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A Few Words


For a full treatment of this topic, read my dissertation section on

How To Improve Your Writing Skills
In A Few Short Months

So you want to learn how to write? Maybe you're planning to start college, or maybe you're trying to advance in your career, or maybe you're struggling in school. Whatever the case, the following technique is sure to help you improve quickly — in a few months. Believe me, it's worth making this simple effort.

I thought up this technique in order to improve my own writing. When I started college, I did not have the skills required to write high quality research papers. Even my reading skills were far below par. Then I dedicated myself to one simple task, and things started to turn around. Simply put: all you have to do is to write one index card of material every day.

The problem with many writing classes, in my opinion, is that they try to get you to write complicated things too quickly. It's far too intimidating to do this. Furthermore, classes do not tend to emphasize the importance of routine and ritual. The process is akin to musicians practicing scales, or basketball players shooting around, or golfers at a driving range. These are simple tasks, but important in developing a competence at complicated skills.

Writing is much the same: if the only time you write is when you're called upon to write, then you'll never have developed technique, or rhythm, or respect for the activity. So, rather than focus attention on writing essays right off, I prefer the index card.

An index card (usually) has ten lines. It can hold about one well-constructed paragraph. This should not intimidate anyone like a blank page or a length requirement does. The idea is to write one index card a day. The content of the card is not all that important. My general practice is to write about one interesting thought or occurrence of the day. For example:

Today I spent time watching all the fascinating characters at the Riverside library. I think that some of them are wild enough to make good characters for a short story. It should be a story about what makes up the usual cross-section of a free, public place — from the dregs to the intellectuals. Everyone is crazy in their own way at the library.

That took me less than five minutes. Yet it serves the purpose of capturing a moment in time that I now, more or less, own. And seriously, I was at the library tonight. While I was there, I wrote up this series of steps, in reaction to a gentleman who was soliciting the high school tutor at the table next to me (ahem — that was an icky sight) —

Every couple of weeks, read through your cards. Indentify changes in your ideas, and soon you will have recognized a style and skill at expressing simple ideas. Complex thoughts and arguments are nothing more than smart arrangements of simple ideas. This is what writing classes that try to get you to write essays from day one do not recognize. This is where such classes fail.

Now your task is to learn to arrange smartly. You will probably have a few cards about related topics. Set those cards aside and read them over and over in different orders. Decide on an order that you like, and now you have an outline for an essay.

Here you will make a bold step: get a full piece of paper. Rewrite (develop) the series of simple ideas in the order that you chose. Set this aside and re-read it tomorrow.

Wait two days, then read it again. Edit as you see fit. Continue in this fashion, varying the number of days that you wait, until you are satisfied with your essay. Then, of course, you're done.

Notice what happens in this whole process: You never type anything. Don't ever think of typing directly into a computer. This will ruin your developing skill, for your skill involves a deliberate process — drawing letters — no backspace, no cut and paste. If you only write with a pen, you will develop a habit of actually writing when you mean it. The computer will steal that skill.

The importance of this cannot be overstated.

When you're starting to get comfortable with arranging ideas, read a book that you don't think that you'll enjoy. Read it slowly. Soak it in. Live it. Own the experience. Then rewrite what is wrong with it, if you indeed ended up not liking it. Or, if you did like it after all, learn from your reaction and write about how you have changed.

To sum up the important points: Write by hand and write every day. Don't worry about the amount of material that you write; if you keep at it, over time, you will have written novels worth of material. And don't forget to look back with pride at what you accomplish. Develop a healthy respect for writing as an activity and for yourself as a writer.

© Sorrell
March, 2005