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The Top 10 Methods for Successful Writing
by Jonna Lilly

Assume for a moment that your teacher tells you to write a 300-word essay, due next Monday. What do you do? Cringe? Smile? Laugh? Cry? For most students, writing engenders extreme emotions; some love it, while others hate it. If you are in the latter category, you will soon learn some highly successful secrets to help your writing. Who knows? You might learn to enjoy the writing process or at least not dislike it as much!

10. Know your audience

Before one can even begin the process of writing, it is imperative to know who will be reading your work. Why? To ensure that your message effectively reaches its intended recipients, you must decide first whom your audience is. There are two basic audiences: General reading public and specialists.

As the name suggests, “the general reading public” is comprised of nearly everyone who can read and write. Your 80-year-old grandmother is a member of the general reading public, but so is a corporate executive at IBM. Because there is such a wide disparity in the group, everything from the educational age level to knowledge-of-the-world level, it is best to write in a simple style, with no flowery words or phrases, basic sentence structure (subject + verb), general vocabulary, and general topics.

On the other hand, writing for specialists is completely different. This group is composed of people who have specialties in specific areas of knowledge. For example, an accountant for American Airlines would have specialized knowledge; so would a botanist at the local university.

How does writing for specialists differ from writing for members of the general reading public? Instead of a simple writing style, a more complex style would be more appropriate, including a complex sentence structure (dependent clauses, either before or after the subject + verb). In addition, jargon becomes important when writing for this group. Jargon is merely the specialized vocabulary used by members of the group; members of other groups may not be privy to this information. When writing for a group of specialists, it is important that you be a specialist in that particular field. Why? Otherwise, you might lose credibility with the group, by not showing you have adequate knowledge and/or by not using the appropriate jargon.

9. Understand the purpose for your writing

There are three basic purposes for writing: To inform, to persuade, and to entertain.

Informing your audience simply means you have information to share with them about a particular topic, including El Nino, the new Ford Thunderbird or to jaunts to Beijing.

When writing to persuade, the focus is different. Instead of merely sharing information with the audience, now you will attempt to present a particular slant on an issue, hoping to win the audience to your point of view. For example, you might write about the need to give members of the Armed Forces a 10% pay raise. Or, you could discuss why the television show “Alias” is better than shows of a similar genre.

Remember, also, that writing to inform and persuade can and often do overlap. If you choose to write about why you are pro-President Bush, in the course of explaining why you feel the way you do, you would certainly include information about him, such as his leadership skills or his down-home personality.

Finally, writing to entertain includes pieces by humorists, like Dave Barry. Articles about leading entertainers, such as those found in People, would also be included under this heading.

Most business-related writing would fall under the first two headings; very rarely would writing to entertain be needed in the business world.

8. Develop your thoughts well

Once you know your audience and purpose, you can start developing ideas for your readers. Your topic sentences, what each paragraph is about, will need sufficient detail in order to explain your message adequately.

A simple technique to ensure that your readers understand your message is to include ample reasons, examples, names, numbers, and senses. Reasons explain why something is the way it is. For instance, in order for medicine to work effectively, it must be taken at regular intervals, either throughout the day or on a once-daily basis. Examples illustrate ideas. For instance, if you are writing about vegetables containing beta-carotene, you could use as an example the sweet potato, which has high concentrations of beta-carotene. Using proper names, also known as proper nouns, will also better explain ideas. Say, for instance, you are writing about basketball. Mentioning a specific player, like Michael Jordan, would make your writing more concrete. Numbers are self-explanatory; however, implications of numbers would also be appropriate (e.g., several, many, some). Finally, use senses in your writing. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell can make your writing spring to life. For example, if you write about how to bake chocolate-chip cookies, it would be natural to include several senses in your writing.

7. Read, read, read

One of the best ways to become a better writer is simply to become a better reader. How? By reading something, anything, on a regular basis. Do you like keeping up with current events? Try reading your local newspaper or a website like USA Today. What about science fiction? Magazines? Novels? History? It really doesn’t matter what you read. The important idea to remember here is: Just read. Notice the authors’ sentence structure, vocabulary, jargon, and grammar. Are they writing for the general reading public or for specialists? If there is a word you don’t know, grab your dictionary and look it up. Once you discover a particular writing style you like, decide why you like it and then try to emulate it. Experiment with different writing styles, depending on your audience and purpose.

6. Write only about what you know (and like)

From teaching various English classes, I can tell you categorically that the students who have the least writing difficulties choose topics which they know and like. Think about it. If you are interested in space exploration, but choose instead to write about the life-cycle of a butterfly, your lack of interest will cause the writing process to seem much more mundane, not to mention long and tiresome! Don’t misunderstand, though. Even student writers who write about topics they like, find themselves confronting a problem or two in their writing. Their positive mindsets about their topics make resolving the problems that much easier.

5. Increase your vocabulary as much as possible

When you come across an unfamiliar word, look up its definition in the dictionary. To make the word truly yours, keep a “new vocabulary journal.” Write the word and its definition in a notebook and refer to it on a daily basis. Plan to incorporate several new words from your notebook in each essay you write.

Another way to increase your vocabulary is to take the “Word Power” quiz in each month’s issue of Reader’s Digest. Or, purchase a book on vocabulary building, such as 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred Funk.

Students willing to invest minutes per week will reap many benefits from an increased vocabulary. Not only will they appear more educated than their counterparts; they will also notice that their appetite for new words will increase. These new words can be used verbally, as well as in writing. Think about how an advanced vocabulary will increase the chances of impressing a potential boss, when job-hunting time arrives

4. Don’t procrastinate

If an essay is due in two weeks, don’t wait until the night before it is due to start working on it. Sounds logical, right? Then, why do so many students procrastinate? Some are just lazy, perhaps. Others have good intentions, which somehow go awry. I would submit that the majority of students who procrastinate simply do not like writing, because they don’t know how to write well.

With the suggestions listed here, you should not be in this category. Once you know how to write well, writing will not be viewed as a “chore” anymore. Instead, you can approach it from the perspective that you have a skill you can use to better your lifestyle. One of my proudest moments as a teacher occurred when a student in one of my business writing classes told me about her promotion and raise, given to her as a result of a research paper she had written in my class. She succeeded in doing well on the paper (she received an “A”), but she also profited monetarily. Her self-esteem skyrocketed, needless to say!

3. Practice, practice, practice

Use your newfound writing skills in other classes, besides English. Why not write a paragraph on how you solved a geometry problem? Or, take a few moments to write about your latest science chapter, perhaps to summarize it. But, don’t stop there. Write a letter to your grandmother, instead of sending her a Hallmark card. When emailing your friends, include a new word you’ve learned recently. Keep a daily journal, similar to a diary, detailing whatever you wish. Students I know who have started keeping a journal often write for just five minutes per day. However, they usually will write longer, perhaps 15-20 minutes per day, after just a couple of weeks. Why? They find they enjoy the outlet the journal provides. They can complain to the journal about their troubles, rejoice about their successes, and share everything in-between! In short, use your skills often to sharpen them even more.

2. Enlist some support

Once you have finished writing your essay, let someone else read it. Does it make sense? Are there paragraphs that need more development? Can the reader pinpoint your main ideas? Is your sentence structure appropriate for the audience? What about vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and jargon?

If your reader encounters few problems, congratulations! On the other hand, if the reader has difficulty, this is a perfect opportunity for you. Why? You have valuable information for future writing projects. You now know where your weaknesses lie and will be better able to address those next time.

1. Resolve to work on one problem per week

As we said earlier, by enlisting support, it is easy to pinpoint problem areas. What we can’t see clearly ourselves, simply because we are too close to the work, others can see much more easily. Once we have that information, it is imperative to use it to improve. If you see that paragraph development is a problem, resolve to work on that area for one week. Will you see improvements immediately? Perhaps not, but the main idea is to attempt to resolve the problem, rather than to ignore it and hope it will disappear. Over time, your writing is sure to improve.

By following these ten simple ideas, writing an essay will no longer seem as bothersome. Next time you’re assigned an essay, you can be confident, knowing your writing will be successful!

© Jonna R. Lilly, 2002

Jonna R. Lilly holds a Master of Arts in English from Indiana University. She taught at numerous colleges and universities, served as an editor for a professional public speaker, and written for various national publications, and for Internet websites.

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