What does it mean to write well?

When I talk to students and faculty about writing I always presume that they want to improve their ability to write academically. Like all presumptions (e.g., the presumption of innocence), it is not always true,* but it helps us to manage the problem of how to proceed. Presuming a desire to learn is always a good starting point for a teacher and it is only at the end (when the “verdict” is handed down) that the presumption’s truth value might be properly assessed. (Procedurally, the accused has been treated “as if” they were innocent; but that doesn’t mean that we had been assuming this. In a sense, it’s a hypothesis we were testing.) One simple way to find out whether a writer really wants to improve their writing is to ask them whether they ever practice. Do they devote some number of deliberate moments to the problem of becoming a better writer?

This commitment, in turn, has to make sense to the writer. My standard suggestion is to choose something you know to be true and then devote a half hour to writing it down the next day. During that half hour you should pose the writing problem, write some sentences, compose them into a paragraph, and read it out loud. All of these things, including the act of deciding what to write about the day before, are skills that you will become better at through practice. But what does it mean to become “better” at them? How do you know you’re improving as a writer? What does it feel like?

First of all, the work of writing will become easier. As you improve you will find that deciding what to write about, and choosing the right words to express it, is less of a struggle than it once was. Here it is important to confine your writing to matters that you are confident you know something about. If writing is hard because you don’t really know what you’re talking about then you are not giving yourself an opportunity to become a better writer. You are just experiencing your ignorance. To be sure, that’s an important experience too, but it is not a good way to work on your style. In fact, there is a risk that you will develop a style that “works around” the problem of actually knowing what you’re talking about. You will be learning how to pretend to know things in writing. Your writing will become pretentious.

Another way to notice that you’re improving is that your readers will become more interesting to you. Presumably you are interested in your own ideas, and if you’re writing them down more clearly your readers will begin to engage more relevantly with what you think. You’ll notice this in everything from your colleagues when they read your drafts to your end readers when they cite you in their own work. You’ll hopefully also notice this in the quality of your peer reviews, which will increasingly address the real strengths and weaknesses of your arguments, rather than the straw men you have haplessly marshalled in their defense. If you are a student, you will find that you are learning more from your teachers’ feedback and, if you are sharing your writing with peers (as you should), that your conversations outside of class are getting richer and deeper. To experience all of this more intensely, try giving a peer reader a single paragraph of your prose to read out loud to you and comment on while you sit and listen. A good writer is someone who, given twenty-seven minutes, can make another human being interesting for nine.

Finally, you will find that writing becomes more pleasurable as you get better at it. Your running coach and piano teacher, helpful as they might otherwise be, don’t need to tell you that you’re getting into better shape or becoming a better musician if you’re practicing regularly. You can feel this improvement yourself in the pleasure it gives you to engage in the work. The same is true of writing. Of course, you’ll have your ups and down, good days and bad days, but if you think back to how it felt to write a few weeks or months ago, it should be immediately apparent that it’s now a more enjoyable experience. If not, you need to change your approach. Good writers are not people who suffer more profoundly than bad writers when they write. As a scholar or student you will be spending many hours doing it. Don’t get into the the habit of resenting it. Try to find joy in it.

*You might be wondering why people who don’t want to become better writers would be listening to me. My sense is that some people expect me to tell them “the secret” to getting published in a prestigious journal or to getting a good grade. They want a rule to follow, not a discipline to build. I must, of course, disappoint them. As I often say, you’re going to become a better writer, not by believing what I tell you, but by doing as I say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *