5 easy steps to good writing

academics expository writing High School
By Bill K.

Great chefs don’t cook wonderful meals on the first try. They’ve been in the kitchen for many sessions trying things out before they put a dish on the table. Writers need to do this too. Plan, practice, and prepare for the writing project you have in front of you. Break it into manageable chunks of about 2-3 hours each. These chunks need to be spread out over several days before your assignment is due. Keep coming back to it with fresh eyes. You may not produce the equivalent of what a great chef puts on the table, but this formula will help bring out the best writing you have in you.

Here are five steps I recommend for better writing:

1. Note-taking

Set aside some time to gather notes for what you want to say. These can be thoughts you scribble down on a blank sheet of paper or in a digital format. They can be notes you took in class. They can be things you saw on Netflix that made you think about your topic. How many notes? You should feel as if there’s more in your notes than you can fit into the piece you’re doing. Writing is partly a process of selecting and deciding what things you feel most powerfully. These don’t have to be full sentences. They’re probably words, phrases, doodles, and maybe an image or two. They’re also things that occur to you when you’re doing something else. 

2. Outlining

After you have the notes, organize them into a limited set of points you want to make. What is the story you want to tell? How does it go? Where does it begin and end? What is the one idea you want your reader to take away at the end? An outline can be as simple as a list of bullet points. Or it can be more elaborate with roman numerals and letters from the alphabet. You want to give yourself a recipe or a roadmap, so you don’t get lost in the middle. Here’s some of the territory I want to cover. Here’s where I think I’m going. 

3. First Rough Draft

Write in the order you’ve set it down. Tell yourself it won’t be perfect. It’s rough. You’re getting it down on paper first. You want the ideas in a readable first draft you can show to someone you trust. When you’re finished do a spell check and a grammar check. Then let it sit there for at least 24 hours. Afterwards go back, re-read it, and polish it. 

4. Get Feedback

Show this rough draft to someone and ask for feedback. Tell your reader what you want. Give them enough time to read and respond to it. Work some extra days into your timeline to accommodate this. Your reader doesn’t want to be told, “Hey this is due in two hours, can you read it for me right now?” Tell your reader the kind of response that will be most helpful. For example, I often ask “What are 1-2 things in this piece that you liked, and what are 1-2 things you think I could make clearer?” You may decide to show it to more than one person, but I don’t advise more than two. Too much feedback can muddy the water as you try to achieve clarity for the final draft.

5. Final Draft

Give yourself another 24 hours to think about the feedback from your reader. Try to address the criticisms that most speak to you. Take some justifiable encouragement from what your reader says you’ve done well. Don’t try to do everything your reader has suggested. This is your piece not theirs. You’ve got to go with your instinct about what’s most important in what you want to say.

All of us are procrastinators when it comes to submitting key writing assignments. Our writing is one form of who we are. We feel nervous about presenting ourselves so nakedly to critical readers. That’s why we put off writing where we want to shine. If you take this five-step approach, however, you will clothe yourself in some of the best ideas you have right now, and they’ll make you look good.

Bill is the bestselling author of seven books. His undergrad degree is from the University of Chicago and his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. History and biography are his fields, but he's helped improve both student and adult writing for twenty years across a wide range of subjects.

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