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How To Improve Your Writing:

A Brief Guide for Busy

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

The College Board Review, No.154, winter 1989-90


In response to a reader who told me she had found this article very helpful in her own teaching of writing, I decided to post it here.  This article helped me get started as a writing consultant.  Not only did the writing of it provide me with an opportunity to think through my approach to teaching writing, but once published it served as a convenient handout for me to use in introducing myself to people who had registered for my writing workshops.


Although it is intended for an audience of university administrators, I think it is relevant for all on-the-job writers.  I hope you enjoy it.


Most of us in university administration don’t write to establish our reputation as great writers.  We write to get the job done.


Even so, we appreciate the importance of good writing – writing that is clear, organized, and persuasive.  Because we are called upon to write for a variety of purposes (and almost always on short notice), we need to write quickly and effectively.  We know that our competence as administrators and managers is judged in part by the quality of our writing. 


  Sometimes the brightest people defeat themselves by writing poorly.  Here’s some solid advice on how to “look your best” in print.

As Peter Drucker tells us, “As soon as you move one step up from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the spoken or written word.”


William Zinsser puts it more bluntly:  “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.”

The purpose of this article is to help make bright people look bright.  All of us, whether we are relatively strong or weak writers, can take steps to improve our writing.  And as we become more effective writers, we often find we become more successful in our jobs.


So what are the steps to becoming a better writer?


Here are 12 practical suggestions.  The first four are specific things you can do today to make your writing more effective.  The next eight are more general suggestions on how to develop good writing habits and how to improve your writing over time.                         


1.  Be clear, concise, and to the point.


State your purpose directly and concisely, preferably in your first sentence or paragraph.  Present your most important information first.


In their classic handbook on good writing, The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White emphasize the importance of writing clearly and simply.  In suggesting ways to accomplish this, they identify “elementary rules of usage” and eleven “elementary principles of composition.”  The quality of writing on our campuses would be vastly improved if university administrators – as well as students and faculty – were to abide by just three of these rules and principles.  They are: 


“Use the active voice.”


“Use definite, specific, concrete language.”


“Omit needless words.”


Most people would agree that good administrative writing is clear, concise, to the point, forceful, enlightening, persuasive, informative, logical, organized, specific, accurate, fast-paced, lively, energetic, and interesting.  While not everyone would endorse every element of this list, there seems to be a strong consensus regarding the first three.   “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb.”  

Beth Luey says it well in her Handbook for Academic Authors when she describes academic writing, a close cousin of administrative writing:


Good academic writing is clear and succinct . . .  If you can move beyond clarity to grace and elegance, you are to be congratulated.  Editors will happily settle for clarity, however.


One way to ensure that you are stating your purpose clearly and getting to the point quickly is to use a formula developed by a colleague of mine.  In writing your memos, organize your thoughts into three paragraphs beginning with these sentences:


“I am writing because . . .”  “The facts are . . .”  “I propose that you . . .”


After you have done this, you may want to go back and change your topic sentences to make them more interesting or less abrupt, or you may want to provide additional background information.  But by beginning with this three-paragraph formula, you increase your chances of writing clearly and concisely.


2.  For most administrative writing, write in short, simple sentences and in short, coherent paragraphs.


Your writing usually will be read by busy people who usually would rather be doing something else.  So it makes sense to keep your sentences and paragraphs short.  The shorter your sentences, the quicker your pace; the shorter your paragraphs, the more inviting the page is to your reader.  A page with plenty of white space, as opposed to one filled with type or print, looks less demanding and less intimidating to your busy reader.


It should be noted that for more thoughtful, deliberate writing, you may want to slow your pace by writing in longer sentences and paragraphs.  It depends on the kind of writing you are doing and the effect you want.


3.  Vary the length and structure of your sentences.


It has often been said that there is nothing more beautiful than a simple, declarative sentence.  But a steady diet of simple, declarative sentences can be too much of a good thing.  Likewise, a string of long, complicated sentences can be daunting.


So vary your sentence length.


A very short, four or five-word sentence in the midst of a string of longer ones can lend special emphasis to your point.  The same is true of paragraphs.  They can be as short as a single sentence or as long as five or six sentences, rarely longer.


4.  Identify and avoid common errors in spelling, grammar, and usage.


If you are troubled by mistakes in punctuation, voice, parallel construction, and agreement of subjects and verbs, it would be a good investment of your time to review the rules of usage described in any standard grammar.


The point is to identify and address your weaknesses.  If something is preventing you from writing easily and with confidence, address the problem and do something about it.  Take it one step at a time, just as you would solve an administrative problem.


You also can take this “proactive” approach to spelling.  Most misspellings are the same words misspelled repeatedly in the same way.  “Accommodate,” for example, spelled with one “m” instead of two.  “Commitment” spelled with two “t”s.  Periodically some unfortunate student reporter in a college newspaper misspells “occurrence” three different ways in a single attempt:  “ocurance” with one “c,” one “r,” and an “a” rather than an “e.”  Following is a list of words commonly misspelled by university administrators.  You may want to make up your own list or simply add to this one.  Either way, you may find it helpful to tape a list like this beside your typewriter or word processor or wherever you do your writing.  Remember, you don’t have to be a good speller, only a careful speller.


Here are the words that we university administrators should agree never to misspell again:


accommodate, accommodations

judgment, judgmental

harass, harassment

embarrass, embarrassment


commitment, committee

separate, desperate

a lot, all right (two words)

programmatic, problematic




independent, independence

occurrence, occurred

its (possessive), it’s (contraction of “it is”)

to, too, two



advice, advise


Another step you can take to eliminate your spelling errors is the obvious one:  Use the dictionary.  In fact, a good habit is to write – and read – with a dictionary within reach.  You’re more likely to use it if you keep it handy.  The problem with putting off looking up a word until later is that you might forget to check it.
  Another step you can take to eliminate your spelling errors is the obvious one:  Use the dictionary.

The following are all good dictionaries:  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, and Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.

Of course, when using a word processor, you shouldn’t neglect the spell checker function provided by most software programs.  This function automatically identifies unusual letter clusters (like “hte” for “the”).  The spell checker will catch errors in spelling and typing unless your mistake happens to be the correct spelling for a word you did not intend to use (like “motel” for “model”).


5.  Know when to write and when not to write.


In Writing for Results, David Ewing offers some helpful guidelines in making this decision.  Certain situations and types of communication, he points out, are better handled orally, either by phone or in person.  This tends to be especially true of sensitive and “tender topics.”

The time to write, Ewing suggests, is when these seven criteria are met: 


1.  You have a clear and practical purpose in mind.


2.  Writing is the most efficient method of accomplishing your objective.


3.  You are the right person to write.


4.  The time is right.


5.  You’ve taken into account the riskiness of the written word.


6.  You’ve taken into account the rigidity of the written form.


7.  You’ve taken into account the insufficiency of the written word, given its one way dimension.


Many times it’s simply better to talk things out than to write.  Only in rare circumstances, for example, should you write an angry memo or letter.  (If you must write in anger, be sure that you not only state your complaint but also propose a solution.)  In The Effective Administrator, Donald Walker recommends shortening the administrative lines when things get complicated.  His advice when handling difficult matters is not to sit down at your typewriter or word processor but to “get everyone concerned in the same room.”


6.  Think of writing as a process.


Most writing takes place over time, not in a single moment or in a flash of inspiration despite what we might have gotten away with on an occasional late night in high school or college.


The process of writing includes at least ten steps:


1.  Determine your topic and your purpose in writing.


2.  Consider your audience’s expectations.


3.  Know your material.


4.  Decide on your point of view (or your relationship to your material).


5.  Organize your thoughts (jot down notes or make an outline).


6.  Write your first draft.


7.  Edit and revise your draft.


8.  When possible, set your writing aside to “rest.”


9.  Read it again (preferably aloud) and make final revisions.


10.  Proofread your final copy (especially when some one else is typing for you).


Writing is problem-solving.  It helps to think of writing as a series of decisions and choices that generally should be made in a certain order.  If you take it one step at a time, you are more likely to make the best choices.


The next two points follow logically from this one.


7.  Don’t expect to get everything right in your first draft.


Writing involves essentially two phases:  the creative and the critical.  In the first, we produce words.  In the second, we edit and revise them.  Insofar as is practical, keep these phases separate.  Permit yourself to be creative and spontaneous.  Turn off your critical mind and let the words flow.  Then in the second phase, go back to your draft and revise it with a critical eye and ear.


As Peter Elbow reminds us in Writing Without Teachers, both phases in the process are necessary and valuable:  “You can’t be a good, ruthless editor unless you are a messy, rich producer.  But you can’t be really fecund as a producer unless you know you’ll be able to ruthlessly go at it with a knife.”


So allow yourself the luxury of the first draft.  Begin to write knowing that you don’t have to produce perfect copy on your first try.  You’ll find this tremendously liberating.  It releases you from the censorship of self-criticism.  To be too critical too early often results in a much dreaded phenomenon, variously called “writer’s block,” “pencil paralysis,” and other things too colorful to report here.


As the poet Michael Dennis Browne advises, think of writing your first draft as holding an open audition:  Anyone is welcome to come and try out.


8.  Write in stages, allowing as much time as is practical between first and final copy.


The earlier you begin to write (or to “compose” your thoughts), the earlier your subconscious mind can start working on the material and deciding how best to organize and present it.  Even if you don’t have time to make a substantial start on a writing assignment, it’s still a good idea to take a few moments just to jot down some notes or to outline your main points.  You may be surprised at how much easier it is to write your first draft when you have begun this way.


After you have written your first draft, set your piece aside to let it “rest” before giving it a final reading.  The naturalist writer Aldo Leopold had a wonderful way of doing this.  He had a certain desk drawer that he called his “freezer.” Whenever he finished writing something, he would tuck it away in his “freezer” to let it cool off for a few weeks before taking it out and giving it a final reading.


By letting his writing “cool off,” Leopold was letting time separate the act of writing from the act of reading.  This made him a better editor.  With time he became less preoccupied with what he had meant to say and better able to judge what he had actually written.


It’s a useful technique.  If you can manage it, give your writing a day to “rest.”  If not a day, then an hour.  It helps to think about it without looking at it.


Whenever possible, let time be on your side.


9.  Find a writing partner and work together.


One of the most useful things you can do to improve the quality of your writing, both on the short term and over time, is the same thing that creative and professional writers do:  Work with a good editor.  Find a colleague someone you know and trust (preferably someone who writes better than you do) and work together proof-reading and editing.  You read their stuff, they read yours, if possible, before it goes out.


10.  Write frequently and stay loose.


If you want to be a good piano player, you have to practice playing the piano.  If you want to be a good writer, you have to practice writing.


Usually practicing is no problem for administrators.  There are plenty of occasions to write in a typical day or week.  Staying loose may be another matter.  If every thing you write must be precise and polished, you may find that over time writing becomes more and more of a chore.


Whatever your regular writing assignments, it’s a good idea to look for opportunities to do “easy” writing.


Ask yourself:  What kind of writing do I enjoy most?  Whether it be short, friendly notes to your favorite colleagues or daily entries in your journal, it’s important to include some fun writing in your regular schedule.


Another good habit is to establish a writing routine.  Many people find that they write better and more fluently when they do their writing at a certain time of the day.  By playing to their natural rhythms and cycles, they find themselves responding with the necessary energy and concentration they need to write.


The point is not to wait for “inspiration.” As Carolyn Forche told a creative writing class at the University of Minnesota, it’s important to write at the same time and at the same place every day, even if only for half an hour, “so the Muse will know where to find you.”  Otherwise, according to Forche, “She goes to the next house.”


11.  Have confidence in yourself as a writer, write in a way that is natural to you, and don’t worry about style.


Don’t try to show off in your writing or to be someone you’re not.  The best way to develop style is to write clearly and simply.  Let style take care of itself.  Don’t force it.  Style comes from practice as much as from conscious effort.  If you are doing the right things, your style will develop naturally over time. 


Matthew Arnold offered essentially the same advice over a hundred years ago:


People think I can teach them style.  What stuff it is.  Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.


12.  Read good writers and good writing.


This final point of advice is so obvious that it is often overlooked.  If all you ever read is mediocre writing, your chances of writing anything better are very slim.  If all you ever read is bad writing – well, you get the idea.


Just as Benjamin Franklin became an accomplished writer by copying and rewriting Addison’s and Steele’s essays from The Spectator, you can become a better writer by finding good models and imitating them.  One way to do this is to keep a file of good writing.  From time to time go back to these samples and see if you can determine what it was that impressed you when you first read them.  Then try to create the same effects in your own writing.


Years ago the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley recommended a good exercise to my creative writing class at Vanderbilt.  He suggested that we take a favorite passage – whether fiction, poetry, or nonfiction – and simply type it over.  The idea was to approximate as nearly as possible the experience of writing the words that we liked.  Try it sometime.  It really works.


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