Tips for young writers: 10 steps to becoming a good writer

As a student of English, you are required to write lucidly and in an informed way about the texts you are studying and issues in our society. Here are 10 steps to help you on your way to writing success.

1. Write regularly
Just like an athelete, you need to warm up your writing muscles. ‘Freewriting’ is the writer’s equivalent of stretches. Write ‘freely’ — rapidly and without pause — for at least 15 minutes every day. Write about anything that you feel like, anywhere, anytime. Use your computer, write by hand — it doesn’t matter. With regular practice, your expression and fluency will improve. You will also find writing in stressful situations, such as exams, much easier.

2. Make reading a habit
As a writer, you need to read. Reading written language will give you a template for what is possible in writing. Read diverse texts: newspapers, novels, play and film scripts. Notice what authors do with word choice, tone and sentence structure. Developing an awareness of writers’ techniques will develop your own writer’s ‘toolbox’.

Think of yourself as an independent, competent and knowledgeable writer

3. Learn from your mistakes
When you get back an essay or creative writing piece, take note of your teacher’s comments and learn from them. What kinds of errors do you make regularly? If you make the same old spelling and grammar mistakes all the time, learn the correct ways. If you are unsure about how to fix your errors, ask your teacher for help. Learning from your own mistakes is the quickest way to improve your writing.

4. Learn from others
Educate yourself about how others write essays. Read sample essays, and with their permission, read other students’ essays. Notice the good and the bad. Notice the effect of spelling mistakes and awkward expression, and the effect of lucid arguments and well-used quotes. What appropriate words and phrases do others use and how do they use them? How do they structure their essays? Do they do drafts, and if so, how many? Learn from others and you will quickly discover that you have a lot more resources available to you than you thought.

5. Wait before criticising your work
Most writers are their own worst critic. Take a short break from the piece you have been working on before editing it. You will see the writing for what it is, where you have made errors and how you can fix them.

6. Expand your repertoire
Try out new writing techniques to expand your repertoire. Discover ways to strengthen your introductions and conclusions. Look up words you are unsure of and practise using them in sentences. Try out new words and phrases to link your paragraphs. Then, when the pressure is on, your new skills will help you get a better mark.

7. Become passionate about your opinions
Become passionate about the texts you are studying and the world around you. In class discussions, state your opinion. If you strongly like or dislike a text, explain why. Listen to what others have to say, then contribute further to the discussion. This is an excellent chance for you to develop your ideas and arguments before you put them down on paper.

8. Polish your work

Good writers take the time to polish their writing. After a short break, go back and see what can be improved. Correct the obvious errors, remove unnecessary words, and consider the bigger picture. Are sentences and paragraphs ordered in a logical way? Is the introduction and conclusion strong enough? The practice that you do now will refine your skills as a writer. When you get to the exams, you can polish as you write.

9. Presentation is important
How you present your work will have a bearing on your marks. During term time, format your essays so that they are easy to read. During tests and exams, make sure your writing is legible. If you’ve written a wonderful essay and it’s unreadable, it won’t do well. Good writers know that their writing has to be presented well to be taken seriously.

10. Expand your horizons
Being a writer isn’t just about writing! Writers also explore what is available to help them. Use your initiative during the year and take advantage of any opportunities to learn more about topical issues or the texts that you are studying. Think of yourself as an independent, competent and knowledgeable writer … and student.

This piece was previously published in an edited form in the ‘Education’ section of The Age, back in 2004.

© Cathryn Isakson 2010

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