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3 Simple Exercises to Improve Your Writing Skills

How will you go about becoming the best writer you can be?

Matt Lemanski
Jan 29, 2020 · 16 min read

1. Copy writing you enjoy (slowly and by hand).

Copying is wrong when your intention is to deceive people by putting your name on the work of someone else. That’s theft, specifically plagiarism.

How to Copy a Text Mindfully

Copying can sometimes be difficult because it’s so easy. As with meditation, your mind may wander off, or push you to do this task as fast as possible. It wants something more interesting or more challenging to think about.

  • Copy the text sentence by sentence, rather than word by word.
  • Read a full paragraph several times, then close the book (or hide the browser window) and try to reproduce the paragraph from memory.
  • Take brief notes about each sentence, then try reproducing the text based on your notes, a few days later.
  • Jumble up your list of notes, then try to reconstruct their original sequence and reproduce the text several weeks later.
portrait of Benjamin Franklin
portrait of Benjamin Franklin
Portrait by Joseph Duplessis, 1778

A Brief Example

Below are two paragraphs from an essay by Rebecca Solnit entitled ‘Open Door’ from her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

portrait of Rebecca Solnit
portrait of Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit by Sallie Dean Shatz

Analyze Your Errors

You may make some mistakes while copying. That’s OK. That’s good. You can learn some interesting things about writing by examining your errors.

  • I accidentally wrote ‘A student came in with a quote’ instead of ‘A student came in bearing a quote’. This is a natural error, and perhaps ‘with’ is a better choice, since it’s more natural and conversational. ‘Bear’ is a rather uncommon verb these days and sounds a bit old-fashioned. In fact, it sounds kind of Biblical (three wise men came to baby Jesus ‘bearing’ gifts). So, on second thought, ‘bear’ may be a smart choice because it fits with the religious theme of the essay, and it gives the student’s presentation of this ancient quote a sense of majesty. There’s no majesty in my choice of ‘with’.
  • I made the mistake of writing ‘How will you go about finding that which is totally unknown to you?’— omitting the words ‘thing the nature of’ between ‘that’ and ‘which’. My sentence is still grammatically correct, and a bit less clunky, but it’s interesting to ask: Why did Solnit put such an awkwardly long quote in the middle of this elegant paragraph? Perhaps she did it for reasons of accuracy; perhaps those are the exact words she copied down. Nevertheless, these words give the question a stronger sense of precision, while also turning the question into a little grammatical puzzle that forces us to slow down in the middle of the paragraph, sort of like a speed bump. Solnit does not wish for us to race past this question, which will become the central idea unifying all the various tangents in her essay.
a young woman writing in a library
a young woman writing in a library
Photo by Annie Spratt

2. Create an outline (and analyze its structure).

A common writing tip is: Before you start writing, create an outline. It’s the English teacher’s equivalent of the fitness trainer’s commandment: Before thou workest out, thou shalt do some stretches.

A Simple Outline

  1. Beginning
  2. Middle
  3. End

A Better Outline

  1. Introduce a question.
  2. Elaborate on the question with some examples.
  3. Present some kind of conclusion.

Analyze the Structure of the Text You Copied

Instead of creating boring and unhelpful outlines, let’s create an outline of what Solnit actually wrote. There are ten sentences in the first paragraph, and each one does something particular:

  1. Explain its purpose (evocatively and mysteriously).
  2. Launch into a story (with time, location, circumstance).
  3. Introduce a character (with a message).
  4. Quote the message (a thought-provoking question).
  5. Mention your response (what the author did and felt).
  6. Insert a digression (about the unnamed character).
  7. Elaborate on your response (expanding it into a philosophical issue).
  8. Clarify the issue (what makes it so problematic).
  9. Offer some examples, and restate the thought-provoking question.
  • It’s interesting to consider what’s absent from this paragraph. Typically when you describe a person, you offer details like ‘The student came from a small town and a poor family’ or ‘The student wore black-rimmed glasses and sat every day in the front row’. But Solnit gives us zero descriptive details. Instead, she tells us about something the student created, and the details of that project reveal a lot more about this student — and what Solnit finds interesting and memorable about people — than do such conventional, stereotypical details. (Again, this is not a technique you commonly see in books or blogs about How to Describe a Person; this is a technique you only discover by reading slowly, carefully.)
  • The word ‘unknown’ seems to play an important role in Solnit’s memory and imagination. It appears seven times in these two paragraphs, including the quotes by Meno and Oppenheimer. This suggests that the essay could have been organized in other ways: ‘Recently I came across an interesting remark by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Scientists, he says, “live always at the edge of mystery — the boundary of the unknown”. It reminded me of a student a few years ago who shared with me a quote, also about the “unknown”, which got me thinking about doors. Open doors, to be exact…’ Thank goodness Solnit avoided this tedious structure, but it’s a common approach: Start by mentioning something you recently heard or read, then relate it to something from your past, and connect the dots until you arrive at your planned destination. So easy, and so boring.
a closet full of spiral notebooks
a closet full of spiral notebooks
Photo by Julia Joppien

3. Play with the words (and compare your results).

After you have studied a passage of text closely by copying it, and after you have developed a big-picture view of the text by outlining it, one final exercise is to experiment with the words, phrases, ideas, or structures of the text, and see what other interesting things we can learn about writing.

Retain the Meaning, but Change the Structure

Choose one or two sentences and try restructuring them, with a different rhythm or emphasis, without altering their meaning. For instance:

  • The student took photos of people swimming under water, made them big and transparent, and hung them from ceilings in the school. With the light shining through them, the space below became aquatic and mysterious, and the shadows of swimmers traveled across your body as you walked beneath them.
  • We want things that are transformative (inspiration, grace, wisdom, love) but we don’t know (or only think we know) what’s on the other side of that transformation.

Retain the Structure, but Change the Topic

Alternatively, try applying the same syntax to a different topic:

  • Take the train to the end of the line, the edge of mystery. Go to where the most important things happen, where your comfort zone ends, and where adventure begins.
  • Embrace the great unknown, let the world surprise you. Live your life like an artist, like a scientist, sailing to the edge of mystery.

Retain the Phrases, but Reorganize their Sequence

Another option, reorganize the ideas into an entirely different order:

Bear in Mind

Your goal here isn’t necessarily to craft a better text.

  • It’s difficult for me to write a sentence as good as the first one (‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark’). It’s so plain yet so vivid, so simple yet so complex. Solnit is describing an ordinary action, yet expressing something profound about life. There’s also the ghostly O sound that extends from ‘door’ to ‘open’ to ‘for’ to ‘unknown’, followed by the D in ‘door’ and ‘dark’ — like two heavy knocks upon the door by Elijah, the long-awaited guest. My attempts, by comparison, feel silly and pompously poetic, and have a clumsy rhythm to them.
  • My paragraph-long revision retains all the same phrases and details as the original version, but puts them in a more ‘logical’ sequence and omits the religious commandment to ‘leave the door open’. Rather minor changes, yet the result feels radically less exciting. There’s something enthralling about the religious tone that launches the original paragraph, and the nagging question that ends it. My version feels too tame. Solnit’s version grabs you by the shoulders; my version just shrugs the question off.

Final Thoughts

Remember, the main purpose of these exercises is to become more attentive to how great sentences are built, how compelling paragraphs are structured, how memorable messages are organized.

How will you go about becoming the best writer you can be?

One option is to Follow the Rules of experts, like a good little boy or girl. Another is to Break the Rules blindly, like a teenager craving attention.

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