I often get asked by my Professional and Technical Writing (PTW) students at City Tech how they can improve their writing. As I tell them, there are no shortcuts. Improvement comes from work spread out over time. If you are willing to put in the work over time, you’ll begin to see results in the quality of your writing and the ease with which you write.
Below are my tips for improving your writing with an emphasis on PTW, Technical Communication, and Professional Writing. They are: find an excuse to write; beg, borrow, and barter for feedback; read as if your life depended on it (because it does); layer your learning; check out Science Fiction; pick up a style guide; and finally, be patient.
Find an Excuse to Write: Give yourself an excuse to do more writing. Research shows that doing more writing automatically improves your writing ability. You can write privately in a journal, but a public-facing blog gives you a record that you can incorporate into your job search materials and professional portfolio (two birds, one stone). Also, you can create YouTube videos that rely on an outline and script that you write as a part of the production process. Any writing–whether for a written deliverable or part of a multimodal composition process–contributes to developing your abilities. Giving yourself a reason to write will make you much more productive and you might even find enjoyment in the practice. For example, I started dynamicsubspace.net as a place to write about what I learned in graduate school and to give myself regular writing practice. I set goals for myself early on: write a post at least once a week, and later, when my writing had improved, write a post once a day. Pick your own goals for writing frequency, and pick your own writing development goals (are you wanting to learn more about a topic–write content about what you learn, are you wanting to develop a particular writing style–mimic the style of writing demonstrated in a source text–see below, or both).
Beg, Borrow, and Barter for Feedback: Revising and editing your writing is not as simple as swapping adjectives or changing a few words. Real revision happens when you’re willing to rewrite whole swaths of your work; rethink the overall organization of a document, a paragraph, or a sentence; and begin again with just your idea in mind. Take professional literary writers for example: Many rewrite a single novel from scratch not just once but several times. Each iteration generates new ideas, creates better expression and imagery, and improves the overall narrative. It seems that if a novelist is willing to put in the work to rewrite a whole novel, then it is a small order for us to put in similar efforts of revision into those documents that matter the most to us (especially those documents that make their way into our professional portfolios!). Each of us can revise our own work by returning to it with a critical eye, but there’s a lot that we might miss in our own writing even with this approach. It’s best to ask your classmates, mentors, and family members to read your work and give you constructive critical feedback. What I mean by constructive critical feedback is not just an identification of issues with the writing but also ideas about how to improve it. Since you are asking for someone to give you their time and advice, it’s a good practice to offer something in return–for example, offer to give them feedback on their writing or sweeten the deal with a coffee or slice of pizza. It can be difficult to hear someone trash your writing, but always ask for advice about making it better with the understanding that their feedback is meant to help you improve as a writer. And the fact is that all of us–me included–can improve our writing skills. Improving as a writer is a lifelong task!
Read As If Your Life Depended On It (Because It Does): Reading in general is good for exercising your mind, learning new things, and observing how others write. But, it is especially important for technical communicators and professional writers to read writing that is like the kinds of writing that they want to be doing. Furthermore, you need to reflect on not just what is written (content) but how it is written (style), and imitate the latter in your writing practice (above). While he’s primarily focused on literary writing, Ray Bradbury’s points about how to become an accomplished writer in his book Zen in the Art of Writing has many relevant points to make if instead of thinking about writing as only by literary artists but also by professionals who write for other purposes, such as providing the right information to the right audience at the right time. Other places to learn content and style in the specialization that you’ve selected in the major: books (can be technical or written for a lay audience), journals (peer-reviewed and research-based publications), trade publications (like magazines but focused on topics of interest to professionals in that field), and magazines (less technical than trade publications but with a similar focus).
Layer Your Learning: It’s important for technical communicators and professional writers to learn how to use the tools of writing and multimodal composition inside-and-out. Pick a tool that you might not know well or at all, and learn how to do specific things with it. For example, watch tutorials on YouTube or LinkedIn Learning (free through the NYPL) about tracking changes in Microsoft Word. Practice what you’ve learned on some of your existing documents that you want to revise. Then, write a blog post with screenshots that summarize some of the techniques that you’ve learned. Meet up with some friends in the PTW Program to teach them what you have learned. Then, you and your friends can plan out and shoot your own YouTube video teaching others how to use the basics of Word’s Track Changes. So, what’s going on here? First, you gain theoretical knowledge about Word’s Track Changes. You gain practical skill or application of that knowledge by practicing those techniques on your own documents. You begin integrating what you’ve learned by writing a guide or instructional blog post. You fully integrate what you’ve learned by teaching it to others. Finally, you help your friends gain their own mastery over Track Changes by planning (script, storyboard) and shooting a YouTube video with the additional bonus of you taking leadership of a project that you can mention in your professional portfolio.
Check Out Science Fiction: Many technical communicators and technical writers also enjoy reading Science Fiction (SF). SF is a literature that explores the effects of science and technology on human beings and society. It’s written for non-specialist audience, so the SF writer has to communicate technical topics in a way that a broad range of readers are able to understand those topics and how they relate to the story. Communicating complex topics to different audiences is key to the work that we do in PTW, so there are techniques and approaches that we can learn from SF if we pay attention to how those writers accomplish those tasks, reflect on how they do it, and practice what we observe in our own writing. There are many ways to experience SF literature: books (check out for free from the library or purchase a novel from a bookstore–2nd hand bookstores are a great resource for this!), magazines (look on the magazine racks at the big bookstores for Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, and Clarkesworld), and online (strangehorizons.com, lightspeedmagazine.com, tor.com, and freesfonline.net).
Pick Up a Style Guide: There are many professional style guides that provide rules about how to write in that field, cite sources, and format documents. You’ve probably heard about the style guides of the Modern Languages Association (MLA) or the American Psychological Association (APA). Each have their own rules that govern writing, formatting, and documenting. In the professional world, you can’t mix and match style guides. If you are writing for a publication that states you must use MLA style, then you have to follow MLA or you risk your article being rejected. Also, workplaces and some publications might have their own style guide–an internal document that borrows from other styles but with significant and important changes that you will have to apply to your writing. As you learn more about your specialization, you’ll identify what style guide or guides are the most used. Those are the ones that you want to learn as much about. Thinking about writing practice, you should apply those styles to your writing so that you memorize perhaps not everything about the style but enough of the most important aspects of it. In addition to style guides that you can buy from a bookstore or check out from the library, there are simplified online guides that can help you get started but be aware that these online guides likely don’t cover everything that is contained in the printed guide! A good starting point is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL), expand the menu items on the left for Research and Citation (for style guides) and Subject-Specific Writing (for stylistic concerns in different fields).
Be Patient. It takes time and effort before you begin to see results. What’s going on is that your brain is rewiring itself in response to your life and its experiences. If you choose to spend more time writing, reading, and learning, then your brain will develop to support those kinds of experiences (what you write is clearer and audience directed, it gets easier to write more than in the past, you have more things to write about from what you’ve learned, etc.). If you choose instead to spend more time playing World of Warcraft, then your brain will develop to support that experience instead (perhaps improving your memory of where to complete quests, how to maximize your armor, improve your team playing skills, etc.). One experience isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s just that they are different choices and priorities. If you want to improve as a writer, then you should choose to do things, such as what I suggest above, that engage you as a writer, thinker, learner, and collaborator. Throughout this process of making choices to support your writing skill, you will need to be patient. While our brain is constantly changing in response to our experiences, it takes time for those experiences to solidify into memories and heuristics that support our writing activities. Improvement will happen–just keep at it over time.
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