Learning From Your Mistakes

Many students do not give a lot of thought to the techniques they use when they write, or to their overall writing style.  I can sympathize with them – my own writing habits developed by imitating the styles of the books I read when I was younger.  There was little conscious thought on my part; I just did what I knew.

However, to improve as a writer, you must turn a critical eye toward your own writing style and seek to understand the subconscious choices that you make.  In my experience, few things allowed me to do this as effectively as examining an old piece of writing.  This pertains most clearly to academic papers, although I expect the same process could be applied to creative pieces as well.

Ask yourself: Does this piece of writing flow well?  Does the beginning grab your attention?  Did you stick with the topic you outlined in your thesis? Once you have a feel for your old writing, examine some of your newer pieces.  Even if the progress you have made is mostly subconscious, you will be able to see how your writing has evolved over time.

Examine how your writing has developed.  The shifts may be subtle, but they will be there:  If the sentences in your old paper sound choppy or monotonous, see if you’ve changed the sentence structure in your newer papers.  If you find your newer introductions more engaging, determine what makes them so.

At the same time, pay attention to elements of your writing that have stayed the same.  Consider if you can improve them in any way – perhaps improvements made in other areas (such as making your sentences “flow” more smoothly) mask deficiencies that you have not improved upon (such as the overall coherence of your argument).

The most important part of this process is dividing your writing into its unique elements and determining how you have improved – or still can improve – upon each of them.  It’s helpful to think of these elements as ways of helping your reader.  At the simplest level, the choice of a single word can convey–or muddle–your meaning. Varying the length of sentences can keep your reader’s attention. On a larger level, the structure of your sentences affects the speed and ease with which your reader reads your paper.  On the broadest level, the way you divide your work into paragraphs affects how well your reader absorbs and accepts the overall theme.

Once you understand how different aspects of your writing work together, you can focus on improving a single one of these aspects, considering its function and importance in isolation.  For example, take one of your old papers and edit it by focusing on a single element, such as transitions between paragraphs: Consider the clarity of each transition.  Then move on to address another part of the paper, such as word choice:  Do you repeat words?  How precise are they?  Do you define key terms?  Before long, you should begin to understand and strengthen several different aspects of your writing.

Why focus on editing an old paper?  An old paper is probably of lower quality than one you could write today, and it should therefore be easier to notice each element and edit it.  Furthermore, the length of time between the writing of an old piece and this editing gives you greater distance and perspective from the process of writing the paper.  This will allow you to focus on objectively assessing your work.

Being self-critical is not easy.   However, in order to improve as a writer, you must understand how you write and why you write the way you do.  Only then can you recognize the techniques you use when writing and how they can—and should—be improved upon.

-By Victor Pesola ’12

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