I like to write. I am a published writer. I am therefore often asked for help or advice from other people who are struggling to write things. In this post I have set out a few ideas from my own writing experience, along with some useful web links to help you explore some of these ideas a bit further. If you have any questions, then just comment on the article and I’ll try to answer them.
If you need to write something of substance, then sketching out what you want to cover can be a useful way of getting started – it is a way to get you thinking in detail about what content you need, what you don’t need, and what sort of structure might best present what you are saying. You should also give some though at this stage to who you are writing for: your audience. What is an appropriate length, style and vocabulary for the document? This isn’t easy – writing a plan for a complex document can be compared to writing a travel guide to somewhere you have yet to visit – but unless you are the sort of person who can hold, adapt and develop a writing plan in your head, it is probably a good idea. The BBC offers some tips of how to go about planning a piece of writing here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/factsheet/en12plan-l1-f-how-do-i-plan-my-writing
Sometimes you will need to prepare a document beneath a given heading (such as a student handbook or committee report), but on other occasions you will have more flexibility in naming your work. Take advantage of this. Titles are small but important – they are the first thing someone reads, so act to “hook” the reader and give a flavour of what is ahead. My favourite title was from a review I wrote of a bad restaurant experience at a place called As You Like It: “Now is the Dinner of Our Discontent”. There is a good exercise on generating titles available here: http://writing.umn.edu/sws/assets/pdf/quicktips/titles.pdf
Whatever it is that you are writing, you want to make sure that your ideas are clearly expressed and flow logically from one to the next. An excellent guide to how to structure good paragraphs can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/zrdosrs – while the target audience for this piece is academics, there is abundant clear information for other writers to use.
At this stage, your goal is primarily to just get the words down. This is a first draft, and you need to give yourself permission to “write ugly” – that is, just get your ideas and the basic components of your argument down, and worry about making the words pretty afterwards (that is what the editing stage is for). Having trouble thinking of a great opener? Then leave it. If you are finding it difficult getting started, try writing the easiest part of the piece first rather than what will ultimately be read first. You will feel better for having produced some words, which will give you the encouragement to write the next bit, and the next, and so on. The pieces can be moved into order later, and once you know exactly what you have written, it will be easier to introduce it.
You should also make sure that you aren’t distracting readers from your argument by using the wrong words. There is a comprehensive list of commonly confused words here (such as “affect” vs “effect”) to guide you to the right ones if you are unsure: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/usage.
The best thing you can do once you have written the first draft is to leave it alone – I once heard someone describe this stage as “letting the writing mature”. Put it to one side for however long you can: an hour, overnight, a few days if possible. Give yourself some distance from what you have written. When you pick it up again, try reading what you have written out loud – any awkwardness, overly-long sentences and clunky constructions usually become very obvious using this approach. Look for grammatical errors, changes in tense, words that have been repeated too many times and unnecessary adverbs that bloat your writing. If you are unsure if something is clear, then ask someone else to read it and ask them. There is a useful guide to self-editing your writing here:
If you want to write better, you don’t just need to practice writing – practice reading as well. The more good – and bad – writing that you read, the better you can develop your own wordsmith skills.