Learn to Write (Well)

by Joanna June

Alternate title: all I needed to know about acing grad school I learned in 6th grade.

As we close out another semester of our varied Information Science degree pursuits, final projects, papers and presentations are probably top of mind – or wanting to be forgotten. As I was scrambling to complete my own submissions, my procrastination tendencies still going strong, I was continually reminded of one thing: the ability to write is incredibly important.

Now before you say “duh,” and stop reading, let me explain a little. I am positively stunned by how many, in graduate studies, professional and personal life, are unable to string together a cohesive sentence – not to mention paragraphs that explain a point clearly. I’m sure that you, in group projects or email chains, have read something through and silently or aloud said, “um… what?! What are you trying to say?!”

So here is the hack: Learn to write quickly and well.

I’m particularly thinking of my MSIT contemporaries who, with vast knowledge of systems and technicalities of which I’m profoundly envious, are seemingly flummoxed by getting that information to page – in plain English. Even I was recently censured for writing an executive summary for an Information Systems Final Project that was deemed “too technical in language.” So writing is constant practice, balance, and skill, begging for improvement by us all.

I find that I might rely too much on this skill (again see procrastination tendencies) but if a hack gets the job done, isn’t it the best kind? It occurs to me how often I rely on my ability to bang out 1000 words without breaking a sweat. That 1.5 page executive summary was done in well less than an hour. Whenever I turn in a paper I wait for the Fraud Police to show up and scream “you didn’t spend enough time on this!” Surprisingly, they don’t. So when I sit down to write a paper, email to a potential collaboration partner, application, important course summary, or behemoth project, I have the confidence to write effectively.

No, I’m not Twain, Hemmingway, Chabon or Austen (most of those links go to the awesome writings of other incredible HLS hackers). My words will not go down in the annals of history for their beautiful turn of phrase — much as I might like them to. My sentences simply get the point across in a readable manner. Which, in LIS school and life, is really what is needed.

It starts, of course, with reading. More specifically: reading comprehension. It is critical in our profession to be able to efficiently sift through information and find the important bits. While I might have taken little time to actually write that executive summary, I had read the entire paper twice and allowed a day or so to let the ideas percolate and sift down to the most essential. I copied and pasted out the important sections and voila! I had an outline.

Once we know what we are trying to say, regurgitating those ideas in a cohesive manner is much easier. So, my first tip when you sit down to write; know clearly in your own head what it is that you want to express.

Then, how do you get those sticky words to page? That also can begin with reading – reading critically to discover how the writers you like relay their message and then emulating them.

There are also of course plenty of resources out there to help you write better. Find ones that appeal to you and practice your reading comprehension to learn what is important. Know and follow those rules of writing first and foremost. I joke that I use proper grammar and punctuation in my text messages.

For really, writing doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – complicated and scary. It is just about expressing your ideas. You can practice and gain confidence all the time. You just have to write.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

It doesn’t get simpler than that. I’m sorry, Mr. Darcy, there is no other way. You have to learn the rules and then practice. It is only through writing that you will find your voice and flow. Make yourself do it. Often. You don’t have to show your words to anyone, but through writing, you will get better.

Write a journal; describe the important aspects of that interesting article you just read to solidify the concepts in your own mind; volunteer to take minutes and meetings; email those friends you have been missing about what has been happening in your life; write letters to your gramma – whatever. Just write.

I found writing for my blog, here at HLS, and tweeting – yes tweeting – have been helpful for my writing skill. Writing well is about relaying a message in an engaging and clear manner. Condensing a message into 140 characters or less forces you to find and express the most essential information with extreme brevity. Making it public forces you to think about audience and how your message is perceived.

One of my best tips, whether you are going to share your piece publicly or just to a professor, is to walk away from it for a while and then read what you have written aloud. First, it is a great error check. You can’t make your point if your reader is distracted by poor grammar. More importantly, hearing the words helps answer the question: Does it make any blessed sense? The greats, whatever their other faults, express their point. Does your writing do that?

In sum: learn the rules by reading, know what you are trying to say, and write. There is no better hack then to have confidence that you can crush out 1000 words without crazy amounts of effort. You’re going to need this skill constantly in your profession, may as well get good at it now.