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By choosing good example texts and using the techniques described in my posts “Refining Your Writing with Double Translations” and “Building Your Writing Skills,” you can improve your writing independently.  Choose sample documents or texts that you enjoy or admire.

Below are just a few examples of short texts that native and advanced non-native English speakers might study, some with links to the original material online.

REPORTING: Journalistic reports, feature stories

Well-written news reports are widely available: again, I suggest you work with an article you enjoyed reading or admired for some reason.  Here’s a sample article that I admired for its content — a compelling story of Afghan girls persevering in their effort to attend school despite violent antagonism from those who would like to prevent them from getting an education:

“Afghan Girls, Scarred by Acid, Defy Terror, Embracing School”  by Dexter Filkins

Obituaries — brief biographies of people who have recently died — can be interesting.  Here’s one I enjoyed about the unusual life of a performer who had a special relationship with elephants (and one elephant, in particular):

“Ben Williams, Half of an Elephant Act, Dies at 56” by Douglas Martin

Here’s a humorous report on ethnic joke-telling traditions in a remote region of Russia:

“In Dagestan, Laugh Track Echoes Across Mountains” by Ellen Barry

Here’s a well-worded article on the natural world from National Geographic magazine, profiling two neighboring national parks — Glacier (in the U.S.), and Waterton Lakes (in Canada):

“Crown of the Continent” by Douglas H. Chadwick

ESSAYS: Opinion pieces, editorials, reviews

The op-ed (opinion-editorial) pages of a publication can be worth studying.  Many newspapers reserve the last two pages of the front section for editorials (pieces written by the editorial staff of the publication), letters to the editor (readers’ responses to previously published pieces — selected by the editors), columns (opinion pieces by syndicated columnists or regular contributors to the publication), and opinion pieces (essays by various contributors).  And of course, reviews of books, movies, museum exhibitions, and nearly any cultural artifact or event are ubiquitous!

Here’s a short essay that effectively weaves narrative elements into a persuasive commentary on common prejudices about aging and older people:

“Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism” by Marc E. Agronin, M.D.

SHORT FICTION: Short stories

Short stories offer many of the insights and pleasures of novels, with a much-reduced time investment.  Below is a very short list of some stories by American writers that I enjoyed reading or re-reading recently.

Again, I recommend focusing on stories you enjoy or admire.  However, a private student of mine recently committed to studying a story she didn’t like in order to explore certain cultural aspects and understand why it’s so well regarded.  In the end … she still didn’t like it, but she appreciated its cultural content.

Here’s a story with a high-octane narrator (link below to full text at nytimes.com) — it’s from a collection of stories entitled Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle:

“La Conchita” by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle is versatile; the settings and characters in his stories are diverse.  Here’s one more of his pieces available online:

“Modern Love” by T. C. Boyle

I’ll just list a few more authors and stories for your interest.  Visit your local library and read the first few paragraphs of some of these (and other) stories; maybe you’ll find one you particularly like!

Stories by Richard Yates: “A Really Good Jazz Piano”; “The B.A.R. Man”; “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” (ESL note: Be prepared for a particular New York City accent represented in written dialog in “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern”)

Stories by Alice Munro: “Fiction”; “Face”; “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”; and many others

Stories by Tobias Wolff: “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”; “The Night in Question”; “The Other Miller”; “Sanity”; “The Missing Person”

Stories by Sam Shepard: “The Remedy Man”; “Living the Sign”; “Dust”; “A Man’s Man”; “Cruising Paradise”; “A Small Circle of Friends”; “Wild to the Wild”

Stories by Ernest Hemingway: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”; and many others

(photo by Bonnie Yoon Bishop)

Learn with Lloyd!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’re not going to magically become a better writer just by reading.  After all, would you expect to become a better speaker just by listening?  If you want to build your writing skills, you have to do one thing: write!  Doing assignments for a class is important, and revising after receiving feedback is especially important.  But if you really want to improve your skills, challenge yourself to write regularly … not for class, but for yourself.  Give yourself writing tasks:

Keep a writing journal: Write for 15-30 minutes every day, no matter what.  Write about anything that comes to mind; if nothing comes to mind, write about nothing coming to mind!  It’s good language practice, and writing about “nothing” is still writing; after a few minutes, the very act of writing can stimulate your idea flow.  Journal writing can improve your abilities to organize your thoughts and express yourself precisely, abilities that apply to both writing and speech.

Self-Dictation: Choose an article or story you enjoyed, and record your voice reading it aloud, and then play back the recording as a self-dictation.  Write each sentence, pausing or replaying the recording in the same way a teacher delivers a dictation in class.  Finally, check your spelling and punctuation against the original text.  Regular dictations/self-dictations will improve your writing skills.

Copy good sample paragraphs and entire essays or other documents: Get deeply acquainted with a writer’s word choices and sentence structures.  The text you choose serves as your “tutor” — it demonstrates good writing, and you absorb the lesson well because you’re doing it … not just thinking about it.

As a learning tool, copying is not taboo!  If you consider a particular sentence, paragraph, or essay well written, analyze what makes it well written.  If you want to learn to write like that, copy it!  Copying is a natural way to learn any craft.  Most human skills are acquired largely through imitation: artists copy masters to learn their techniques; musicians practice the works of other musicians and composers; babies learn to speak by imitating adults; second-language learners imitate first-language models.  Unfortunately, the taboo against copying other people’s ideas inhibits many student writers from using copying as a tool for building writing skills.  But this kind of copying is entirely different from plagiarism; private writing practice exercises are not the same as false public presentations of others’ ideas as your own.  Copying is a natural way to boost your writing competence.

Follow Good Examples

Start noticing how writers write.  When you like a piece of writing, examine it closely.  What part did you like the most?  Why?  Did you like certain words/phrases, or the simplicity or complexity of a particular sentence?  What kinds of sentence structures impressed you?

In addition to pieces by professional writers, documents written by your boss, your teachers, your faculty advisor — anyone whose writing you’d like to emulate — are worth considering.  And be sure to examine published articles, brochures, websites, and reports that relate to your field or specialty.  Such documents may serve as excellent models for your own professional writing.  Imitate good models — not just by reading them, but by moving your fingers: respond to them in your writing journal, record and use them for self-dictations, or copy them!

Avoiding Writer’s Block

February 22, 2010

Learn with Lloyd!

The Writing Process

Do you suffer from writer’s block — the inability to write when you desperately want or need to write?  If so, you may be mixing your two distinct roles as creator and critic.

Writing requires creative efforts (planning and drafting) and critical efforts (reviewing, refining, checking, and changing).  These two efforts complement each other when applied at different times, but compete with each other when applied at the same time.  Writer’s block often results from trying to create and criticize simultaneously.  It’s as if two parts of our brain were at war with each other!

Creativity is about “What if…” “How about…” “Let’s try…” “Maybe…” “Yes!”  

Criticism is about “That’s awkward.” “Too simple.” “Doesn’t work.” “Not right.” “No!”

For a smoother, more enjoyable writing experience, and to help yourself produce your best writing, separate your creative efforts from your critical efforts.  The next time you’re facing a professional, academic, official, or creative writing task, try this approach:

CREATE
-1- Plan
-2- Draft

Take a break!

CRITIQUE
-3- Refine
-4- Check

Here are some thoughts on each step in the process:

A. CREATE

1. Plan: Think, make notes, sketch, outline, or roughly map out your basic ideas.  Focus on your purpose — why are you writing this particular document?  What do you want the reader to understand?  What is your main message?  What are other key points you want your reader to know?  If you’re stuck, try five minutes of freewriting.*

*Freewriting means writing whatever words and thoughts come into your mind — without editing at all.  Such freestyle writing can be completely off the topic: irrelevant personal thoughts, disorganized sentences, even silly ideas.  Sentences like “Well, I’m supposed to write but I have no idea how to start” are welcome.  This technique helps some writers establish a connection between their natural thoughts and the artificial act of writing.  After a few minutes, more relevant ideas will flow and the paralysis of writer’s block will be broken!

2. Draft.  Focus on your goal and purpose.  Don’t think too much about writing well — it’s too early in the process to worry about being clear, concise, courteous, complete, or correct.  Let your ideas flow into your fingers spontaneously, roughly, awkwardly, messily, and quickly.

* * * STOP.  Take a break.  You need to relax your creative engine and let a calmer, more critical perspective return.  Even a 3-minute break will help you see your rough draft with a fresh eye.  Don’t mix the creative and critical processes. * * *

 

B. CRITIQUE

3. Refine: Review and revise.  Move sentences, paragraphs, and entire sections.  Take another break and do it again.  Put yourself in your reader’s place and slowly read from the beginning: are the order and flow of your ideas logical and clear?  Are your paragraphs easy to read?  Are your sentences easy to understand? 

If not, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite — several times, if necessary.  Professional writers rewrite extensively, so how can you expect not to rewrite?  Ask another person to review and comment on your revised draft. 

4. Check: Only when you’re sure your latest revision is the best possible one, make final adjustments and edits.  Finally, check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.  Discipline yourself to postpone this final check until the last possible moment.  If you do it too early, you may be wasting your time, as your refining efforts (Step 3) may not be complete, and you may end up rewriting entire sections of your draft. 

*  *  *  *  *

Try to apply this process to your next writing task.  The most profitable part is the first one: planning.  Most people want to get writing tasks done as quickly as possible, so they begin writing what they think will be their final version.  If they’re wise, they begin to realize that what they’re writing is just a first draft, which will need refining and checking.  

Planning allows you to discover, organize, and structure your ideas in advance to save time in drafting, not spend extra time!  Give yourself the gift of planning, and know that your initial “writing” is really drafting — and you’ll immediately become a better writer.