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

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

Reader Comments (53)

  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.

  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. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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

  11. 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!

  12. 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 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?


  16. 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.

  17. @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:

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. @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.

  21. @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.

  22. 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.

  23. @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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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?

  27. @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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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,


  32. @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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

This article's comments are closed.