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Learning to write

I never actually learned to write in school – if anything, my teachers reinforced bad habits (last minute rushing, verbal dexterity over actual thought).  Instead, I learned to write at work.  Based on my experiences in school and work I’ve come up with several ideas on what needs to happen for people to learn to write.

1) Writing needs to happen often.
When I write more often I start doing it better.  Like everything else in life, practice helps.

2) Writing needs to matter.
I write better when I know the quality matters.  I can write any junk that comes out of my fingertips if it’s just about a grade, but if someone else’s money or reputation rests on my words, I pay a lot more attention to what goes down on the paper.

3) Rewriting matters.
We don’t rewrite much in school – the paper is written, turned in, graded, turned back, forgotten.  And the same mistakes are made on the next assignment (and the one after that, and the one after that…).  When writing matters, rewriting matters, because that’s how writing gets good.

4) We all need an editor.
I published over a dozen professional publications without anyone ever editing my writing.  This wasn’t a good thing.  Writers need feedback – even experienced ones.  We all write self-indulgent sentences, or explain things in ways that others don’t quite understand.  A good editor notices the extra word, the misplaced phrase, the confusing thought – and helps to fix it.

5) We write better when there’s an editor in our head.
When we work with an editor we begin to internalize the editing process.  After spending weeks editing her thesis together, my sister said that she was having trouble writing new material because she kept hearing my voice in her head critiquing her word choice.  While we don’t want our inner editors to stifle us, we all need that voice inside our heads asking us if we really needed to add the word really in that sentence.

6) Reading is important.
I’ve talked to my literacy professor and learned that there is research on vocabulary acquisition in children and research on how to teach writing, but no research on the impact of vocabulary acquisition on the quality of writing.  If I ever decide to get a Ph.D. in education, don’t be surprised if I make this my area of specialization. I believe good writing is all about word choice, that word choice comes from having a large vocabulary, and that a large vocabulary comes from reading.

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