My Number One Secret to Become a Better Writer

Become a better reader! As simple as that.

We often take it for granted. When reading an article, a paper, a blog post, we focus on content. Is the information relevant to us? Do we get the answers we were looking for? Do we agree with the opinions expressed? This is all very important indeed.

Occasionally, we may even go as far as thinking, almost subconsciously, that we like what we are reading or, perhaps, that we don’t. But even then, I doubt we ever pause for a moment to find out exactly what we like about the piece, or why we seem to find it so hard to read and understand.

We also forget that what we are reading may have taken the author a considerable amount of time to write. So, for example, a paper in a refereed journal may have undergone a large number of iterations before appearing in its beautiful final form. No wonder then that we feel frustrated if we fail to produce the perfect piece straight away.

Yet, as I teach in my Hands on Writing Workshops, there are several things that we can do to improve our own writing. Becoming a better reader is most definitely one of them.

If you too are struggling to become a better writer, here is what you can do as a reader:

- Focus on the structure. Sometimes, the structure is clearly sign-posted by sections and sub-sections and is easy to recognise. However, even when sections are not there (for example, in the Letter format of a paper), there will nevertheless be a structure. The structure forms the underlying skeleton of your writing, without which the whole piece would fall apart.

- Work out the function of each sentence in a paragraph. This can be trickier to see at first, but with some practice you may start recognising a common pattern in the same sections (for example, the introduction, or the methodology, or the discussion) of different articles. This is because scientific writing ultimately follows a well-prescribed set of “rules”.

- Pay attention to the ways in which sentences are connected to one another. Connectors such as “however”, “although”, “therefore” and the like are very powerful ways of alerting the reader to a change of direction (or indeed the reinforcement of one). However (!), more subtle links can be created by overlap (repeating something said in previous sentences), pronouns or relative clauses, or even the wise use of punctuation.

- Notice the use of verb tenses. Reporting on research carried out is normally done in past tenses. At times, however, the present tense might be used instead. Ask yourself why that is the case. Is the author trying to imply something without saying so explicitely? Try and pick up the nuances of the language by reading between the lines.

- Read the captions. Figures and Tables are meant to stand alone so that the reader can get the gist without having to read the whole paper. So, pay attention to the way in which captions are written. What type of information is given? How well is the figure or table described?

And finally, remember, writing well takes time and it does not come easily to most of us.  But we are all readers before being writers, and learning to read well can can do wonders in teaching us to write well.

PS. What is your number one secret to become a better writer? Leave a comment to share.

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4 thoughts on “My Number One Secret to Become a Better Writer

  1. Pingback: High vs. Low Impact-Factor Journals: What Difference Does It Make to Your Writing Style? « Academic Life

  2. Pingback: How to Keep on Top of Your Writing and Reading Activities « Academic Life

  3. Hi Hilary, Thanks for your comment. I agree, reading the masters’ work is also an excellent way of improving one’s own writing. There is a lot to be learned about style even though not always applicable to scientific writing :)

  4. This is spot on, though I’d add that I think I get even more benefit out of reading literature than most of what’s published on the web. After a few pages of Victor Hugo, for instance, I feel like my speech and writing improve ten-fold—at least temporarily!

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