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You Can Write Better
By Robert Moskowitz


The "writing profession" sucks. Every high school graduate -- well, most of them, anyway -- can write. Millions of people earn their living in jobs that require them to write reports, write analyses, write opinions, write emails and memos and letters. Even the guy who meets and greets you when you bring your car in for repairs is called the "service writer."

So writing as a profession is a little like walking as a profession, or eating. Everybody does it. So what's so special about you doing it, too?

The answer is actually very interesting. It involves the difference between "doing it", and "doing it very well." Sure, almost everybody walks. But only a few people walk well enough to enter those strange "walking races" you see now and again. And even fewer can win one. Everybody eats. But only a few people have the experience and training and naturally sensitive taste buds not only to know the details of what they are eating, but to discern the subtle differences vividly enough to be able to explain them to the rest of us.

That fact that almost everyone can write takes nothing away from the few people who write really well. Some of these wonderful writers are gifted, like Norman Mailer, Alice Sebold, Philip Roth, Anne Tyler, or Toni Morrison. They just do it. But even at the highest level, most of the best writers honed their craft. They learned to write better.

And you can write better, too.

Here are several tools for learning to write better:

1) Write to support assertions. As an exercise, write an assertion -- doesn't matter what it is -- and then write everything you can think of to support that assertion. When you run down, or after 15 minutes of writing, start with another assertion, and repeat the process. Do this for at least three assertions a day. The mental act of organizing what you know to support a specific assertion strengthens the key parts of your brain that come into play whenever you write. After several weeks of practicing the assertion exercise, you'll be a better writer.

2) Write "snapshots." As an exercise, write a paragraph that captures a "snapshot" of reality. Don't think in terms of how things got this way, or where they're going in the future. Simply describe a static scene or situation as it now stands. Write as completely and in as much detail as you can. Your goal is to paint a word picture that lets any reader see what you're writing about as vividly as if you were showing a snapshot. Do at least one of these a day. The mental discipline required to describe a scene in exquisite detail will help you focus when you turn to a writing project that's nearer and dearer to your heart.

3) Write in E-Prime. This exercise has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it still works very well. The trick is to write without the use of the most popular verb in English: "To Be." That last sentence in E-Prime might come out something like: The trick involves writing without the use of the most popular verb in English: "To Be." Writing in E-Prime is not particularly useful in and of itself. You'll almost never be called upon to do it, although you might want to write in E-Prime for your own pleasure. But practicing how to communicate without the verb "To Be" strengthens your command of the English language, so when you revert to normal language, you're better equipped to say what you really mean.

4) Practice "Rapid Writing." Most of the time, we pore over our writing, straining to find just the right word or express just the right sentiment. This makes every word precious. And that's as it should be. But as an exercise, it's valuable to learn a new paradigm, which might be termed: "Easy come, easy go." With "Rapid Writing," you set a period of 15 to 30 minutes during which you strive for volume of writing rather than quality or clarity or anything else. The goal is to generate a powerful stream of words straight from your deepest levels of consciousness. At first, most of what you produce is silly, pointless, childish, and perhaps even boring. But as you let the stream run, it begins to wash away some of the obstacles that impede your writing in normal times, and makes it easier for you to express whatever you're thinking and feeling -- more directly, more simply, more emotionally. After each "Rapid Writing" exercise, you can go through and pull out the gems you've written. Eventually, you become comfortable with the "Rapid Writing" techniques, and your quality of writing is noticeably better.