“Since the Dawn of Time…”

If you want to improve your writing, simply write


I tend to avoid giving direct scholastic advice because I know I’m talking to students who are in a wide variety of subjects at any number of levels. There isn’t a lot you can say about doing well in school that applies to all subject areas. But just this once I’m going to make an exception.

Effective writing and communication is something that everyone needs. Even if you’re in the hard sciences it’s going to matter sometimes. If you’re in the arts it’s your entire career. No matter that your real goal may be to know a certain body of material and to learn new things about it, if you can’t effectively communicate what you know and learn then you might as well not know it.

Poor writing is not only obvious to those who know good writing – they probably have a direct aversion to it. Whether you think it’s fair or unfair that this one skill should mean so much, it simply does. Strong writing can make up for a lot of deficiencies in your work and weak writing can ruin even good work. This is true of what you do in university when your work is graded by TAs and professors, and it’s true out in the real world too, where your work may not be graded but is certainly being read by someone.

“Since the dawn of time…” comes from one of the most famously bad opening lines that students are apt to stick at the beginning of their essays. It’s a famously bad line because there is no one, in any subject area, that’s talking about anything that’s actually been happening since the dawn of time. Except maybe physicists, but in that case I’ll let them correct me. Even if you’re writing about war, you might get away with the statement that mankind has always waged war, but not that it’s been happening since the dawn of time.

I know a lot of students and increasingly I know a lot of graduate students. These are your TAs and the people who grade your work. It’s painful for me to admit this, but they do make fun of bad writing. Sometimes they’re so frustrated by it they almost beat their heads against their desks. They don’t want to hand out poor grades, generally, but it takes an extremely sympathetic grader (and they are in short supply) to look past poor writing in order to see good ideas.

I want to give everyone the same advice I’ve given to a number of would-be writers over the years. If you want to improve your writing, simply write. Keep a journal. Write letters to your friends and family. Write e-mails (I mean real ones, with paragraphs) to your friends and family. Start a blog. Get into long debates on message boards. Anything. Writing is writing and it all builds into a general improvement of your skills – just like you can improve your skills at football simply by throwing a ball around. It doesn’t need to be formal or intensive. It simply needs to be real writing.

I’ve resisted this advice for some time because I know I have an obvious bias here. I write. I’m suggesting everyone needs to be able to write. Seems like I’m just promoting my own skill set. But rightly or wrongly it is a skill almost no one can do without.

There are other ways to improve your writing and I won’t try to summarize how to do that in a short piece like this. The best other tip I know (in addition to simply writing a lot) is to read what you write out loud when you’re done. I still do that. Not only will you catch bad grammar that way, you’ll also train yourself to avoid awkward and unnatural writing of the sort so many undergraduates produce. The goal is not to write in some contrived way that’s different from real world communication. The goal is to communicate on topics you might not normally discuss but in a way that is otherwise fairly natural and understandable. If it sounds like it makes sense, when you say it out loud, chances are it does.

And yeah, I just read all this out loud before I posted it.

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“Since the Dawn of Time…”

  1. To reply to Stephanie, I’m glad you appreciate the piece. I’ve always been a fan of that essay by Orwell, ever since I was introduced to it in high school. In fact, it was one of the few things I read with any enjoyment in high school.

    That said, as years go by, I disagree with the essay more and more. To use one example, Orwell’s attack on the “not un-” construction as meaningless is simply wrong, in my opinion. In one notable instance, the Supreme Court has had a very extensive debate regarding whether “not insignificant” is the same thing as “significant.” I won’t rehash why that’s important, but if the Supreme Court can have the debate I think it’s a bit rash of Orwell to suggest unilaterally that “not unlikely” and “likely” are clearly equivalent.

    Anyway, that’s just a peeve of mine. But dated or not, the essay is well worth the read, and I’d commend it to anyone interested in improving their writing. Just to stick to Orwell, wherever he may be, I’ll call the read not unprofitable.

  2. I would add to that with a famous piece of advice of the "Writer's Handbook" circa 1980'something – If you have two hours a day to write, spend one hour writing and one hour reading. You have to see good writing in order to learn how to write like that. I credit my own reasonable competence in writing to a lifelong love of quality books – a love that really took off in my teens, when I belonged to nine book clubs.

  3. I don’t think the solution lies only in “writing” and writing anything. Perhaps you’ve not yet noticed, but many untalented writers have been churning out pieces of writing for a long time. Getting into long debates on message boards actually sounds like a way to become a bellicose, long winded writer, rather than improving your writing skills. Good academic writing is concise, purposive and convincing, which is hardly a description of much of the writing you would see in some of the locations you suggest (e.g. internet forums, emails, etc.)

  4. I think I have a new fan. Well, that makes … maybe three?

    While I’m sure we could get into an interesting debate, Anecdote, on the relative quality of today’s professional writers, I think you’ve missed my audience. I’m speaking here to students who, as often as not, view any form of writing as a chore. This isn’t a professional writing seminar. Although it’s true this is a variant of the same advice I’d give would-be professionals, the other version would concentrate more on revision and editing as well.

    I really think we’re talking on two different levels here. It’s absolutely true that volume isn’t the final goal of proper writing. But I think it’s also true that any university student whose worst failings as a writer amount to long-windedness and bellicosity is already in the top 5% of the class. How about we just get everyone that far and then see where we can go from there?

  5. Yup, that’s about as simple as it gets and practical as well. You want to write well? Write a lot and read your own writing aloud, so your ear can use its natural affinity to detect poor grammar or poor usage. Reading a lot helps as well. String words together on paper to make complete thoughts. Practice. Journals are great for this. Anyone who is any good at anything had to practice. Want to play the piano? Practice. Want to run a 10K? Practice. Want to write a decent essay? Practice. Persistance pays off. When you reach 4th year, with practice, you should be pretty good. And if you really want to be professional, like our columnist, do what Robert Benchley (author of Jaws) did; find writers you like and immitate them. Not copy, but immatate. Soon your own style will emerge. In the meantime, do what all experts do – practice.

  6. Thank you Jeff! You forgot one thing that helps tremendously:going to your univerisity’s writing centre. In my first two years of undergrad, I went to it twice for every essay. By my last year I wrote my essays last minute , the night before. Now I am a TA correcting essays right now. Yes, of course I make fun of them.Yes, I bang my head constantly. I didn’t think the job would be this hard because I would have never imagined the writing being this poor. Also, I am 1L so I am studying for exams and correcting 100 essays. I shoud not be reading your blog right now

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