Learn to Love Writing

You will be asked to write. Think about your writing process carefully and be open to new ideas about how to approach it.

Writing is, at a minimum, a two-step process: you write, you edit. Writing and editing are distinct steps. Don’t try to edit your writing as you write your first draft; you’ll trip over your own creativity. Get your ideas down, then edit. Then get more ideas down and edit them.

Ideally, you would repeat the writing-editing process several dozen times to further refine your prose. After you’ve written and edited your work, you’ll need to share your draft with others, who will edit it and rewrite portions of it. Set your ego aside. Focus on improving the writing and, through that experience, your default writing style.

This takes time.

You will produce your best work when you work well ahead of the deadline. If you wait until the last week, or day, or hour, or minute, then your final work will necessarily be your first draft. And all first drafts are bad, no matter who wrote it. Embrace that reality and finish your first draft early enough to be able to spend time editing it yourself and getting feedback from others.

This iterative, collaborative writing process may be new to you. 

  • Allocate enough time to allow for many iterations of writing-editing-feedback.
  • Write in the open. That is, post your work-in-progress in a place where your trusted reviewers have immediate and constant access to what you’ve done. This helps you to stay honest about your progress and allows others to offer mid-course corrections that can save time and effort.
  • Write together. Consider using Google Docs, Microsoft Sharepoint, or some other real-time collaboration application to allow multiple authors to be editing the document at the same time. This allows you to see the phrases and writing style being used by others to harmonize your style and theirs.

Good writing opens with a bold claim. Now more than ever before, nNeedless preambles distract the reader from your point. See what I did there? Seriously, delete your preambles.

And what is your point? Writing is a discovery process: as you write, you discover what you know and don’t know; you learn what argument you’re making as you make it. Therefore, the last sentence you write in a paragraph, the last paragraph you write in a section, and the last section you write in a paper are often the most important ideas. Ask yourself whether your writing would be better, were you to move those last points you write to the beginning.

Write well by making a bold claim. Then, provide evidence to support the claim. Be aware of and explicitly acknowledge the existence of counter evidence. Ask yourself whether the opposite of what you’ve written also has merit. If you say nothing, your readers will fill in the blanks, and perhaps not in your favor.

Acknowledge these opposing points in your writing to let your reader know you’ve considered multiple perspectives. Your finished prose is a conversation with the reader: anything you don’t say, the reader may assume you haven’t thought about. Forestall their critiques by being explicit about what you’ve considered and excluded. I’ve seen too many papers rejected because it wasn’t apparent that the author(s) had considered key past works.

Use natural structures, when there is one available. If your ideas can be organized from earliest to latest, smallest to largest, or by other recognizable patterns, then do so. The structure helps your reader make sense of your ideas. Consider: I took my meal from the attendant, placed my order, drove up to the window, and drove away. Pure nonsense. It violates your innate expectations of the natural progression of time.

Extend your use of structures to exploit parallel cases in your prose. Consider: Young, middle-aged, and elderly readers are likely to have scant, moderate, and expansive life experiences to draw upon. The two lists parallel one another; any other sequencing would confuse your reader.

Decide on key phrases and then use them consistently throughout your writing. First, every time you decide to introduce a new word order, you risk unintentionally changing the meaning of your words. A port of call is not the same notion as calling a port, despite the similarity of the words used. Second, every new word choice makes your reader work harder to understand what you mean. When you express the same idea with different words or different ideas with the same words, you confuse your reader.

You don’t need to fear writing. You don’t need to know what you’re going to say before you start writing. It doesn’t need to be perfect the first time. “Fear is the mind-killer” (Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965).

Use writing to reduce your uncertainty. Use it as a conversation with yourself and your readers. Use the process to discover what you think and find your voice.

And don’t let anyone, especially me, dictate your writing process. Whatever works best to help you produce clear, convincing prose efficiently, own that and pass it along as advice to others, as I have here.