How do I improve my writing?
1. Read a lot of well-written texts.
“Reading ability and reading experience consistently correlate with writing skill.”
One of the first questions I ask new students is what they read and how much they read. Too often, the answer is “I don’t read anything except social media and whatever my teachers make me read.” Imagine wanting to paint but never going to art galleries. Imagine wanting to golf but never studying how professionals play. Imagine wanting to make movies but never watching any well-made movies. Impossible.
The brain is a pattern-recognition machine. Learning how to do something requires internalizing a massive number of effective models before you can successfully produce your own work. To become a good writer, you have to read A LOT of well-written writing, and you have to PAY ATTENTION to what you are reading. You have to NOTICE how a text is structured and how sentences are structured, and then APPLY those techniques to your own writing.
This IELTS course includes dozens of Band 9 models written by current and former IELTS examiners. Students do powerful, traditional modelling exercises to help them internalize the content development, structure, vocabulary, and grammar of these models. These are the same types of exercises that countless professional writers have used to develop their own skills, and the techniques work 100% when you do them consistently and frequently. You then apply what you have learned in your own writing, which is checked by the teacher. You receive feedback and revise your work, which is then re-checked. At that point, any remaining mistakes are corrected and suggestions are given for improving diction. This is the same system used by professionals, who present their work to an editor for several rounds of critique.
2. Read your work aloud.
Every language has its music, its rhythm, and this is something you internalize SUBCONSCIOUSLY. When students submit their writing, I identify problem areas. I often watch as students make corrections. During the revision process, they are doing something that they do not do while writing their first version: they are reading the problem areas out loud and relying on their ears to tell them what SOUNDS good.
The study of language shows that people are in trouble if they have to operate by conscious rules. The ear, in the last analysis, is the most trustworthy and powerful organ for learning syntax (syntax is the “arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences”).
Peter Elbow, English teaching methodology researcher, 1985
Many authors give student writers the same advice. You know more grammar than you think you do. The problem is that when you are writing, you are relying on your eyes, on the visual language centre in your brain. But the visual language centre is too fast – it focuses on meaning and doesn’t care about how it all sounds. This is how you are able to speed read – your eye jumps from key idea to key idea, ignoring all the transitional and structural language that isn’t essential for meaning. But this is no good for the editing stage.
For the editing stage, reading out loud (even if quietly) forces you to slow down and LISTEN to what you’ve read. It’s just like listening to a musician play. Even if you don’t know how to play that instrument, if the musician hits the wrong note, it just SOUNDS wrong. Similarly, if any part of your writing sounds awkward, you know you need to revise it. Don’t overthink it – just try easier grammatical constructions or simpler vocabulary until you come up with something that SOUNDS good.
3. Master grammar and complex sentences.
It’s only when grammar has been mastered that writing becomes automatic. It’s only when grammar has been mastered that you can focus on content and message coherence. For lower level writers who have not yet mastered grammar, the basic problems with grammar interfere with their ability to produce good ideas because they are overly focused on HOW to communicate, rather than WHAT to communicate. When the writer’s focus is constantly on how to arrange words and conjugate them, the quality of the message suffers. It’s like learning to ride a bike or drive: when you are constantly worried about how to avoid falling or crashing into something, you can’t enjoy the journey, which is what writing should be – an enjoyment of the journey of crafting your message. In other words, you can’t think effectively when you are focused on form rather than meaning.
You can’t focus on two things at the same time. When writing or speaking, you can’t focus on form and meaning at the same time. Before you can fully focus on your message, you must master grammar and complex sentences so that grammar becomes automatic.