Sooner or later everyone has to write something – a thank-you note, a complaint, an apology, a eulogy.If you hate writing assignments in school, and if you dread putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, facing that empty page or screen is almost as frightening as a combined root canal and IRS audit. What to write? How to write it? Will anybody read it?
And yet lots of nonwriters do manage to write, and often do it very well. Writing is like cooking: You don’t have to be a chef at a fancy restaurant to learn the fundamentals well enough to cook a tasty meal.
“Writing can be taught to anyone,” says Dr. Nancy Castilla, who directs the creative writing program at North Lake College in Dallas.
“I always try to find the strong point in somebody’s writing. Nobody can write a page without writing something well.”
The students in Judy Porter’s social issues class at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, for example, didn’t sign up for the weekly writing assignments. Mostly, she says, they hope to get a better idea of what’s going on in the world and, if possible, to make a difference.
A few years ago, one of her students got riled up over a letter to the editor of this newspaper. The letter disparaged teenagers, and the student decided she wanted to write a reply. With Porter’s encouragement and help, she crafted a two-paragraph letter to the editor which was published that next week.
“She was like a local rock star,” the teacher says. “I made a copy for all the seniors. I said, ‘All right, this is going to be part of all my classes.’ ” About 20 percent of the students hate the weekly assignments, says Porter. But all have discovered that they, too, can write, and make their opinions known. “I guess about 20 get published per semester, which means 40 a year,” she says, “One Thanksgiving we had five in one day.”
You don’t have to be writing for publications to write well. Diana Booher, a communications consultant, was teaching a course on writing novels when she discovered that many University of Houston students didn’t want to write novels; they just wanted to be able to write clearly.
“A lot were engineers and lawyers, and they said they just needed help on their job, whether it was writing a legal brief or an engineering report.” Now she teaches executives and professionals at Fortune 500 companies how to write, sell and communicate.
There’s no mystery, she says. Clear writing is just clear thinking. Here are some tricks, techniques, and strategies Booher, Castilla, Porter and other writers and teachers use to get the ideas and sentences flowing:
Before you write:
Get rid of distractions. Find a quiet place, turn off your cellphone. Get your tools in order.
“I always have 5 or 6 sharpened No. 2 pencils,” says Liz Spears, who left a career in corporate communications to write resumes for clients. “To get creative juices flowing. I start a document on a note pad, then revisit it as my thoughts develop. I write in longhand. That’s very visual. I want to see those words.”
Thinking on paper:
Former journalist Tom Geddie teaches creative writing at Richland College and at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. “Sit down with pencil and paper or at the computer screen,” he says, “and start outlining what you want to say, why it’s important, why it matters, what its impact is on the reader.”
Booher leads her clients through a thinking process: “What’s your point? What do you want your reader to do? What are the essential details? Just get the ideas down.
“The next step is to go back and put them in order.”
“My writing’s better when I do an outline,” says Regina Montoya, whose job as CEO of the New America Alliance, a nonprofit organization of Latino business leaders, requires her to write lots of letters, speeches and the occasional article on Latino issues. An outline, she says, “forces you to put down which points are the more important ones. The more thorough the outline, the clearer and more to the point your writing will be.
“Then, I really hone that outline.”
Beating ‘writer’s block’:
When they’re blocked, Castilla tells her students, “Just write something. Don’t let your pencil stop, don’t worry about punctuation. Just keep writing. ‘Free writing’ is what we call it. For most of them, it overcomes inertia.”
Change rhythms, says Terri Rimmer, who writes features for Associated Content, an online content provider. “When I’m stuck I try praying. I take a break, take a walk, take a nap. I’ll read to get ideas, write down random thoughts.”
That first sentence:
“I always teach my students to make their first sentence catch the reader’s eye,” says Porter. “Because if it doesn’t, the reader isn’t going to read on.”
Geddie says, “Get a good, clear lead sentence that summarizes your points, that answers the reader’s question ‘What’s in it for me?’ If you can’t do it in one sentence, then do it in two or three,” he says. “But keep them short.”
Porter: “Refer to exactly what you’re talking about, whether it’s an article in the paper, or a television show. Make it detailed and specific so people know what you’re talking about.”
Remember the paper:
Short, simple words are better than long words. Short sentences are better than long sentences, short paragraphs are better than long ones.
Castilla: “I try to make my students understand their goal is to communicate, not to express themselves. The move for some years now has been to clear, simple, direct prose.”
Reading and Rewriting:
Spears also reads what she’s written out loud, listening for any awkward sentences. Montoya gives her work to her husband to read over.
All good writers read, then rewrite, says Booher. “People think that it has to be perfect the first time. They forget that people who’ve done it well do it well because they’ve rewritten and rewritten.”
Geddie: “Back off a little bit from what you’re writing. It’s an old standard, but if you can, write something and come back a day later. Also, try to be objective about it.