The Summer of Jeff

How I Write (Well?)

Posted in writing by Jeff on September 28, 2009

A GMAT Hacks reader wrote to me last week and asked for tips on how to become a better writer.  She couched the request in flattering terms–she asked because she enjoys my writing style.

I don’t think very much about how I write.  I’ve done a lot of writing in the last decade, for a wide variety of purposes and audiences.  I don’t really view myself as a “good” writer.  I’m happy with “functional.”  My writing process is almost automatic; there’s little difference between how I write and how I speak.

After responding to the request, I thought my three-and-a-half readers here might be interested.  Here’s how I responded:

The most important things you can do to improve your writing are to simply read as much as you can, and write as much as you can.  When you’re writing, try to think about a “voice” to imitate.  For instance, if you’re writing a report on political issues, you might try to write like journalists in The Economist.  If you’re writing your GMAT AWA essay, think back to high-scoring sample essays you’ve read.

What I’ve found most helpful is to write as much like I talk as possible.  Obviously writing should be more polished, but don’t worry about it being too polished.  Sentences don’t need to be long, grammar doesn’t need to be complex, and vocabulary doesn’t have to be impressive.  If you write first and foremost to communicate, rather than trying to fit someone’s image of a “great writer,” that’ll do most of the job.

A bit more on “voice.”  Imitating a writer’s style is a lot like playing a musical instrument.  When I actively played jazz and pop saxophone, I was always very conscious of who I sounded like, or whose patterns I was imitating.  That isn’t a good way to blaze new trails in art, but it’s very helpful when you’re trying to fit in with an unfamiliar group, or when you’re feeling your way with a new style of music.

I’m not always that aware of who or what I’m imitating when I write.  To a degree, though, I can pinpoint some influences.  When writing about baseball, there’s the Bill James voice.  I’ve written so much about baseball that I don’t rely on it too much anymore, but there’s no better way to write about technical stuff in an approachable way.  When writing for my GMAT site, I tend to channel personal development/business writers such as Michael LeBoeuf and Steve Pavlina.  If I’m writing something more academic, I try to read more academically-oriented history to remind myself of that voice.  It’s not much different from preparing for a music gig by listening to CDs recorded by the band you’ll be playing with.

When in doubt, I err on the side of informal and–again–functional.  Especially for online audiences, the point is to communicate as directly and efficiently as possible.  If you deviate from that formula, you’d better have an awfully good reason.

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