Jazz musician Paul Desmond once said that “Writing is like jazz. It can be learned, but it can’t be taught.” Desmond understood something very important about writing: good writing doesn’t come from direct instruction. And the writers, writing teachers, and language specialists I know agree. If you want to learn where good writing comes from and how to write better, be sure to read all of the Learning to write articles.
What is writing?
A few weeks ago, I wrote that reading is making sense of text. When you read, you read to understand the writer’s ideas.
When you become the writer, you are responsible to create text that makes sense to your readers. According to one of America’s great writing teachers, your goal “is to get your ideas from your mind into someone else’s mind as clearly, speedily, and economically as possible.”
Many people think of writing as a language activity when, in fact, it’s more about thinking – having good, clear ideas and organizing them so someone else can easily understand them. Writing helps make your thinking clear. When you write, you discover what you know or don’t know about your subject – in other words, you learn. William Zinsser, another well-known writing teacher, says it like this:
We write to find out what we know and what we want to say. I thought of how often I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another – by reasoning my way [step by step] to its meaning. I thought of how often writing even the simplest document – a letter, for instance – had clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.
Starting at the very beginning
Almost every week someone sends me an e-mail to tell me they’re having trouble writing and to ask for help. When they do, the most common problem is simply this – not enough English.
If you want to write English well, you need a good supply of English. We who live in southern California know the importance of reservoirs. Southern California is dry, almost a desert. The water we use comes from lake-like reservoirs that are filled each year when spring sunshine melts the snow in the mountains. Our ability to live well depends on a good supply of water from these reservoirs. Your ability to write well depends on having an English language reservoir that is full of enough English to supply the kind of thinking and writing you want to do.
There is only one way to fill your English reservoir – reading. The more you read, the more your vocabulary will grow. The more you read, the more your grammar and spelling will improve. The more you read, the more you will discover about putting your ideas into sentences and paragraphs so they make sense and say what you want to say. The more you read, the more your ability to write will emerge.
If your reservoir, or supply, of English is low, begin now to fill it. Set up a regular reading schedule – at least 20 or 30 minutes a day. If you have time and can read more, great! Your English will grow faster.
If you’re not sure what to read or how to read, look at these articles:
- The power of reading and listening
- Using popular fiction to improve your English
- A word every language learner should know
- Expert answers – how to meet a new word
NOTE: If you have specific questions about writing, please ask them in the comment section at the end of this article. If possible, I’ll include answers in future articles.
References: David Lambuth et al, The Golden Book on Writing (1963); William Zinsser, Writing to Learn (1988) and On Writing Well, 7th ed. (2006)