The first thing you must do if you are looking to improve your writing, even before you start establishing goals, is ask yourself how much time you have to dedicate to the task.
And be honest and realistic with yourself.
Are you looking to improve your writing just enough so that you can get into the best business school possible with no intentions of working to better yourself after that? Are you looking to improve your writing because your boss has demanded it with threat of punishment? Are you interested in improving your writing over the course of many years because you have ambitions of writing a memoir?
In each of the above examples, there is motivation to improve. What each of the above questions attempts to stress is not that writing should be the most enjoyable thing in your life (this is perhaps what some teachers in your past may have stressed); rather, that there is a connection between writing and time.
In general, the more time you can commit to writing, the more improvement you will see. This is why quick fix solutions tend not to work. Writing is a skill that takes time to acquire. This is the simple truth.
In addition to the practicing and reading that I talked about last time, there are a few things you can do to take an active approach to your writing discipline.
The challenge for many of us is that we may be working with gaps in knowledge, or, worse, incorrect information that we picked up somewhere along the way in our education. Combine this with a lack of practice or a constant reinforcement of bad practice, and we are left with writing that society deems to be ‘poor.’
Reading and practice is a start, but where do we go to begin to get a grip on the rules themselves?
Every major publishing house has a handbook that outlines all of the rules of the whole language, but such a text is really more of a reference tool. Susan Thurman’s The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need is a high-level overview of the language that can be read cover-to-cover and will serve to fill in any major gaps in learning. Most colleges and universities are turning now to the Purdue OWL as the de facto handbook for all grammar and punctuation concerns. Feel free to consult this and save yourself the expense of buying a traditional handbook.
As you might imagine, there are also plenty of online subscription services that can help sharpen your skills. Take advantage of them, but don’t overdo it or you will end up feeling overloaded and ignoring content. Here are a few good sites that you can trust:
- Daily Writing Tips: provides responses to reader inquiries on various grammatical topics. Answers are almost always thoroughly researched and tend to be very descriptivist in their presentation (rather than prescriptivist).
- Quick and Dirty Tips: The so-called “Grammar Girl” has become one of the standards in the writing world, with her short and clear explanations of grammar rules.
- Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: delivered to your inbox. A good way to improve vocabulary. Start by getting the words. Then, put them into practice, either by using them in your writing or in your speech.
There are also several books, written primarily by journalists, which read almost like humor pieces. Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & and Leaves, and Keith Houston’s Shady Characters, to name a few, are highly educative, but they are written in a very jocular style. It was Bryson who wrote A Walk in the Woods, the humorous Appalachian Trail narrative that was just turned into a movie.
Like practice and reading, think of all of this as part of your discipline. If you take a few minutes of your day to subscribe to the three sites above, you have gotten the ball moving. That’s an achievement. There is a lot of fear surrounding the writing process. This is legitimate. As I said before, this difficulty leads to fear.
But it’s not impossible.
You can do it!