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How to write well: three indispensable steps

zadie-smith-at-work ospite-a-santa-maddalena-89264_0x440-1What does it take to become a good writer? Many think it’s all a matter of talent. Some say inspiration is the primary thing. Others believe that, as long as you know the rules of grammar and punctuation, you’ll do fine.

The truth is that becoming a good writer is both simpler and harder than any of that. The ability to write well is not encoded on a gene you’re born with. Nor is it something you can learn in a flash or get from one book. Instead, it takes a lot of time and work.

Becoming a writer is much like becoming a musician. Practice is the key. You have to invest many hours, over a long period of time. That’s the only way to develop facility and technique. If you don’t have those things, inspiration won’t be much help.

Nobody expects a beginner to pick up a violin for the first time and be able play a Bach partita. With music, we all know it doesn’t work that way. But somehow, when it comes to writing, people tend to think that anyone can do it. You just need to follow a set of rules—rules that the mythical English teacher was supposed to have handed out on a sheet to everyone’s 7th grade class.

In fact, there is nothing as easy as a sheet of rules to tell you how to do it. Instead, there’s just a lot of work. In psychological terms, writing often requires blood, sweat and tears.

Why should writing be so hard? After all, everyone can talk. And writing is pretty much like talking… right? Actually, it’s not. Writing is to talking what violin playing is to humming. There’s a connection, but it’s slight.

If you want to become a good writer—and that’s an important goal for anyone who’s headed to college and beyond—here are the three steps you must follow. I did not say “three easy steps.” Because they won’t be easy. You’ll need patience. Don’t expect that learning to write well will be a quick process. But then nothing worth accomplishing ever is.

1. Write every week—every day if possible. A sculptor learns by plunging his hands into the clay and working it. A writer learns by grappling with words on the page. Draft an essay or a paper. Rewrite it; edit it; rewrite again. If your teacher doesn’t give you a writing assignment every week, give yourself one. You need that constant practice to become good.

Keeping a journal is fine. But you need to write in more than one genre. Besides writing academic-style papers, such as the ones you are assigned in school, try your hand at writing things like news stories and poetry. Don’t forget to write personal essays. The personal essay is a form that’s not usually taught in high school. But it’s an important form to master. Many of your college applications will require one.

2. Read omnivorously. Don’t confine yourself to books you are assigned for school. Read other books of your own choosing, as well as newspapers, magazines, essays and poetry. Choose the best writers to read. They will be your finest teachers. It is only by reading constantly—and reading top quality material—that you will develop an ear for language, rhythm and structure. Have you ever met a good musician who doesn’t listen to other musicians? Of course not. Just as a musician must develop his ear by listening, a writer must develop hers by reading.

3. Analyze what you read…and what you write. What makes one piece of writing work better than another? What makes one essay interesting and another one boring? How does a writer manage to capture and hold your attention? These may seem like mysteries at first. But if you look closely, you’ll discover the answers. Talk about what you have read with friends, teachers and writers. Ask them to help you analyze a particular essay, article or poem. Join a writer’s workshop or even a book club. As you analyze the work of others, you’ll be learning strategies that will help your own work.

A note on the photograph: Who’s the young woman in the red turban, working away on her laptop? That’s Zadie Smith, British novelist, essayist and short story writer, most famous for her best-selling novel White Teeth, (2000). She teaches writing at NYU. Here’s Zadie’s advice on how to become a good writer: “When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.” Amen to that!

– The College Strategist