You Can Learn To Write

An acquaintance emailed me a little while ago to tell me that she was following the blog off and on, and had been touched by my piece about my father, and ended with “You’re a good writer.” This would have been a shock to my teenaged self — I hated to write, and didn’t think spelling, grammar, and the mechanics should count towards my grade. Somewhere entombed in the floorboards of my room is still a report from my sophomore year in high school that I hid because I got a D on it.

I recognized that I needed to work on my writing skills, so in my junior year, I deliberately took an English elective called Research Reports, knowing that I would hate it, knowing that I would be putting myself under deadline pressure, but also knowing it was something I needed to do. From that course, I learned how to structure a report, how to write an outline, and the art of footnoting and citing sources. I got better.

I still wasn’t as good as I could be. I had a wonderful English professor at Boston College, Margaret Ferrari. She based her grades on a set of short papers of about 1000 words each. My first couple of papers weren’t great, but she worked with me during her office hours. She taught me that a report wasn’t a random collection of facts; you needed to have a point to what you were writing about, and needed to marshall your facts to support the point you were trying to make, or the story you’re trying to tell. She taught me to listen to my inner ear, and pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the words I was choosing. By the end of my two semesters with her, I was generally getting very good marks for my writing.

I don’t believe that you have to have an inborn talent to write. It’s something you can learn. I’m still learning.

There are a number of skills that go into learning to write well. The most basic ones are the mechanics — spelling, grammar, and usage. For example, when to use “there” and when to use “they’re”. The good thing is that it’s all mechanical, and once you learn the rules, you have them, and you don’t have to worry about them anymore.

At a somewhat higher level is learning to express yourself, and organize your thoughts. What’s the best way to say what you want to say? What facts do you need to cover to make the point you’re trying to make? Why is this fact important? What needs explanation? What’s doesn’t fit in and should be cut? Here’s where an outline can help.

Personally, I still have a tendency to ramble. Writing this blog, I’m learning to drop little asides that I might find interesting or amusing, but would bore the reader or don’t fit in with the rest of the post.

As you get more practice, you start to develop your voice. You learn to pay attention to the sound and rhythm of the words so they flow together. For example, in the second paragraph of this post, I repeated the word “knowing” three times, on purpose, setting up the contrast between the first two (unpleasant) things, and the third instance, “knowing it was something I needed to do”. And you learn to edit yourself, to learn to ask yourself what works, and how to fix what doesn’t work. This post went through twelve revisions before I published it (and one after).

It helps to be a “natural”, but it’s not necessary. I’m not, but I learned. You can too.