School in a Book: Writing Skills

In some people, the word writer inspires a feeling of pride or admiration. In others, it inspires dread. If you’re in the latter category, consider making writing improvement your top educational priority. If you aren’t, practice a lot anyway. It’s likely the most useful skill you’ll learn in school.

Writing Skills

How to write a paragraph: Write the main idea. Follow this with several supporting sentences. After mastering this basic formula, experiment with placing the main idea elsewhere in the paragraph. Switch to a new paragraph when the main point you’re making and supporting changes–no sooner and no later.

How to take notes on a text: First, find the main idea of the entire section of writing. Practice this skill alone until you are good at it. (This comes in handy in both personal and philosophical arguments, in which the main point of the speaker often gets lost.) After that, identify the main supporting ideas in the section—the points that give rise to the main idea. Finally, make note of any particularly insightful or important side point. Record your notes in the simplest form possible, without unnecessary blank spaces on the page. Use bullets.

How to write an outline: Place your thesis statement at the beginning. Then list the major points that support your thesis using Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.). Under each of these, list all of the supporting ideas or arguments using capital letters (A, B, C, etc.). If needed, under these, list subordinate ideas using numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.), then small letters (a, b, c, etc.).

How to write a short story: First, create a compelling dilemma involving interesting characters. Think of the story as a movie without a narrator, and write each scene like a movie scene without any background explanation. Start the story at a particularly interesting place in media res (in the middle of action). Make sure that every character undergoes inner change, and the protagonist is quite changed by the end. Make sure that in each and every scene there is an immediate conflict in addition to the story’s larger conflict, and make sure that every scene moves the story forward. Use the standard plot graph, with a slow introduction, then rising action (when lots of complications are thrown in), then a climax (when everything bad happens all at once), then a quick resolution.

How to write a poem: Read several poems of several types, including free verse, odes, haikus, rhyming poems with regular stanza lengths, nonrhyming poems with regular stanza lengths and more. Find a feeling within yourself and choose a subject that in the moment of writing causes that same strong feeling in you. Write a straight description of that subject/metaphor that includes words that convey your reaction to it, without ever describing your thoughts or feelings directly. As you edit it, get rid of any extra words and any words that sound in any way corny (flower, sunshine, beauty, etc.).

How to write an essay: First, research the topic. Then, write a great thesis statement. This will often be one sentence in length, but for more complex themes, you can state the argument, then use a second sentence to review your supporting evidence; for example, “This paper argues that rabbit habitats should be more carefully preserved. It discusses several reasons for this, then offers two practical changes that can be made.” Note that most instructors won’t object to the use of the passive voice or the self-referencing phrase, “this paper.” “Here, I,” as in, “Here, I explain …” also usually works. Next, choose references that support that thesis statement. Then, write a fairly thorough outline that includes the supporting arguments, evidence and references. Write a first draft of the essay without overly concerning yourself with proper grammar and perfect phrasing. The introductory paragraph should grab the reader’s attention and clearly state the position the paper will support. It usually briefly mentions several important supporting arguments and ends with the thesis statement. The middle paragraphs provide support for the main argument, one point at a time and offer credible references, and the conclusion restates the argument and the main supporting points, then ends by widening the reader’s scope. It might refer to the significance or larger application of the position or contain a call to action.

Writing Rules

The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. This happens when language is clear, concise, well-organized and direct. The following rules for good writing can and should be selectively broken in creative writing, but in most nonfiction writing and in most practical writing (letters, emails, instructions, etc.), they stand.

Be organized. Write an outline first, and use it.

Be specific and concrete. Otherwise, you’ll lose your reader.

Be concise. Overwriting sounds arrogant.

Don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. They’re out of style.

Pay attention to transitions. When possible, don’t confuse the reader by jumping from one step to the next or one idea to the next without showing (subtly) how they relate.

Pay attention to rhythm. Intersperse long and short sentences and read the piece out loud or have someone else read it out loud to you to see if it flows well.

Use the active voice. This just means to avoid “is” and “are” when possible, particularly when doing so creates a needlessly long phrase, as in “is trying to help people figure out” instead of “helps” or “advises.”

For dialogue, use either “said” or “asked” or leave the quote bare. Don’t use “stated,” “exclaimed,” etc.

State quotes in the past tense, even if the author still believes what they said.

Use the positive form of the statement, avoiding double negatives when possible.

Do not use run-on sentences. One sentence per sentence is enough.

Place the phrase you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence.

Keep related words together. A clause (a descriptive phrase) should be right next to the person, place or thing that it’s describing.

Express coordinate ideas in similar form. (For example, when using bullet points, all of the points should be in the same form, same tense, and as parallel in structure as possible.)

Don’t accidentally inject opinion. When making unsupported statements, consider using “may,” “might” or “can” instead of “should” or “will.”

Don’t be awkward. When grammar rules feel wrong, they can safely be broken. Usually.

Don’t be fancy. No one will like you more for it.

Practice. Revise and rewrite. Wait a year, then revise again. To become a faster, clearer, more organized writer, practice outlining nonfiction texts. Also, master the art of writing short, factual, straightforward stories worthy of a top-notch news reporter. Then move on to the more creative stuff.

Essay Writing Tips

Pretend you’re in an argument. An essay is an argument, after all. Pretend someone is in the room with you right now. They don’t agree with what you’re saying but they’re willing to listen without answering back—yet. How would you answer these questions? (When stuck, imagine someone screaming them at you.)

  • Why is what you’re telling me important? Why should anyone care about your opinion on this? Are there relevant statistics, or is there a reason someone might disagree with you? (Introductory sentences or paragraphs, including introductions to new sections.)
  • What is your main point, anyway? (Thesis statement.)
  • What is your evidence? (Supporting paragraphs.)

Just spit it out. Do NOT stare at a blank screen. If you can’t think of a great first sentence, skip it and write the second one. Just write. If the person you’re arguing with were here in front of you, and your grade depended on your convincing them, you wouldn’t not talk. You would just start saying something. You’ll edit later.

Don’t be fancy. It’s harder. Use short, simple sentences. Pretend the person you’re arguing with is a high school student. You can always make things sound more professional in the final edit, combining short sentences to make longer ones and switching out a few key words to bring it up a level. (You might notice that you keep more of those unpretentious sentences than you thought you would, though.)

Be scannable. The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. Don’t make your teachers work too hard to understand what you’re saying. A good reader should be able to fully digest your paragraph in under thirty seconds. If it takes them longer than that, it’s the writer’s fault, not the reader’s.

Don’t pad. This is a first draft. Don’t add in any sentences that don’t strictly need to be there. In the final edit, if a point needs more explanation (and you need more pages), go ahead. Doing so before getting to the end is a waste of time.

Pretend it’s just an outline. Still too intimidated to start writing the real thing? Tell yourself you’re just filling in your outline a bit. Write full, simple sentences (and a few longer, more inspired ones as they come to you) within the outline itself. Then pop in your source quotes or ideas (properly referenced).

Oh, and do write that outline. Organization is everything. Writing is just what happens later.

Don’t go in order. First paragraphs are the hardest. Write whatever seems easiest first. Success begets success.

Don’t stop to research. Add something like [REFERENCE NEEDED] in the paragraph and move on. Which reminds me:

Bracket everything that isn’t yours. [LIKE THIS.] That way, you don’t end up accidentally plagarizing.

Take some hits. It’s painful, but some sentences don’t sound perfect. If you revise endlessly, you’ll spend twenty percent of your time perfecting one percent of your essay (and improving your grade not at all). Teachers aren’t looking for professional-quality writing. They’re looking for professional-quality thinking.

Use your last perfectly-formatted essay as a template. Erase the text, retitle the document, and you’re off.

Tell yourself you’ll bang the whole thing out in an hour. You won’t, but you’ll get the first draft mostly done, and after that you’ll just tie up few “loose ends.” (This really works.)

Remind yourself that this essay isn’t your whole grade. If your organization and thinking is clear, you’ll likely be just fine, grade-wise.

Remember that there’s never a good day to write an essay. They’re almost all equally unfit, and equally fine.


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