Seeing with a fresh pair of ears

2007-11-02, , Comments

Q: How do you improve your writing skills?

This question has sparked a lively discussion on the accu-general mailing list, a list whose members include both writers and programmers. Their answer boils down to:

  • read more
  • write more
  • rewrite more

This is sound advice for programmers too, though in this case it’s code you should read/write/rewrite.

Alan Lenton, programmer and writer, stresses the importance of hard-copy in his writing process. To paraphrase and reemphasize some points of his advice:

  1. Print out your work
  2. Review it carefully, line by line, marking it up
  3. Transfer your corrections to the electronic version
  4. Print a revised copy and read it for clarity

I agree. Working with hard-copy is a useful technique, and one I should use more often. It’s not just useful when hard-copy is the ultimate target for the document: it’s always useful because printing something out allows you to look at it afresh; you can see mistakes which somehow eluded you on the screen; you literally re-view your work. (Similarly, if you’re an artist, try looking at one of your pictures in a mirror — it will look like someone else’s picture, and you’ll see its faults all too clearly.)

Alan mentions you should read your work. I’d go further and suggest reading it aloud. Again, you benefit from a fresh angle. Even better, you engage another sense. Here’s an example: when I went to PyCon UK recently I took a printout of an article which I intended to present as a talk. On paper it seemed lively and interesting, but when I tried reading it aloud it sounded flat. Fortunately there was enough space in my day for me to revise it, and when my turn on stage came, I had something far better.

Alan also suggests developing your work using an “ordinary” editor. Pasting your text into your standard document template should be the very last thing you do, he says. That’s kind of how I work, though emacs is far from ordinary. I’m also considering whether to review the finished document using more than one template — something very easy when you work with HTML and CSS. Anyone who’s designed a web page will know what happens when you accidentally misplace a stylesheet, or deliberately turn styling off: you get the browser defaults, the page looks different, feels different — almost smells different.