How I Became a Better Writer Thanks to Distracted, Hungover College Kids
Writing is difficult.
So is teaching it to distracted, hungover college students whose cultural touchstones are TMZ and the Twilight series.
But after years spent writing in professional newsrooms, I was surprised to discover how teaching college students actually helped make me a better student of the craft of writing.
And it’s not (just) because I now have a mile-long list of what-not-to-do examples.
I’ve spent the last three years teaching journalism and media writing to undergraduates at a small Midwestern university. That came after an enjoyable stretch writing for newspapers and magazines.
The two venues aren’t actually so different. Each group has a penchant for whining and alcohol abuse. The good ones (both in newsrooms and classrooms) also have a hunger for edification and self-improvement.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not generally standing in front of 50 Hemingways-in-training three times a week. In fact, I’m convinced college students are genetically predisposed to clichés, run-on sentences, and cluttered, murky writing.
But teaching any subject has a funny way of educating the teacher at least as much as the student.
Here are four of the most persistent lessons I’ve picked up from my students:
Economy of language
Tight writing gets your message across more efficiently.
When I’m working with my students, I challenge them to trim each sentence by at least a quarter. The request is generally received about as well as me asking them for a 45-minute Facebook moratorium.
But then they begin to cut the qualifiers, the needless adjectives, and the passive constructions. And suddenly everything is a notch tighter, a hair crisper, a beat faster.
Writing shorter isn’t, as many of them fear, writing dumber. It’s a sign the writer is smart enough to step out of the way and let the story tell itself.
Break rules for a reason
Good writers need to have a working relationship with the rules.
As freelancers know all too well, part of that is just following instructions. I can’t count how many students turn in stories lacking the required number of sources or pages.
And then there are those rules of thumb that tend to make writing clearer and more effective.
- Avoid passive voice.
- Mind your punctuation.
- Use groupings of three.
These rules hang around for a reason. They’re often good advice, if only because readers are used to them.
But there are also times when writers should break them . . . if it’s for a specific purpose.
Breaking with convention because you want to seem edgy or postmodern is self-serving and almost always laughably transparent.
But breaking the rules to benefit your readers is another story.
In fact, one way to strengthen your writing is to watch where the hordes go and head the opposite direction. The best journalists (and businesspeople) often look for angles in unexplored crevices. Jimmy Breslin’s story on the cemetary workers who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave is an industry case in point.
Copywriters and bloggers can use this very effectively. Seize on an emerging trend and look for unintended, unexpected, or even unimaginable consequences. Find a contrary view, not for the sake of being a contrarian, but because it lets you offer something genuinely new.
To do it well, you’ve still got to keep an eye on those hordes. Be fluent in the rules you hope to transcend.
You can’t fake it
I love this one because it was so me during my salad days.
A 20-year-old with an aptitude for writing is convinced he can fool you with finery. He’s sure he can write around gaping holes or a dearth of research by flashing some $5 words and complex-compound sentences.
Needless to say, the irony is delicious. I’ve come to realize how hollow, ridiculous, and overwritten some of my earlier work was.
Nobody’s buying it.
There’s a world out there ready to call your bluff. You can’t pass off lackluster thinking as quality content. You can’t successfully pitch guest posts until you understand the site and its audience. You can’tposition yourself as an expert without actually possessing expertise. You can’t hide shoddy services or a bad product behind fluff and puffery.
The world of today’s copywriter rewards those who write with authority. Leave the big words at home. Instead, do some more homework. Dig into research. Ask questions. Be willing to open yourself to a little ridicule.
Then let your subject mastery do the talking.
Feedback is everything
I coat undergraduate papers in ink. It’s intimidating to some students at first, but I’ve found that most come to appreciate that degree of feedback by semester’s end. Unfortunately, partly that’s because they don’t seem to get a lot of reliable feedback anywhere else.
This is equally true in the blogging world, where feedback typically comes in the form of vitriolic comments from trolls or glad-handing from well-meaning friends.
The reality is we need honest, unvarnished, constructive criticism. We get a distorted view of our writing abilities on both the good and bad ends of the spectrum.
Writers should strive to find good feedback wherever they can — but not from the same old sources. Reach out to writers you admire but don’t know well yet. Join a local or online writer’s group, or even the nearest Society of Professional Journalists chapter (hint: you don’t technically have to be a “journalist,” however that’s defined these days).
Heck, even consider taking a class at the local university or college. Just please, do me a favor. Get the hell off Facebook when the bell rings.
About the Author: Chris Birk works with GrowthPartner.com, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. A former newspaper and magazine writer, he teaches journalism and media writing at a private Midwestern university. He blogs at Write Short Live Long.