Writer’s Guide – How to Improve Your Writing

Dear Writer, Speaker, Knowledge Maker . . .

Welcome to Writing Commons. We are so happy you found us.

Our primary mission is to help you communicate more effectively in school & work contexts (see Our Story). That’s probably why you came: to be more articulate, creative, and prepared in challenging academic and work contexts. But to be thoroughly transparent, we have another agenda: we want to help improve your life. We hope to give you the tools you need to develop your agency, your personal power. And we believe this involves being literate.

We offer over a 1000 articles organized by topics of concern for writers in workplace and academic settings, especially:

Information Literacy
Writing Studies

Writing Well Matters: Your success in the workplace or school setting is largely determined by your ability to communicate, which is shaped by your cognitive, interpersonal, and interpersonal competencies. Being literate further develops the competencies you need to have agency in the world—to create the changes you want and to better understand why things are the way they are.

Acts of composing—e.g., inventioncollaborationdesignorganizationrevisioneditingcan be exhausting and intellectually challenging. Dealing with critique can tax your work ethic and professionalism. But you should not despair nor be too hard on yourself. Rather, you should take some solace in knowing that others have forged the path before you: you can benefit from learning about how accomplished professional writers compose.

Becoming an effective writer is not a simple task. Yet, with effort and patience, you can improve your ability to write well.

To maximize your potential,

  1. Take responsibility for your writing and learning
  2. Adopt a growth mindset
  3. Read (critically)
  4. Understand the rules of the game
  5. Plan your writing
  6. Do the training 
  7. Trust the process
  8. Find focus
  9. Be open to collaboration and critique
  10. Keep your eyes on the prize

1. Take responsibility for your learning, writing

We meet people all the time who ask us if there’s an Easy Button when it comes to improving their reasoning and communication skills. Understandably, people are in a hurry. They want to get the research and writing done quickly, and they don’t want to be misunderstood.

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers, students–just about everyone who has struggled to express themselves are hopeful there’s some sort of simple way to overcome many of the unpleasantries associated with thinking, researching, and writing. After all, as you probably know, it can be unpleasant to spend countless hours researching a topic only to find out your thesis is banal and insignificant. It can be frustrating to pour your heart into a project only to discover people aren’t interested in your topic or don’t even understand what you are saying.

As you might surmise, given the encyclopedic scope of Writing Commons, there is no Easy Button. At least, if there is, we haven’t found it (and we’ve looked!).

Life is complicated. Effective communication can be challenging. Some situations require extensive research, deep thinking, and innumerable iterations—or, what writers call revision.

So, here’s the harsh truth: improving your ability to think and be creative and your ability to communicate is not an easy task. In fact, really experienced writers, you know, people on the bestseller list, people who died eons ago and yet are read every day now, have often said that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship! (for more on this see Composing Processes and Writers @ Work). 

Now, we’re not saying you need to plug yourself into a computer and work incessantly. You don’t have to forego food and go on a juice only diet. You don’t need to wake yourself up every night at two-hour intervals to record your dreams or meditate. You don’t even need to get a pair of long white socks to go with new-agey sandals. Really, there’s nothing all that quirky or obsessive you have to do. In other words, writing really doesn’t need to be aversive.

Instead, there are healthy, practical ways to improve your ability to think through complex problems and articulate solutions. One of the first steps is to realize that thinking and communicating are really complex activities: Communication and learning are not static properties. Being able to communicate or think is not the equivalent of an app that you have or don’t have. Being a successful communicator or problem solver isn’t determined by your zip code or DNA. 

Rather, your ability to communicate (writing, public speaking, or even self-reflect) and learn are outcomes of complex, organic, recursive, psycho-social-cultural processes.

Hopefully, being aware of how complex thinking and communicating are will give you some solace when your efforts go awry. 

Next, and perhaps most importantly, you need to decide whether you are willing to put the work in, invest in yourself, and believe in yourself. Yes, other people can help. It’s invaluable, for instance, to get really critical feedback—even if that feedback is emotionally exhausting. That’s why the world’s greatest athletes have coaches: we have blind spots, and we need others from time to time to give us a push in the right direction.

But at the end of the day, you are the captain of your ship. Only you can commit to putting the work in, investing in yourself, and believing in yourself. To improve your thinking and communication skills, you must affirm in your heart that your ability to reason, problem solve, and innovate will evolve with practice. In other words, you need to adopt a Growth Mindset (see Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset; Intellectual Openness; Metacognition; Professionalism & Work Ethic; Research on Mindset & Intrapersonal Competencies; Resilience; Self-Regulation).

In the movies, this moment is immortalized in the Matrix. When Morpheus asks Neal if he wants to take the blue pill or the red pill, he explains you can’t tell somebody about the Matrix, you have to experience it. And the only way to experience it is to take the red pill.

This metaphor works equally well for writing: you cannot know really know about the transformative power of writing until you practice your craft.

Success is all about putting the end game aside and focusing on the process

Ultimately, it’s on you if you want to take the blue pill. It can be comfortable to be a house cat. You know, not push yourselves out of your comfort zone. We live in remarkable times. Taking the blue pill can turn out ok for you. Or, well, it may not.

Frankly, to extend the metaphor, we are hopeful you’ll take the red pill. Humans have remarkable obstacles ahead. Getting off the sidelines and choosing the red pill is all about thinking for yourself, creating opportunities for other people, and making the world a better place. 

2. Adopt a Growth Mindset

Unfortunately, many people have aversive feelings about their communicative capabilities and potential. By aversive, we mean they find writing to be incredibly painful. As a result, it’s very common for people to procrastinate when assigned writing tasks. Loads of people allow their internal critics to silence them from expressing themselves—and subsequently from realizing their potential. These negative feelings combined with a fixed mindset (the notion that the ability to write is static, something you’re born with or not) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like any other anxiety, the more you worry about it the worse it gets. 

It’s quite understandable, frankly, that people find communication to be aversive. So much can go wrong in a rhetorical situation that it’s almost amazing when things go flawlessly—especially in non-routine situations.

Here’s the bottom line:

You need to be easy on yourself because communication and deeper learning are the outcomes of complex, organicrecursive, rhetorical, psycho-social-cultural processes.

Given the complexities of communicative acts between people (or even people and machines), it’s not surprising that sometimes things go awry. Ultimately, everyone’s a critic. And analysis is always easier than creating something out of nothing.

Here, we say critique because it’s way easier to critique than invent. People can be quick to find loads of fault with texts, even ones that win Pulitzers or Nobel prizes

we are chiefly taught in schools to critique rather than innovate.
And we say frustration because conducting research, collaborating, revising, and editing can be incredibly time consuming.

time invested in a project doesn’t always correlate with success.

Interpretation is invariably subjective.

A powerful alternative to getting sucked into negativity is to recognize that failure is a productive, ongoing part of your ongoing development as a communicator. Plus, it helps to keep in mind that you cannot base your potential on any one individual communicative act.

For understanding how your Mindset influences your success and sharpens your ability to moderate your emotions and set strategic goals, we recommend you dig into Mindset:

3. Read (Critically)

Computational Linguists and the corporations that employ them (e.g., Educational Testing Services and Pearson Education) share a common theorem: 

all roads lead to vocabulary. 

[ Diction ]

When it comes to assessing texts, vocabulary matters: A sophisticated rather than a simplistic vocabulary predicts success and retention in school settings. Next after vocabulary comes sentence length and maturity (instances of subordination, diction, etc.). Computational linguists draw chiefly on these characteristics to develop algorithms that machine-score texts like humans. And it turns out these algorithms are incredibly accurate at predicting how humans score papers (even if the humans are using different scoring criteria). 

The key takeaway is that by reading a lot you enhance your vocabulary. Educators call this sort of learning tacit learning or tacit knowledge.  When reading, your amazing brain is paying attention to syntax, imagery, and organizational schemes. As a result of your reading, you develop mental schemas about how to organize texts; refute claims; and appeal to ethos, pathos, logos. Most of this learning is procedural/tacit but at times serious accolades take out a pen or highlighter and markup a text, trying to see how rhetorical or stylistic moves work.

4. Understand the Rules of the Game

For athletes, training requires both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. If you don’t learn how to go long and slow as well as hard and fast, you probably won’t have the endurance and quickness needed to win.

For communicators, training requires

  • Knowing What: Review research and theory in Writing Studies, which is the academic discipline that investigates composing, rhetoric, and related matters. Develop your Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge about composing.
  • Knowing How: Get in the Game! Develop your Procedural/Tacit Knowledge by writing regularly to multiple audiences in multiple genres and media.

Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge & Tacit Knowledge are the two fundamental ingredients you need to nurture to improve as a writer. These are the building blocks, the foundation, of your life-long apprenticeship as a writer. Thus, it helps to be conscious of ways to develop you develop these different modes of learning.

Declarative/Conceptual KnowledgeProcedural/Tacit Knowledge
Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge refers to explicit, formal knowledge about a topic.
Your success as a writer is chiefly determined extensively by your conceptual knowledge about the attitudes, dispositions, beliefs, behaviors, habits, strategies, and actions of effective communicators (writers, speakers, artists) as they work toward completing a text–whether that text is written, oral, or multimodal. 
Writing Commons aspires to be the last word regarding Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge in Writing Studies. 
We provide robust resources on Collaboration, Editing, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention, Mindset, Organization, Research, Revision, Rhetoric, and Style.

Intended primarily for teachers, the Writing Studies section provides the research & theory behind these pedagogical practices.
Procedural/Tacit Knowledge pertains to knowing how to do something, even if you cannot exactly explain how you do it.

Procedural (Tacit) Knowledge is chiefly developed by practice.
Sometimes you just know how to do something. Maybe it’s riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, driving a car, or speaking your native language. At some point, someone may have told you how to ride that bike, but you don’t remember what you were told. That muscle memory just comes with practice and its more nonverbal than verbal, more intuition or feeling than articulated thought. If asked by a bystander to explain how you do it, you’d have difficulty explaining how you do it. You’d probably say, “Hey, just get on the bike and give it a shot. It’s easier than it looks!”

A better example than bike riding might be your ability to speak your native language. If you grew up speaking English, you may not know the rules of grammar, but you can nonetheless speak English correctly.

So, the takeaway here is that nothing substitutes for practice–for trial and error. 

5. Plan Your Writing

As children many of us heard the classic fable about the tortoise and the hare. A not-so-subtle effort at parent brainwashing, this story reiforces the importance of grit, determination, persistence. And, it hints at the importance of planning.

Rather than rush into a new writing situation, rather than rushing straight from point A to point B, sometimes it makes sense to pause for a few moments and ask yourself, Do I really want to go there? What obstacles can I expect to encounter? Would it help to take a compass and a map? Is the path well marked? What provisions am I likely to need along the journey?

Like many children’s tales, the tortoise and the hare has implications for adults, too. For even though logic tells us that we can save time by quickly writing a first draft, we in fact might manage our time more effectively by doing some preliminary planning.

Complete a Document Planner to navigate writing projects efficiently. Use tools like Slack to manage collaborative projects.

6. Do the Training

To use a sports metaphor, we can tell you how to shoot a basketball, how to keep score, when to adopt a zone defense or when to adopt a man-to-man defense. We can show you videos of basketball greats like Michael Jordan,  Lebron James, or Zion Williamson. But at the end of the day, reading about how to dribble the ball down court and somehow, miraculously, score the three pointer won’t win the championship. Instead, you need to spend time on the court, shooting shot after shot, developing muscle memory. In modern discourse, this is the 10,000 rule—i.e., the idea that you have to practice something 10,000 tims to get it right.

The idea that you have to practice writing a fair amount may initially seem a bit lame. And a bit boring. After all, everyone knows that practice is crucial to learning complex tasks. But the reason procedural knowledge matters so much to writers may be a bit surprising:

  • the process of writing involves a bit of mystery–or, if you prefer–art.

For an example of the importance of tacit knowing, consider how writers work with Inner Speech and Felt Sense:

  • Inner Speech refers to the interior dialog we have within our minds, the voice within us.

    When they report on their writing processes, writers often say they engage in an internal dialog with an inner voice.  Back in the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky theorized that inner speech represents the intersection of thought and language. Noting how children talk to themselves when asked to solve problems, Vygotsky theorized that language becomes abbreviated as it goes underground and becomes intertwined with thought.
  • Felt Sense refers to pre-linguistic feelings deep within our bodies.

    Experienced writers report focusing on feeling as a source of inspiration. People say they have a sense of what they want to say even before they have articulated it in words. Writers are constantly re-reading their drafts to see if they’ve captured that felt sense.

Concepts like Inner Speech and Felt Sense may sound a big loosey goosey—or even mystical. Admittedly, they are concepts, just as the short-term and long-term memory or the id, ego, and superego are concepts. Ultimately, the mind is a black box. We often have to rely on theory and conjecture when it comes to understanding how the brain processes language. 

Still, so many writers speak about learning to dialog with an internal voice and feelings deep within the body that we believe there’s merit to these concepts. We view Inner Speech and Felt Sense to be important behaviors for writers, as tools writers can use to think with, to transform images or words saturated with personal meaning into more fully elaborated texts. Ultimately, we mention Inner Speech and Felt Sense here as an example of procedural/tacit knowledge—as behaviors and dispositions that can only be experienced. 

7. Trust the Process

Unlike a chef who follows a single recipe for preparing chocolate cheesecake, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . lack a single modus operandi. Sometimes you may need to write 30 drafts and other times a single draft will do. Sometimes you should dictate your ideas; sometimes you should write them on the computer; sometimes you should scratch them out carefully with a pencil.

Instead of expecting yourself to write perfect first drafts or to develop your best ideas before writing, you need to learn to trust the generative nature of composing. By being flexible and open minded, you will sometimes discover your most innovative ideas in progress, because language generates thought. In fact, what you learn as you write will sometimes contradict your preliminary hunches, so be prepared to revise accordingly.

You also need to be flexible about how you compose documents. You need to be be aware that some documents will be more demanding than others. For example, a semester-long research paper or an international corporation’s annual report would require a different amount of collaboration, research, and revision than a biography or a memoir.

In the U.S., the phrase trust the process is a bit of a cultural cliche, as suggested by Google’s Ngram tool:

Unfortunately, the phrase Trust the Process is so overused it’s a bit like saying Have a nice day or How you feeling? People ignore all that. Plus, there’s all that spam spewing self-help cliches for a price.

Writing teachers, colleagues, and friends can tell you to trust the process ad nauseum. But unless you get in the game and develop this tacit knowledge (aka the red pill), this advice will just sound like a platitude. 

For writers, trusting the process is incredibly transformative and powerful. Based on anecdotal accounts and case studies of writers at work, scholars and writing teachers like Peter Elbow, Ann Berthoff, Sondra Perl, Donald Murray and others have advised writers to Play the Believing Game. This involves

  • setting aside doubt and freewriting
  • beginning before you are ready, before you know what you want to say 
  • listening to your inner speech, having a dialog with yourself, invoking a sense of audience while you write
  • accessing your felt sense, that inchoate, prelinguistic embodiment of what you want to say before saying it
  • taking the long view on your apprenticeship as a writer. 

Consider, if you will, this metaphor: according to coaches like Tony Dungy or Phil Jackson, if an athlete concentrates on winning the prize, whether it’s a symbolic championship on one tied to millions of dollars, rather than focusing on the immediate task before him or her, the athlete is more likely to fail. Instead, coaches like Dungy and Jackson are famous for helping athletes break down their sports into smaller units. By focusing on these units, or outcomes, into moment-by-moment tasks, the athlete has a much stronger chance of actually winning and progressing despite great odds.

Because Trusting the Process is so important to your development as a writer, Writing Commons provides numerous articles on the topic. As a foundation, I recommend you begin with the following pages:

To tap into your incredible potential, we encourage you to adopt a Growth Mindset, be Intellectually Open, and Resilient.

8: Find Focus

Focus is exceedingly important to your success as a communicator. Today’s readers, listeners, and users . . . are extremely impatient. If you skip around from topic to topic, you’ll lose your readers.

Focus is not a static thing. Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . may change their focus when writing, as they gain a more robust understanding of the scholarly conversation on a topic or learn something after engaging in informal research, quantitative research, or qualitative research.

Ultimately, focus is fueled by rhetorical analysis of the rhetorical situation. Once the Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . carefully assessed the rhetorical situation, they are ready to engage in rhetorical reasoning, which

Many of the pages at Writing Commons aim to help you better analyze communication situations and better navigate them. For analyzing communication situations, we especially recommend you review the following pages:

9. Be open to collaboration and critique

Just about everyone struggles to understand their weaknesses. This is why the phrase You don’t know what you don’t know is so poignant. Ultimately, we all have blind spots, particularly regarding our flaws.

But, being human, we surely all have flaws. In the context of communication, this flaw could be:

  • not listening to when others speak and focusing instead on refuting what the other person is saying or clarifying how it relates to your experience.
  • not really considering the depth of the audience’s point of view on a topic
  • Not reading an article in its entirety before citing a sentence or two from its intro.
  • Not planning sufficient time to research, write, and revise a document.

Whatever your flaw(s), the point is that it helps to reach out to others for strong critique of your communicative acts. And then to learn from all that.

10. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Above we recommend you keep your focus on the process rather than the end-game. That’s because, counterintuitively, you accomplish the end-game by paying attention to where you are in the process.

All that said, it can be inspirational to take a moment from time to time to actually consider the end goal.

While yes there are many obstacles to effective communication, the potential rewards to improving your communicative competencies are transformative. Being a writer, a symbol analyst in the knowledge economy, enhances your cognitive competencies, your ability to collaborate (interpersonal competencies), and your ability to reflect and learn from life (intrapersonal competencies). 

At Writing Commons, we believe writers enter a Task Environment (that is, a rhetorical situation that requires writing) with declarative and conceptual knowledge of competencies. Over time, these competencies evolve. They are sharpened and perfected by experience. 

While there are many competencies involved in communicative processes, the National Research Council has cogently argued they can be subsumed under three major competencies:

  • “Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.
  •  Intrapersonal competencies involve self-management and the ability to regulate one’s behavior and emotions to reach goals.
  • Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others”
    (National Research Council 2012).

Here’s the really important takeaway: developing your cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies will

  • improve your writing and public speaking
  • enhance your marketability in the professional workplace.