I’m often asked what the secret is to good writing. As a journalist and a graduate student, I’ve done my fair share of writing—and the share of a few other people too. Some days, I wish there was a magic wand I could wave over my keyboard to complete a paper or article. Hard work—or rather, smart work—has no substitute.
Here are my 5 tips for writing well:
5. Research, research, research
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a final paper for class or a 2,000 word article, research is key. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a working knowledge of your subject(s). Look at what others have written about your subject. And while the Internet is a god-send, nothing beats time in the library—that place where they store those things called “books.”
4. Plan your work, work your plan
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing a piece, the only thing that takes a backseat to research is developing a vision. What do you want the reader to get out of your piece? Most importantly, how much space do you have to say it? A 300 word article looks vastly different from a 1,200 word piece.
3. Be clear and concise
This is the simplest of the tips, but often the hardest to follow. While you may enjoy the sound of hearing your fingers on the keyboard like I do, readers are busy. Get to the point and get to it quickly.
In Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, there’s a chapter titled “Writing as a Spiritual Calling.” While the process of writing can definitely take on a spiritual nature—and it certainly does for me—it can be a nerve racking process if you trip yourself up. Writer’s block can turn a heavenly process into pure hell (and there’s nothing spiritual about that). You must practice if you want to overcome writer’s block. Writing is indeed a vocation—and for many an occupation. It’s also an exercise. Just as you can’t hop out of bed and run a 5K without any prior training, you can’t write a term paper or a lengthy article without writing consistently.
Write often. As an old football coach told me, “You play like you practice.”
1. Find your voice
Finding your voice can make or break your piece. Is your writing style conversational? Engaging? Do you write the way you talk? In The Everything Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” Richard D. Bank gives this helpful hint on finding your voice:
Pick up anything bit a newspaper article and read it and be aware of the voice in your head transmitting the words. It may sound like your voice but in fact it’s the voice of the writer, which will only sound authentic if it reflects the writer.
In other words, if you’re reading over a piece you’ve written and it doesn’t sound like you, chances are, the reader is going to feel the same way.
There’s no substitute for authenticity.