrea Lunsford, it’s a simple matter of practice — young people are spending a lot of time using text online, honing writing skills that they otherwise would have abandoned with their textbooks and essay assignments. “We’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” Lunsford is quoted as saying by Wired magazine.

3. Everyone needs an editor

Anyone who has ever worked with me knows this is one of my utterly intractable rules. Nothing, including this post, leaves our shop without at least one set of eyes reviewing it. A good proofreader catches the typos and what my wife likes to call the “thinkos” that always find their way into our copy, and this is hugely valuable. But a good editor does for your writing what going up against a better tennis player does for your tennis — she or he improves your game. Invite that challenge.

4. Have a good library of reference books

I have often mentioned how my copy of “The Pocket Oxford Dictionary” that always sits right beside my keyboard bears testimony, through its missing spine and generally dog-eared and bedraggled appearance, to the regularity with which I consult it. In the same short stack of references that I always keep at hand can be found “CP Style Book” and “CP Caps and Spelling” as well as a basic French-English dictionary and an ASCII character table. These are the tools of my trade.

If I swing my chair around to look at the bookshelves that line my office wall, I estimate that a good 10 feet of shelf space are devoted to other dictionaries, a thesaurus or three, and many other textbooks, references, style guides and general-interest books about writing. (One particularly treasured volume, even more ragged than my own Pocket Oxford, is a slim little work of ink-stained and yellowed paper titled, “The Educational Dictionary.” It has no date in it so I don’t know when it was published. But on the otherwise blank first page, it bears, in Gaelic, my late mother’s signature and the name of the school she attended in the early 1940s. Both for what it is and, mainly, for who owned it and gave it to me, it bears pride of place on my bookshelf.)

The rest of my top 10 list refers to specific sources either that I use or that were recommended in this morning’s Daily Writing Tips.

5. The Chicago Manual of Style

This is probably the definitive bible of American-English writing. You can buy it for about $50 or, even better, subscribe online.

6. The Canadian Press references

For we Canadians living between the American and British versions of the English language, the various references published by our domestic news-gathering service, The Canadian Press, are indispensable. You can subscribe online or buy dead-tree versions here.

7. When using the Queen’s English

I have never used them but Daily Writing Tips recommends the free, downloadable “The BBC News Style Guide” and “Guardian Style”, available free online and for sale as a book.

/// COMMENTS

No Comments »
  • Basia Vanderveen

    September 01, 2009 3:21 pm

    Thank you very much for this, Francis. I especially enjoyed the part about the ink-stained little work – very nice.
    Have a great day!
    Basia Vanderveen – thinking about my “thinkos”

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