Better writing, part 1 emphasized the importance of developing writing competence – a sense, or inner feeling, for what’s right when you write. Writing competence is what guides writers when they write, but it isn’t enough. You also need a reliable process for getting your ideas down on paper or into your computer.
In Learning to write – from start to finish, I outlined a simple process for effective writing. If you haven’t read it, take a few minutes to read it now. You’ll get more from this article if you do.
This article consists of two lists. The first, from writers and researchers, describes good writing-process habits. The second is a list of the most common writing-process suggestions I give my students. Hopefully the two lists will help you evaluate your writing process and identify what you need to work on to improve it.
Good writers . . .
. . . take time to plan what they’re going to write and how to organize it.
. . . have a clear idea of their subject, their purpose, and their readers and keep it in mind while they plan and write.
. . . write for specific readers. Good writers ask “What do my readers need to know; what will interest them; what effect do I want to have on them?” Students, respect your professors enough to treat them like real readers; it’s usually obvious when you try to impress.
. . . stop from time to time to read what they’re writing, to make sure they’re saying what they wanted to say, to revise what they’ve written, and to change their plans if necessary.
. . . focus on their content – what they’re trying to say – while they write.
. . . wait to edit – correct grammar, words, spelling, etc. – until they’re satisfied with their content.
Things I tell my students
Be flexible. Each writing task will be different in some way – different subject, different purpose, different readers – and must be approached differently.
Outlines or plans should be like the North Star – they should keep you going in the right general direction. But they do not have to include all the details. And you should not be afraid to make changes in them when new ideas come to you while you write.
Not every essay must have three main points and five paragraphs. What you want to say determines the number of main points and paragraphs and may be different every time. The five-paragraph essay is simply a convenient teaching tool.
Writing formulas do not lead to good writing. Another teacher told one of my students that the introductory paragraph to a TOEFL essay should always follow this pattern (underlined):
It is a widely held understanding that the purpose of education is to lead students what they are expected to do when they grow up and become social members. Some people argue that high school education is enough for students to live a successful life in a modern society. However, it is clear that getting a university education opens up a whole new world to students in terms of getting more valuable jobs and learning more specialized education.
The teacher was wrong. When my student ignored the formulas he had been taught and began to think about his subject, purpose, and readers, he immediately became a much better writer.
Your most basic goal as a writer is to say something that makes sense to your readers, to help them understand. To do that you need clear thinking and clear writing. Clear writing demands competence – a clear mental picture of what good writing looks like – and that comes by doing a lot of reading. You also need a good writing process – and that comes by writing and paying attention to what works best for you.
Related reading: Learning to write – a series of four articles beginning with Learning to write – introduction.
References: Krashen and Lee (n.d.) Competence in Foreign Language Writing: Progress and Lacunae; Krashen (1984) Writing: Research, Theory, and Application; Zinsser (2007) Writing to Learn.