How I Became a Better Writer Thanks to Distracted, Hungover College Kids

image of hungover young woman

Writing is difficult.

So is teaching it to distracted, hungover college students whose cultural touchstones are TMZ and the Twilight series.

But after years spent writing in professional newsrooms, I was surprised to discover how teaching college students actually helped make me a better student of the craft of writing.

And it’s not (just) because I now have a mile-long list of what-not-to-do examples.

I’ve spent the last three years teaching journalism and media writing to undergraduates at a small Midwestern university. That came after an enjoyable stretch writing for newspapers and magazines.

The two venues aren’t actually so different. Each group has a penchant for whining and alcohol abuse. The good ones (both in newsrooms and classrooms) also have a hunger for edification and self-improvement.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not generally standing in front of 50 Hemingways-in-training three times a week. In fact, I’m convinced college students are genetically predisposed to clichés, run-on sentences, and cluttered, murky writing.

But teaching any subject has a funny way of educating the teacher at least as much as the student.

Here are four of the most persistent lessons I’ve picked up from my students:

Economy of language

Tight writing gets your message across more efficiently.

When I’m working with my students, I challenge them to trim each sentence by at least a quarter. The request is generally received about as well as me asking them for a 45-minute Facebook moratorium.

But then they begin to cut the qualifiers, the needless adjectives, and the passive constructions. And suddenly everything is a notch tighter, a hair crisper, a beat faster.

Writing shorter isn’t, as many of them fear, writing dumber. It’s a sign the writer is smart enough to step out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Break rules for a reason

Good writers need to have a working relationship with the rules.

As freelancers know all too well, part of that is just following instructions. I can’t count how many students turn in stories lacking the required number of sources or pages.

And then there are those rules of thumb that tend to make writing clearer and more effective.

These rules hang around for a reason. They’re often good advice, if only because readers are used to them.

But there are also times when writers should break them . . . if it’s for a specific purpose.

Breaking with convention because you want to seem edgy or postmodern is self-serving and almost always laughably transparent.

But breaking the rules to benefit your readers is another story.

In fact, one way to strengthen your writing is to watch where the hordes go and head the opposite direction. The best journalists (and businesspeople) often look for angles in unexplored crevices. Jimmy Breslin’s story on the cemetery workers who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave is an industry case in point.

Copywriters and bloggers can use this very effectively. Seize on an emerging trend and look for unintended, unexpected, or even unimaginable consequences. Find a contrary view, not for the sake of being a contrarian, but because it lets you offer something genuinely new.

To do it well, you’ve still got to keep an eye on those hordes. Be fluent in the rules you hope to transcend.

You can’t fake it

I love this one because it was so me during my salad days.

A 20-year-old with an aptitude for writing is convinced he can fool you with finery. He’s sure he can write around gaping holes or a dearth of research by flashing some $5 words and complex-compound sentences.

Needless to say, the irony is delicious. I’ve come to realize how hollow, ridiculous, and overwritten some of my earlier work was.

Nobody’s buying it.

There’s a world out there ready to call your bluff. You can’t pass off lackluster thinking as quality content. You can’t successfully pitch guest posts until you understand the site and its audience. You can’t position yourself as an expert without actually possessing expertise. You can’t hide shoddy services or a bad product behind fluff and puffery.

The world of today’s copywriter rewards those who write with authority. Leave the big words at home. Instead, do some more homework. Dig into research. Ask questions. Be willing to open yourself to a little ridicule.

Then let your subject mastery do the talking.

Feedback is everything

I coat undergraduate papers in ink. It’s intimidating to some students at first, but I’ve found that most come to appreciate that degree of feedback by semester’s end. Unfortunately, partly that’s because they don’t seem to get a lot of reliable feedback anywhere else.

This is equally true in the blogging world, where feedback typically comes in the form of vitriolic comments from trolls or glad-handing from well-meaning friends.

The reality is we need honest, unvarnished, constructive criticism. We get a distorted view of our writing abilities on both the good and bad ends of the spectrum.

Writers should strive to find good feedback wherever they can — but not from the same old sources. Reach out to writers you admire but don’t know well yet. Join a local or online writer’s group, or even the nearest Society of Professional Journalists chapter (hint: you don’t technically have to be a “journalist,” however that’s defined these days).

Heck, even consider taking a class at the local university or college. Just please, do me a favor. Get the hell off Facebook when the bell rings.

About the Author: Chris Birk works with GrowthPartner.com, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. A former newspaper and magazine writer, he teaches journalism and media writing at a private Midwestern university. He blogs at Write Short Live Long.

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  1. Oh heavens, how true! I was a peer essay critic in college, so it was often my job to provide that much-needed feedback to the students who took time to look for it. So many students get tied up in flowery phrases like “because of the fact that…” while building four-page arguments based only on two sources. As a student, I know it was challenging for me to shirk the passive voice, but active language certainly does produce tighter writing and better persuasion.

    Thanks for this great entry. You bring up lots of great points, and it takes me back to the college days when I could often read an essay and be certain that Natty Light was involved in its production.
    -C.

  2. Hey Chris,

    You just reminded me of my college years when I use to visit my writing tutor.

    Thanks for giving us these quick pointers to reference…

  3. Great advice! I have a “passive voice” problem…I know I am doing it and will tighten up the copy as it were.
    Thanks for a great post.

  4. I found my writing ability approved in leaps and bounds when I became an associate editor at a small travel website. Suddenly I was in charge of editing manuscripts, supervising interns, and teaching them how to update an article and write a news piece. It all became very clear. I can look back at my features and physically see where it spiked into a more polished, thorough, engaging piece.

    And then it improved again when I became a Multimedia Director at a marketing company. Suddenly I experienced the immediate impact of writing active headlines, making every word count, and being persuasive.

    I also completely agree with needing to reach out to established writers and bloggers you admire. I thought it was pointless. What difference did it make if you’re commenting on their blogs and getting to know their content? I was intimidated to so much as email anyone. When I finally did, I found the responses have always been courteous and helpful. It also keeps me motivated and helps clarify my goals when I can look to others as a mentor.

  5. Andrew Billmann :

    Chris,

    Do you find that, for the most part, your students either get it or they don’t? In other words, is there an innate drive and ability that makes a good writer a good writer?

    In my experience, I’ve seen wonderful writing by people with relatively little training, as well as horrible drivel by those with Journalism degrees. This is not to suggest we can’t improve with practice, critique or review — everyone can. But it just seems like the really good writers are born, not made.

    There’s a parallel to music: Practicing four hours a day, doing theory assignments and reading about a composer doesn’t make you a musician. Contrarily, there are some musicians who practice in half that time, whiz through theory, and seem to have a built-in comprehension of what’s going on.

    In your classes, I’d bet the students who do well find it relatively easy. The ones who struggle will slip back into mediocrity the minute they leave your classroom.

    Is that a fair assessment?

  6. Chris: Thank you for an inspirational article. “Cutting out the crap” is something I aim for, but am not always successful at. I first learned how to write in grad school. I was horrified to get a draft of my thesis back from my advisor. She had ink all over it and I was embarrassed that I took up so much of her time with that weak draft. I can say, happily, that she was pleased with the next draft. If she hadn’t been so generous with her ink, I wouldn’t have learned.

    I’m equally grateful for the editor of my book. She did a brilliant job and I went over every suggested change. She was right 99.9% of the time.

    By the way, I’ve since re-taught myself how to write. Writing graduate papers doesn’t prepare you for writing for the real world. Ten years in a public position helped me with that.

  7. I wonder how far you can take this “How I became a better writer blankety blank” headline gimmick?

    Here are some suggestions:

    1. How I became a better writer watching the neighborhood cat chase squirrels outside my window.

    2. What the “We are the world” remix taught me about Iambic pentameter and Autotune

    3. At a loss for words? Consult Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies

    (That last one is actually a legit suggestion)

    But seriously, keep up the great work. I only dig at you cause you’re digable, ya dig?

  8. I love this post.
    It took all I had to keep from crying in front of the faculty adviser when I saw all the red on my first article for the college newspaper many years ago. But I reworked the story and had to toughen up pretty quickly. As in baseball, there’s no crying in the newsroom.
    Now I’m doing the same to my niece and nephew when they ask me to read their college papers. But they come back for more and their grades are good. I’m playing with a couple of hobby blogs, photography and recipes, both in first person, and it’s a challenge to apply all the lessons I’ve learned to conversational style writing.
    Thanks!
    Jan

  9. I had an English teacher in high school that totally changed my career path because of her “feedback,” ie criticism.

    You said, “we need honest, unvarnished, constructive criticism.” Good teachers give more than that. They also encourage their students to try harder, instead of crushing their spirits.

    It was just a little over a year ago that I realized I was using this teacher as an excuse and that I didn’t need to be perfect to communicate and have fun writing.

  10. James, if you thought that was gimmicky, wait ’til later this week when I bust out The Depeche Mode Guide to Effective Online Marketing. ;)

  11. I give you a 99%, Chris. ;)

    Welcome to the 3rd Tribe.

  12. As a person that likes to go on a little longer that I should with certain sentences, this is a good reminder. Keeping things brief, but telling them exactly what they need to hear is a great touchstone for copywriting.

    I know a guy that loves to dump a basket of $5 words into his copy, but when you translate it into “everyman’s” English, he never ends up saying anything at all. Like you said, he didn’t do any homework.

    Great post. Looks like you DID do the homework.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  13. Thanks Chris, as a “non-writer” but still a blogger none the less, I found this post especially interesting.

    Because I am self conscious of my writing because I do consider myself a non-writer , this part of your post particularly spoke to me:

    “The reality is we need honest, unvarnished, constructive criticism. We get a distorted view of our writing abilities on both the good and bad ends of the spectrum.”

    I am constantly looking for ways to improve my writing, and try to take all comments good and bad as constructive criticism.

    Thanks for these great tips!

  14. In my opinion, a purpose-driven approach to rule breaking is what separates great writers from everyone else.

    I really liked your take on unconventional copy and atypical story angles. Sometimes a new view is all that’s needed to take an idea from tired to inspired, or (to borrow a line from Sonia) from garbage to salad.

    Thanks for the great post :)

  15. Thanks Chris.

    If you were to take a look at my blog, you’d probably cringe. I have a lot to learn, but I do try. I’ll take your post to heart. I just wish I had someone like you to be my editor.

  16. I spent two hours this morning going over with my 16 year-old son how to write an analytical literary essay. I should have pointed him here directly after.

    Cluttering up the landscape with many unnecessarily obscure words only frustrates readers, rarely awes them.

    Good piece. I’m off to make sure I’m not still writing passively.

  17. Chris,

    Thanks for the reminder to shorten the information and make it all really count. I tend to run on when speaking and when writing.

    However, I would like to mention a frustration of mine and it is in relation to the “$5″ words you wrote about. I was always called Dictionary in school (not nice really) and I’m not geeky, or nerdy like someone might now be picturing. My parents are British and words that North Americans consider “wordy” are regular words for young children in the UK. As long as the words are appropriate and not just for show then they have a place. Yes?

    Suzanne

  18. Bryan Centers :

    I thought this was a good example of how to become a better writer. I plan on pursuing a English degree at a state university in the fall, and I am acutely aware of how much work I have to do in the “tightening up” department of my writing.

    I am wondering what mid-western school you are an instructor at. Lucky students.

  19. @Andrew, that point of view is called the “fixed mindset” by researcher Carol Dweck (her book Mindset spells her findings out), and it’s almost universally associated with poor performance. Some people (in any field) do have innate talent, but those who coast on talent tend to go nowhere. Every strong writer I’ve known got that way by writing a lot, by getting plenty of trustworthy feedback, and by spending at least some time studying key writing principles and trying to put them into practice.

    I strongly recommend you read the book, it’s one of those that honestly can change your life for the better in the few hours it takes to read it. Or at least take a look at her site, it’s here: http://mindsetonline.com/.

  20. Dear Chris,
    Thank you for your post. It reminded me of my 15 years of teaching college students to write better. I taught Freshman and Sophomore Composition (that’s another topic), but I also had the pleasure of teaching business majors (mostly juniors and seniors) about writing in the business world.

    One of my points, made over and over, was that their purpose in writing was to communicate, not to impress. And to do that, they needed to use simple language, simple sentence construction, simple organization. They wouldn’t be criticized for their “simplicity” but praised for their clarity of writing.

    Even now, when I’m working with clients writing nonfiction books and projects, I harp on the “make it simple” advice.

    The other piece of your article that I found especially good involve feedback. I always told my students that true, honest feedback is hard to find in the “real world” and that they should take advantage of mine as long as they could while in their “ivory tower world.”

    In the real world, feedback is expensive if purchased and suspect if it comes from friends, relatives, or your mother.

    If you don’t have a classroom situation in which to receive feedback, find a group of well-read individuals who agree to read and critique each others’ work. They don’t need to completely understand your field of writing, but they need to have the rhythm of Standard Written English in their minds, as a result of a lot of reading. If they are also writers, so much the better.

    But do find and develop this critique group (whether in person or online) because involvement with such a group will improve the writing of all members. I know I’ve benefitted from writing groups over the years. And it’s a cheap way to receive usually good feedback.

    Thank you for your post.
    Katie Ploeger

  21. Your first point is gold. My mother always said that a good communicator can get her point across in just a few sentences. So, if you write well, you don’t need unending sentences in your blog. People get tired of looking a sea of words. That’s why so many bloggers use bullet points to the fullest! Break it up.

  22. @Andrew: I’ve found that some have an innate knack for it. But I firmly believe that anyone with the desire to learn and a sense of determination can become a solid writer. It’s a craft. But to be a truly great writer? You might be right. I’m not sure you can teach that.

    @Julie & Sage: You’re right about the encouragement. Anyone interested in crushing the spirit of an emerging writer shouldn’t call themselves a teacher. I’m not going to baby a group of 20-year-old students, but I won’t emotionally slaughter them either. There’s definitely a balance that needs to tilt heavily toward encouragement and self-confidence. Writing is so closely tied to the self and our conceptions of who we are.

    @Michael: I didn’t cringe once. Feel free to give me a shout anytime.

    @Suzanne: I think those words have a place when they are needed — and only then. Why say “approximately” when “about” will do just fine? When should a “fire” become a “conflagration?” I tend to lean toward conciseness and brevity. But sometimes that $5 word is the best possible word given the context.

  23. @Katie: I harp on my students about the same thing. It’s equally important, if not more so, in the real world. Your job is to convey information and perhaps spur thought or action. If it’s cluttered or murky and I have to stop, or re-read, or wonder what the writer means, that’s trouble. I tell the journalism students all the time — a newspaper is not a crossword puzzle. Neither is a company blog, an industry newsletter or any other type of business communication mechanism.

  24. I like you comments on improving writing. I’ll take them to heart.

    Cheers,

    Don McCobb

  25. As a college student I can attest – we are usually hungover when we write our papers.

    Run on sentences, cliches and bad sentence structure come naturally when you’re mind is focused on girls from last night, parties next weekend, and girls.

  26. Forgot to ask what exactly did you teach, Chris?

  27. @Shane: Journalism and media writing courses.

  28. Chris, how much of a footprint do writing blogs like Copyblogger have on the college audience? Just curious.

  29. @Shane: That’s an interesting question. Wish I had a great answer for you. I think, like most good things in life, it depends. I reference this site and a few others to the media writing students. I think students who exhibit some initiative and passion in regards to writing or a streak of entrepreneurship gravitate to resources like Copyblogger. Overall, they’re a tough audience to reach.

  30. Great advice Chris. I especially like the last one. Critique groups are invaluable and every serious writer should be part of one that helps them improve as a writer.

  31. @Chris, I guess the old saying is true. Never teach college classes before the crack of noon.

  32. @Shane: As is the old saying: The best way to learn is to teach.

    And brevity is the soul of wit.

  33. it was nice to know that your writing can be useful to others. but being a good writer is very difficult. I just was lazy to write their own blog.

  34. Chris… Great job on this guest post. It was a little long, but well worth the read.

    You said; “I think students who exhibit some initiative and passion in regards to writing or a streak of entrepreneurship gravitate to resources like Copyblogger. Overall, they’re a tough audience to reach.”

    I’m just curious, what percentage of the students you teach would you say fall into this category?

  35. @BrianJ: Most of the students are bright and motivated. But there’s usually just a couple, if I’m lucky, who come in guns blazing — they know what they want to do with their life and have a pretty solid idea of how to get there. Part of it is that I teach mostly freshmen and sophomores, who can struggle mightily to decide what to wear to class.

  36. kent jackson :

    Chris … our editor liked your advice so much that he distributed your piece to the staff. I’ll remember the tip about the rule of threes, which I never heard before. Let me use the rule to return the favor. Cemetery has three “e”s, as a copy editor pointed out the first time I wrote an obituary.

  37. This is the best written article I’ve read on copyblogger.

  38. I love this post, feedback is everything!

  39. I had a university English prof who flunked me. Well, he gave me a D on the promise I would take a summer school writing course. He did me a favour, and I’d like to thank him for doing that!

    Writing still hurts my head. I make a lot of mistakes and I learn from the critiques of people who care enough to let me know.

  40. The hardest part of writing is the inspiration for many people, sometimes the ideas we gave them instead was the trigger. Even being a disaster for their lives. Becoming the best writer is not easy.

  41. Hi guys,

    I’m still laughing at the title which is Hilarious. I have to say that you are the first blogger/writer who said writing is difficult. Most writers never admit.

    Kind regards,

    Sam
    X

  42. @Sam: I can’t take credit for the hed. As for the lede, I tend to believe that anyone who says writing isn’t a difficult, sometimes anguishing act — at least some of the time — isn’t much of a writer.

  43. This is an interesting article with great tips though I cringed at this comment:

    “A 20-year-old with an aptitude for writing is convinced he can fool you with finery. He’s sure he can write around gaping holes or a dearth of research by flashing some $5 words and complex-compound sentences.

    Needless to say, the irony is delicious. I’ve come to realize how hollow, ridiculous, and overwritten some of my earlier work was.

    Nobody’s buying it.”

    When people ask me for tips on how to finish their paper with a minimum of 10,000 words, I tell them to use as many adjectives and adverbs they can squeeze into each sentence. Perhaps professors should stop setting a word-count benchmark? These are college students; they know not to turn in a 500 word paper.

  44. HEY YOU ******* ****** ******!
    Whom you callin a Kid eh?
    And I am no Twilight fan, though my girlfriend will ditch me for Edward – bloody blood sucking animal he is.

    Thanks for yapping like my proffesor.
    I need to unsubscribe this crap! It makes me want to write again, God I miss PROcarstination.

  45. Loved this post!

    Sam

  46. Thanks for this post. Great tips that we tend to forget.