Writing for the Non-Writer

I ask strangers a lot of questions for a living. Not many strangers ask me questions in return — and when they do, it's almost always a variation on, "How do I improve my writing?"

I'm certainly not a perfect writer. But I've been "good" at writing (above average, anyway) for as long as I can remember being "good" at anything. And as I got older and writing became an increasingly important part of my school work, I helped friends and family members who had essays and papers to submit for classes. Now that I've worked in the publishing business for a decade, I've also helped many authors polish up their pieces for the final printing on a glossy page or PDF.

Here are my best secret strategies for writing a better "paper" of any kind, whether it's an article for a magazine, a white paper, an essay or a thesis.

(I have a whole separate set of tips that I typically give for writers who want to write for a living. More on those next time.)

  1. Pick your topic wisely, if you can. Sometimes you won't have a choice, but if at all possible, choose something you find wildly interesting. It's better to have too much to say about a topic than too little.
  2. Spend five to ten minutes regurgitating all of your topical knowledge onto a page. Wait, we're going to plan this paper? Yes. Yes, we are. I know, you might think it's a little painful at first. But ask yourself: Is it worse to go through some minor discomfort now, or some major staring-at-the-ceiling, no-idea-where-this-paper-is-heading feeling later? This will not take as long as you fear it will, it will be easy, and it will make the actual writing of the paper so smooth (and fast!) that you won't know what hit you.

    Anyway. Sit down at your computer or take a blank sheet of paper and start brainstorming everything you know about the topic. Some of that knowledge will be relevant to your paper and some won't, but just get it onto the page somehow. As you start to write (or type) what you know, the ideas will flow faster and faster, so take enough time to get them all down.
  3. Decide what you want to include based on how long your paper is. You will likely have too much to say and have to pare down on your inclusions if you want to meet the paper criteria — and if you selected your topic wisely.
  4. Organize and sub-categorize the items in a way that makes sense. You will typically be able to find some sort of sensible pattern in your information that will help you respond to the paper topic. If not, consider what chronological or other categorical options you might have for organizing your information.
  5. If you will be including supporting information, note what to include and whereFind the quotes and data that support your arguments and decide where you will use them.
  6. Start writing. With a clear idea of where to go, you should be feeling pretty confident that you can do this — and hopefully, you've given yourself enough time to think about the topic and consider your approach, and you've included everything you want to say.
  7. Read aloud as you go. In an exam setting, you might have to settle for a very soft whisper or even imagining the words in your head, but this easy trick will help you identify awkward and incorrect grammatical constructions.

The more often you practice these steps for each piece of writing you do, the smoother the process will be. I found this method particularly helpful when writing timed essays for tests. The few minutes you spend planning upfront will make the actual writing much quicker, more coherent and more comprehensive than it would have been if you'd just started writing frantically, making your way as you go.