Better writing, part 1

03.01.2011

in Beyond the Basics, TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

What can you do to become a better writer? First, you can improve your knowledge about writing; and second, you can increase your ability to use what you know when you write. This article explains what you need to know and how to acquire it.

Writing competence

It makes sense: if you want to be a good writer, you need to know what good writing is. One writer calls this knowledge “a feel for the look and texture of good writing.” Another writes about having mental “images of what a text should look like.” It’s knowledge of the common practices used by good writers. And it’s called writing “competence.”

Writing competence is a sense, or inner feeling, for what’s right when you write. According to many writers, teachers, and researchers, writing competence is where good writing begins.

But where can you get this inner feeling for good writing? Fifty years ago, David Lambuth, one of America’s great writing teachers, wrote that the inner feeling for good writing comes from only once source: “wide reading.” He also wrote that “nobody has ever yet learned to write well by memorizing rules or trying consciously to write by them,” only by reading.

Brain Clark, a successful Internet writer says that he “learned how to write by reading obsessively.” Good writers know from experience what the research tells us: good writing comes from large amounts of reading, reading texts you choose because they interest you or give you pleasure. When you read, you informally pick up the knowledge you need to write better.

All good writers have done a large amount of pleasure reading. If you want to become a better writer, you’ll want to do the same. You can’t avoid it. You need to read enough to pick up, or acquire, that sense or feel for good writing. And if you want to continue to improve, continue to read.

Reading for better writing

Here are some things for you to keep in mind as you read:

  • You acquire most of your writing competence the same way you acquire other aspects of fluency, by comprehensible input – interesting, easy-to-understand reading.
  • Acquisition of writing competence happens subconsciously; you won’t be aware of it while you are reading or even after it happens. It will gradually show up in your writing.
  • Improving your writing competency may require a lot of reading. The amount of reading and the amount of time it requires will be different for different people. Be patient.
  • When you read, focus on the story or the ideas of the text. You acquire more when you forget that you are reading another language.
  • Expect success. If you do, you will continue to acquire, and improve, as long as you continue to read.
  • Think of yourself as becoming a member the group of people that includes the writers you read. Think of yourself as a writer or future writer. When you do, you will automatically begin to write the way good writers do for the same reason that children speak like their friends or favorite entertainers.

Writing in a second language – what about errors?

What about errors? How much should you worry about them? Many of your errors will be similar to the errors made by all language acquirers. They’re part of the process of acquiring a new language. Most of them will gradually disappear as you continue to read. Be patient. Keep reading.

Next time – using what you know

Good writers use good writing habits to put their writing competence to work. Next time I’ll describe some practical things you can do to take advantage of your new competence.

Warren Ediger

Related reading: Better writing, part 2Learning to write (a four-part series; follow the links at the end of the articles);

References: Clark (2007) Five grammatical errors…; Krashen (1984) Writing: Research, Theory, and Applications; Lambuth (1963) The Golden Book on Writing; Zinsser (2006) On Writing Well.

cherry March 3, 2011

I believe reading exactly plays an important role in improving writing, besides, I definitely agree with the opinion “The amount of reading and the amount of time it requires will be different for different people.” Patience is the biggest obstacle for me, I should keep the reading habit and keep the desire for success in my mind!

Idi Oumarou Ibrahim March 6, 2011

Very good article! Thank you very much, Dr Warren. I am looking forward to reading the second part of this very good article : « better wrtiting, part 2». Thank you in advance.

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