Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

3 Essentials Every Writer Needs to Improve Her Craft

Today, everybody writes. It used to be that some corners of society didn’t require a lot of writing. In fact, in some instances you could get away with scratching a picture on the cave wall and calling it a night. But not today.

With the rise of technology like the Internet and smartphones, everyone is writing. That’s not to say the scrawling of pictures on cave walls has stopped altogether. Emojis smattered on a smartphone screen are like the modern equivalent of cave art, I think.

Emojis aside, more people are writing today than ever before because more forms of communication are available than ever before. Texts, emails, chats, messages, and blog posts are all forms of writing. They are much like letters, essays, book reports, and thank-you notes, but slightly different. Which is why it’s important to learn to write well.

Contrary to what one would expect, the increase in writing has not improved the writing skills of the demos. In many cases, it’s only made them worser. Yip, and quite a bit worser, I might add. Traditionally, one’s ability to write well was a reflection of the quality of one’s education. Frankly, it still is.

Even if one were to acknowledge she writes poorly, she doesn’t have to remain a poor writer. Writing is not a skill some are gifted with and others are deprived of. Anyone can learn to write well if she chooses to. Writing is simply communication.

Remember communication consists of a speaker, a listener, and a good medium that will transcend the interference that exists between the two. Good communication means thinking clearly and articulating precisely. Writing is just good communication on paper (or a computer screen).

The Art and Science of Writing

Writing is both an art and a science. By art, I mean there is room for creative expression whereby words are used to paint pictures, evoke emotions like joy or anger, or even persuade the masses to do something important. But writing is also a science because it makes use of specific rules.

In other words, the use of words on any medium will be ineffective if they are not laid down according to the rules that govern their usage. Learning to write well requires proficiency in the science of laying down words properly. That way you can write creatively.

The better one is at the science of writing, the better she will become at the art of writing.

I have two brothers who work in the specialized field of architectural concrete. Architectural concrete is both architectural and artistic. That means these guys can make a gray concrete floor look like it’s made of bricks, wood planks, or marble. They can even acid-dye a mural into the floor if you want them to.

But before they ever designed their first elaborate piece of artwork on someone’s driveway or living room floor, two things were necessary: they had to learn the science of laying concrete, and they had to have the right tools. Concrete has specific rules for mixing, laying and curing—rules that must be followed so it sets up properly and doesn’t crack. It has to be usable before it can be pretty. And to mix, lay, and design concrete to be usable and look good both, it requires tools specific to that craft.

Writing is much the same. The tools for writing are words. The science of writing is grammar. And the art of writing is choosing which tool is the best one to use to make the point, and make it clear.

The product of good writing, then, is clear prose that makes sense and is aesthetically engaging.

If you want to write better–and we all need to–then the task is to improve your knowledge of grammar, expand your vocabulary, and learn the best choice of words for saying something. This is best accomplished by reading voraciously and writing prolifically.

Improve Your Knowledge of Grammar

To improve your knowledge of grammar, memorize the eight parts of speech, learn the difference between the nominative case and the objective case, understand the difference between active and passive voice, know the difference between a linking verb and an action verb, and get a handle on punctuation. It would also help to recognize a run-on sentence when you see one.

A lot of writers doesn’t think grammar are all that important, but I beg to differ. I hope you can see why. Poor grammar makes a person sound like they are impoverished, intellectually. And if a writer can’t think well, then why should I waste my time listening to what she has to say (or reading what she has to write)?

Certainly, this is the place where someone is going to object and say that’s what editors are for. Well, inspectors have their place in the concrete world, too. They’re usually the guys telling the slouches to rip it up and start over. All the editors at Simon and Schuster can’t help a slouch write better prose. But a little application and a lot of practice takes a poor writer further than a hundred edits forced on a slouch.

Expand Your Vocabulary

We each have a vocabulary that reflects our knowledge bank. The tools we have at our disposal when communicating is limited to how expansive that bank is and how proficient we are at using the tools available in the bank. The smaller the bank, the more limited we are in our ability to articulate ideas effectively. Of course, a vast and agile vocabulary is preferable, not for the purpose of impressing people with superfluous language, but so we have a better choice of tools to use when communicating our ideas.

To expand our vocabulary, we must read widely and voraciously. We must look up words we don’t know and keep a journal of their definitions. We should use new words we learn every chance that comes along until they seem natural to us. With each new word we learn, we have another tool available to use.

Become Proficient with the Tools in your Box

Finally, to be proficient with our tools, it’s essential to study the etymologies and nuances of words, as well as the syntax of sentences and paragraphs. As we read, we should take note how words are used by different writers in various genres. Again, this requires us to read, read, read, and write, write, write—every day!

I suggest reading at least a book a week and writing a minimum of three hundred words a day.

Remember, consistency is the only way to get better at anything. As they say, practice makes perfect. But that is only partially true. To be more specific, practice make permanent. Practicing correctly, however, that makes… well, better–never perfect, but better.

How are you actively working to improve your writing? Let me know in the comments.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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