Some thoughts about writing

It is pretty common knowledge that young people today are reading and writing more than ever, but it is often in an unstructured way – the kind of writing used in text messages or on Twitter. Teachers have taken note of this change in style, and they have documented a decline in writing skill (75% of 12th and 8th graders are not proficient in writing). There is a push toward developing new methods to help kids learn to write well, which seems like a daunting task. In this New York Times article, Dana Goldstein focuses on the stories of students and teachers, and what it takes to develop writing skills.

Speaking from my own experience, I remember in high school being told to free-write or draw on something from my life to inspire the written word. To me, this was not particularly helpful to develop writing skills, and the teachers in Dana Goldstein’s article agree that free-writing has not improved kids’ abilities. Writing for most of my early life was a difficult process, and I really did not come to enjoy it until college. The difference was that the writing became more goal-oriented. There was a purpose or an argument that I was striving to make, and that process – crafting the right way to organize and present evidence to build an argument – became fun, and it drove me to hone my writing skills.

So what makes good writer? Certainly some people have innate writing ability, but the most important thing that anyone needs to understand is that good writing takes hard work. Some of my most valuable writing experiences came from having a professor read a draft of a manuscript and completely rip it to shreds, metaphorically speaking, which required me to take a step back and look at the big picture goals of the manuscript at hand. Even though I probably thought I had decent writing ability at the time, my writing was not clear or well organized. Once I had some paragraphs written, I felt a sort of attachment to those words, almost like a sunk-cost fallacy, a desire to hold onto something that has taken a substantial amount of time and effort. A significant hurdle involved just generating the will to, in some cases, completely remove paragraphs and start the text fresh. Sometimes this is what it takes to create high quality prose, and any good writer has to also have a thick skin and be open to criticism.

For people interested in writing about science and other non-fiction, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st century.” If you read this or his other books, you will see that he is able to write clearly about complex subjects, which is often a struggle for me and other scientists. I especially enjoyed the parts of the book where he presents a few paragraphs from another author and goes through, in detail, how the author fails or succeeds in making his or her point. We can certainly learn a lot from just hearing how good writers critique others.