How to Improve Your Writing

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October 5, 2013 by Kathryn Kuttis

Take a closer look.

Take a Closer Look.

So this week I got to talk with my students about their writing. It turns out that we all have areas we’d like to improve when it comes to forming our thoughts into words. Old habits and misconceptions about our writing can get in the way or keep us from trying to do our best work.

Based on an informal poll of our class, here is a list of the top 5 writing skills that produce the most anxiety:

Word choice – When you just can’t find the right word or combination of words to say what you want to say.

Punctuation – These rules are crazy. They don’t make any sense and I never really got a chance to learn them properly.

Content – Will readers connect with what I’m saying? What am I saying?

Style – My sentences are too long, too short, to formal or too casual.

Correctness – How can I be sure that what I’m writing is actually true? There must be someone who knows more about this than me.

Every one who wants to write has some form of writer’s apprehension. The good news is if you are thinking about it, and by “it” I mean your fear of writing, then you are probably an effective writer. People who aren’t writers don’t give it much thought.

To improve these skills and become a better writer, we need to make peace with our areas of dread. Take a closer look at them. Think about them and realize they aren’t so scary.

Try Metawriting

One way to do this is to write about your writing. This is not a new idea, educators at the National Writing Project call it metawriting. In an article about teaching grammar and usage, author Douglas James Joyce (that really is his name) says that his students decrease the frequency of specific grammatical errors just by writing about them. He has them write a one-page essay on an error that recurs in their writing. They use handbooks and style guides to describe how the usage works, if there are conflicting conventions and why the rule was created in the first place.

AP Style

As journalism students and aspiring public relations professionals, one area that can’t be overlooked is the use of AP style. While we have constant exposure to AP Style conventions, it can be hard to use them confidently unless you stay up-to-date with the changes, say by following them on Twitter, or frequently use them. I asked students to select an area of dread that was specific to AP Style and write a one-page essay about it.

Here are the details of the assignment:

This assignment asks you to write about the one area of grammar or mechanics that you approach with the most apprehension or leaves you the most frustrated. We will call this your area of dread. You will write a one-page essay (approximately 250 words) that demonstrates a deep and thorough understanding of the topic.

For example, if you write about the semicolon you may want to describe its origins and illustrate some of its most common misuses. Grammar is not an exact science. Be aware that grammar books and websites will offer conflicting advice.

While your main goal is to describe and understand the AP Style Guide’s conventions for your topic, you will also compare and contrast it to at least one other book or online resource. This will familiarize you with writing resources that can help you look something up, puzzle over syntax and fuss with sentences until they become clear.

There are three requirements for your essay:

  1. Provide a clear explanation of the AP Style usage for your area of dread.
  2. Give at least one example of incorrect usage and correct it.
  3. Analyze at least one other source and compare it with the AP Style.

Consider using these sources:

Each student will write about one topic. We will compile these into a resource to share as a class. You will also use the essay as a starting point for your blog assignment next week.

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If you share an interest in public relations, media and visual design, this might be a good place for you to hang out. I started this blog to exchange ideas with my students at the University of Oregon. They keep me (and maybe you too) at the forefront of social media, visual communication and career development. Here you'll find our best ideas, links and learning as we write, create and blog our way through a course on Strategic PR Communication.

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