On Campus

“Since the Dawn of Time…”

If you want to improve your writing, simply write

I tend to avoid giving direct scholastic advice because I know I’m talking to students who are in a wide variety of subjects at any number of levels. There isn’t a lot you can say about doing well in school that applies to all subject areas. But just this once I’m going to make an exception.

Effective writing and communication is something that everyone needs. Even if you’re in the hard sciences it’s going to matter sometimes. If you’re in the arts it’s your entire career. No matter that your real goal may be to know a certain body of material and to learn new things about it, if you can’t effectively communicate what you know and learn then you might as well not know it.

Poor writing is not only obvious to those who know good writing – they probably have a direct aversion to it. Whether you think it’s fair or unfair that this one skill should mean so much, it simply does. Strong writing can make up for a lot of deficiencies in your work and weak writing can ruin even good work. This is true of what you do in university when your work is graded by TAs and professors, and it’s true out in the real world too, where your work may not be graded but is certainly being read by someone.

“Since the dawn of time…” comes from one of the most famously bad opening lines that students are apt to stick at the beginning of their essays. It’s a famously bad line because there is no one, in any subject area, that’s talking about anything that’s actually been happening since the dawn of time. Except maybe physicists, but in that case I’ll let them correct me. Even if you’re writing about war, you might get away with the statement that mankind has always waged war, but not that it’s been happening since the dawn of time.

I know a lot of students and increasingly I know a lot of graduate students. These are your TAs and the people who grade your work. It’s painful for me to admit this, but they do make fun of bad writing. Sometimes they’re so frustrated by it they almost beat their heads against their desks. They don’t want to hand out poor grades, generally, but it takes an extremely sympathetic grader (and they are in short supply) to look past poor writing in order to see good ideas.

I want to give everyone the same advice I’ve given to a number of would-be writers over the years. If you want to improve your writing, simply write. Keep a journal. Write letters to your friends and family. Write e-mails (I mean real ones, with paragraphs) to your friends and family. Start a blog. Get into long debates on message boards. Anything. Writing is writing and it all builds into a general improvement of your skills – just like you can improve your skills at football simply by throwing a ball around. It doesn’t need to be formal or intensive. It simply needs to be real writing.

I’ve resisted this advice for some time because I know I have an obvious bias here. I write. I’m suggesting everyone needs to be able to write. Seems like I’m just promoting my own skill set. But rightly or wrongly it is a skill almost no one can do without.

There are other ways to improve your writing and I won’t try to summarize how to do that in a short piece like this. The best other tip I know (in addition to simply writing a lot) is to read what you write out loud when you’re done. I still do that. Not only will you catch bad grammar that way, you’ll also train yourself to avoid awkward and unnatural writing of the sort so many undergraduates produce. The goal is not to write in some contrived way that’s different from real world communication. The goal is to communicate on topics you might not normally discuss but in a way that is otherwise fairly natural and understandable. If it sounds like it makes sense, when you say it out loud, chances are it does.

And yeah, I just read all this out loud before I posted it.

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