Some time ago, I thought about writing an article about writing. While I have read articles and research about some of the new words in the English language created through texting shorthand and the impact of the pace of quickened communication on our written language, I note that there is no substitute for a well-written book, document, article, memo, etc.
I make no claims to being a writer, professional or amateur. I do not publish academic research at the present time. However, I have enjoyed reading since the beginning (first grade for me), and the enjoyment of reading has given me an appreciation for the quality of writing.
During my elementary and secondary years, I benefited by having dedicated teachers who guided the development of my writing through the typical structural development prescribed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. By the time I reached high school, we focused less on the structure of a sentence (no more sentence diagramming) and more on the prose itself. As a precursor to college, my high school classmates and I were given a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White and were told that everything we ever wanted to know about good writing was contained in that book (William Strunk was a professor at Cornell University who began his guide for writing in 1918 and E.B. White was an editor at the New Yorker who studied under Strunk. White revised Strunk’s guide in 1958).
As a freshman at Duke University in 1972, I suffered through the standard required English composition class in which little guidance was given about how to write other than analyzing the literary context of the novel and writing argumentatively. The course was graded on a C curve and those of us who achieved an A or B were grateful that we did not receive a C and were perplexed given the limited opportunity to receive personal advice about our writing. When I decided to be a liberal arts major, most of my subsequent courses required writing papers and making educated arguments about the assigned readings. Education about writing had ceased with English composition. It was expected that your writing would improve as you continued to progress (and write) in your upper level liberal arts classes.
When I attended graduate business school at Tulane, there was little room for the type and style of writing embraced in history, philosophy, and English classes. Analysis was best when it was brief and to-the-point. That same style of brevity was important for writing memos throughout much of my business career.
After a long respite from being a student, I entered a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. One of our professors recommended that we read a book entitled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Lamott’s lessons are less about the techniques of writing and more about the importance of writing often, in essence practicing and perfecting the art of writing. The title of her book stems from an incident in her childhood when her brother complained that he did not know where and how to start a paper about birds. Her father, a writer, instructed her brother to write about the birds, “bird by bird.”
I shared my thoughts about Bird by Bird with a friend of mine who teaches English composition in high school. He recommended Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Roughly two-thirds of the book is autobiographical, but the middle section provides some good tips on writing.
While Bird by Bird and On Writing provide coaching tips and ideas, they are not as instructional as The Elements of Style. I agree with King’s and Lamott’s advice that the more you write, the easier it will be to write. That does not necessarily mean that the writing will be better. Few writers are gifted enough to write a flawless novel or article at one sitting. I review and edit until I am comfortable with the flow of the document. In some cases, I ask someone to review it and provide me with edits or comments.
Alex Reid, the author of The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition, recently commented on his blog, Digital Digs, that “The more we write and the greater variety of genres in which we write, the better prepared we will be to write in a variety of genres in the future.” Reid’s post is a response to an article by Josh Keller in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Keller reports about longitudinal studies at Stanford and Michigan State that explore whether the internet makes students better writers. Reid bills himself as an academic writer, and his conclusion is similar to the tips from Lamott and King who are professional writers. Reid not only comments about the importance of writing frequently, but also about the importance of writing frequently in multiple genres.
Whether writing at work, at school, or on the internet, I agree that the frequency of writing should improve the quality of your written output. Constructive criticism from bosses, professors, or friends is helpful as well. If you feel uninspired during your next effort at writing, read Bird by Bird or On Writing. Good luck and good writing!