Writing as we know it is dying. In a world where words are communicated in large and incessant quantities over increasingly convenient social platforms, it seems as if no one takes the effort to make sure they’re expressing themselves well. It’s unlikely anyone from now on would be able to write in prose and pentameter as powerful as Shakespeare’s, and we’re looking at a possible future filled with nothing but novels about vampire romances and shades of monotones.
Simply because the quantity of communication has increased does not mean that the quality of it has fallen. But it’s not hard to see that, especially in Singapore, the standard of writing and expression is on a decline – fuelled on many fronts by a lack of interest in effective expression, a paucity of passionate and experienced people teaching language and writing, as well as a continuous shift towards occupations and subjects that are more scientific and thus perceived to be safer.
In our continuing effort to spread the joy of words and save us from a future of illiteraricy, here are five steps for you to instantly improve your writing. If you’re already doing this, keep it up and share the wisdom!
Step #1: Know What You’re Doing.
Writing is the same as just about any other activity. If you’re not sure what you’re doing it for, then you might be going in a completely wrong direction. You could use up all your ammunition and still not land a hit. Worse, you might hit the wrong target, and that is sometimes a bigger problem than aiming at the right one and missing.
So before you even begin writing, you need to understand what exactly your purpose is. Here are a few possibilities:
Is it to prove a point? Typically, essay writing requires a very close understanding of what exactly is it you’re trying to prove. If the question is about “whether green apples are better than red apples”, you’d need to do a comparison between the two. It’s not the same question as “whether green apples are good”.
Is it to tell a story? If so, what story do you want to tell? How do you want people to feel after reading your story? Sad, happy, disgusted, inspired? These all will and should affect how you begin and end your writing.
Is it for fun? Even when you’re writing for leisure, say, for a blog post or on a simple whatsapp chat, paying some attention to the words you use could infinitely increase the fun and enjoyment you get. Consider who your target audience is, what they’d like to hear, and most importantly, what kind of images and words they would understand the best. Don’t go around talking about Scylla and Charybdis if you're addressing a class of primary school kids.
Is it for marks? This is, sadly, probably the most common type of writing we do nowadays. When doing this you need to be aware of the requirements of the answering format – are there certain restrictions to the words you write? Should you be more careful of making grammatical errors because it’ll get you penalised? If you’re writing for marks, it really helps to clarify what kind of writing will get you what kind of marks. But, generally, I’d say that the better you write, the more marks you’d get, although ‘better’ is often relative to the answer scheme.
Step #2: Plan.
Planning is the best thing you can do for your writing. That’s because planning is actually thinking, and writing without thinking is the number one cause of bad expression, if that isn’t already obvious.
It doesn’t matter how you plan, as long as it involves you ironing out and coordinating your thoughts before, not as, you write. Plan when you’re writing an essay, because otherwise you’ll be confusing yourself as you go along. Plan when you’re doing a short answer question worth only 4 marks, because then you’ll know exactly how many points you’ll cover and you can add/remove things before it becomes indelible ink. Plan when you’re hard-pressed for time, because planning takes out the content-related thinking that you’d otherwise do during the actual writing, and being able to focus solely on expression saves you lots of time.
Plan before you answer any question, be it for an interview or a test, because prior thought organises your answers and shows how much of a mature thinker you really are. Plan and plan always.
Step #3: Stop Using Words You Don’t Know.
I’d daresay every one of us is guilty of this. We think of a brilliant quote or phrase that’s somehow related to the topic at hand, and we reverse engineer our content so we can fit those words of wisdom into our writing. To be fair, this is not always bad, but it mostly is, especially if the quote or word in mind is not totally relevant to begin with.
Actually, we do this because we’ve been trained to. Since young we’ve been handed writing assignments with ‘helping words’ that are supposed to enhance our writing. In the short run it does work, as the young us typically don’t know enough vocabulary to fully express ourselves yet. We organise our plots and storylines around these words as if the list was a checklist and the more ‘helping words’ we get to use the better our work will be.
Build your expressions around your points, not your points around your expressions.
But then a dependency develops, and we begin to force-fit words and phrases into our writing, organising our thoughts around phrases when we should be doing the exact opposite. A force-fit point is horribly obvious and does nothing except to highlight the awkward fundamentals of your writing. While being able to show off good vocabulary and use powerful words at the right times are a definite plus, using words wrongly or without fully appreciating their meaning and connotation can backfire. I don’t really want to describe essay writing as a titanic task, for example, because although it really is difficult, it is not as much of a physically large and powerful activity as the association to the mythological Greek titans suggests.
Instead of using inextricably epicurean vocabulary that obfuscate, perplex and hinder meaning, rely on simple words that have less chance for error, unless you really know what you’re doing.
Step #4: Don’t Write For The Sake Of Writing.
Another unfortunate habit created by the bane that is homework is that most of us see writing as an involuntary activity, typically involving forcing our minds to throw up words and phrases that don’t naturally occur to us. But if you don’t like writing, knowing this lesson will help you avoid doing more of it.
I’d say we’ve all done this before too, because there’s always that one teacher that gives us a minimum word limit for an assignment, even though there’s really nothing much to say about it. It’s not wrong, to be fair, but an undesirable side effect is we start to think writing more for the sake of writing more gives us more marks. What makes it worse is that there is some truth behind this perception.
The act of waffling, as writing smoke and fluff is known, is really very obvious and could ruin an entire essay if the rest of it is actually sharp and condensed writing. To borrow a common Chinese proverb, it is like drawing a really nice and elaborate snake and then adding legs to it when you realise there’s too much white space. It doesn’t make sense, and distracts the viewer from the beauty of the rest of the picture. Sometimes, less is more. And other times, less itself is better. Just look at all those ‘minimalist’ designs that are trending now.
Write when you have something to write, not when you have to write something.
And subtlety is also important, especially for more narrative writing. Imagine if Darth Vader had said ‘I am your father but I don’t think you knew that because I was actually Anakin Skywalker previously and I had a tryst with your mom and became a Sith behind this mask before you were old enough to know”. Just say what is necessary to achieve your purpose - there are some things better left to imagination and self-evidence.
In short, writing is only partly about what is said.
Step #5: Learn From Great Writers.
One of the reasons why we are commonly asked to do book reviews and other painful reading assignments is that books are really great places to learn how to write. I mean, they’re the longest written things around, yea? That’s also why people copy model essays and rewrite them thousands of times.
It’s ok to copy (unless it's during a test), because almost all great artists start by doing so. When you look at something wonderful and attempt to recreate it yourself you’re also developing some of the skills and muscle memory needed.
The problem is if you merely copy but never learn. It is as important to be able to express yourself in your own voice as it is to be aware of how other strong voices express themselves. You could start by copying, but what is more valuable are the lessons which good writers offer – why and how to write rather than what to write. To get these, though, you have to consciously seek them out. Try asking yourself: Why is this so much better than mine and how can I improve?
To start you off, here are six rules of writing from amazing academic badass George Orwell:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Of these, Orwell’s rule #6 leads me to one extra, and perhaps most important step...
Step #6: Know That There Are No Rules For Writing.
Only guidelines. And even these are meant to be broken intelligently.
It might sound contradictory and weird, but as much as the education system might want you to believe, there are no model answers for essay questions, and no hard and fast rules to writing. There are only pieces of writing which are stronger or weaker.
And the best measurement of the strength of a piece is how much it can say to how many people in how many words. That is exactly what the marking schemes try to get at when they talk about ‘economy and accuracy of expression’.
In the end though, the PEEL and SEE formats of answering are useful, but only because they are a beginning to your writing, not the end. You’re supposed to make use of them to guide you towards developing your own writing style that suits the requirements of the purpose, and is sharp, condensed and strong.
So here’s a recap of the 5 + 1 steps to instantly improving your writing:
- Know what you’re doing.
- Plan and plan always.
- Stop using words you don’t know.
- Don’t write for the sake of writing.
- Learn from great writers.
- And know that there are actually no rules to writing.
None of these are actually difficult to apply, and I’m speaking from experience when I tell you it’ll instantly improve your writing ability.
Go forth now, and change the world with your words. And one more thing, remember you don’t have to follow guidelines if you already know what you’re doing.