In Brief: How to Write Well

There is an insidious assumption thriving amongst American students and their families that teachers can teach young people certain tricks that will automatically improve their writing. The ubiquitously-unheeded truth is that there are no tricks. Students become effective writers by reading effective writers; conversely, they become poor writers by reading poor writers. Thus, the best thing I, an English teacher, can do for my students is expose them to effective writers, that is, writers who manipulate the language to its greatest effect. No amount of mark-ups on a paper will ever suffice.

The key, of course, is reading. Reading, reading, reading. Students who read quality literature often know how sentences are effectively put together. They know that engaging writing consists of a variety of sentence structures, intriguing word choices (leaving behind “good,” “bad,” “happy,” “sad,” and all other similarly bland words), and a unique, interesting voice. But this is a process, of course: it is not an overnight fix. Indeed, if a student enters, say, middle school, and has not engaged many (or any) quality texts on their own in the past, then that student is already lagging behind on the path to becoming a quality writer him- or herself. “Reading,” incidentally, does not merely entail passing your eyes over the page and understanding the basic plot or main idea; rather, it is a process of studying how a variety of sentence structures can keep your reader’s attention; how interesting words can enhance what you mean to say; and how an individual, realistically human voice can speak clearly and directly to your reader.

Just verbalizing these facts to a student does nothing; pointing out that a comma is misplaced, or that a sentence is incomplete does nothing; marking a paper up with splashes of red ink does absolutely nothing. Ultimately, learning how to write well is a process that a student must undergo individually, alone with books written by quality writers. The best writing teachers in the Western Tradition are the same ones that have taught the greatest Western writers for generations: Homer; Shakespeare; Jane Austen; Charles Dickens; Herman Melville; Walt Whitman; and so on. These writers all utilize a variety of sentence structures, interesting word choices, and realistically human voices. A regular diet of quality literary critics like Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, and Frank Kermode will greatly enhance the budding literary analyst’s analytical writings. All of these authors–fiction and non-fiction writers alike–write effectively and intelligently, and regular exposure to these literary greats is the only thing that will make students effective writers.