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I have a friend who is going back to college after a decade, and is quickly finding out that his/her writing skills are not up to snuff. He/she writes in a style suited more for Facebook than business or academia. What are some strategies they should follow to start developing basic writing skills? I don't know that throwing them a copy of On Writing Well is the best way to get them started.

Edit: Adding to the question, any useful resources on organizing thoughts/brainstorming/mindmapping/outlining in advance of writing??

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Do you not know your friend's gender? –  Kate Sherwood May 11 '11 at 21:38
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Ha ;) In the event my friend stumbles across Stack Exchange, I am looking for plausibile deniability about my description of their writing skills. "I wasn't talking about you... I was talking about <friend of the opposite gender>" –  Sean Earp May 11 '11 at 23:33
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5 Answers 5

One of the best ways to learn is to learn from example. Get your friend to read some examples of well-written essays, paying particular attention to the language used, and construction of arguments, etc. Perhaps he/she can ask her teacher for some past examples from the course itself, or better yet, see what advice they can give related directly to the course. Other than that, reading a few basic primers on academic writing would definitely help. Check to see if the college doesn't have some publications on writing it recommends to students, too. They may even offer a course to help cover the basics.

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Unfortunately a lot of what traditionalists consider "good" writing isn't useful today. In basic business writing, one must battle attention scarcity which means beautiful prose probably won't go over well. Brevity, clarity, and specificity matter more than any amount of style in today's world. Focus on plain English above all else. –  rianjs May 13 '11 at 14:33
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In my experience, revising teaches more about good writing than anything else. Most people who are not experienced writers are putting so much effort and attention into getting something down on paper that they have no mental RAM left for phrasing and style.

Instead of worrying about your friend's writing per se, offer to act as a sounding board to help by reading what your friend has written and offering suggested edits. After a while, he or she should start to catch things him/herself. It's not easy on the ego, so be sure your friend wants it, but it is effective.

You could start be helping to make sure the grammar and spelling are reasonably good, then as fewer of those fixes are needed, also make sure all content is in place and well organized, then as those fixes are less often needed start working on concision and style. This way your friend is less likely to be overwhelmed by how much needs fixing.

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Like you, I learned more from a good editor than by through any other means. Editing others' work is also extremely helpful, because it makes you think about why your edit makes the work stronger. –  rianjs May 13 '11 at 14:34
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Two things will help: writing and reading.

Your friend should start writing about whatever comes to mind, and do that on a regular basis. The writing should remain private, to alleviate the anxiety that might arise if he anticipates that someone might read it later. Start with a pencil and paper - or a book. I suggest a pencil because it's slower than a pen and needs a level of attention that writing with a pen does not need. Slow down, consider your thoughts, and then take the time to actually write them out by hand goes a long way.

Read a lot too: news, magazines, books (modern and the classics) - get a feel for what you like and, more importantly, why you like it. Write about what you read. I usually have my writing book next to the book I'm reading and have a written conversation with the author, the characters, or simply just write about whatever I'm reading.

Later, once your friend is more comfortable writing, have him write articles like opinions, reviews, a short story, or even directions for using a coffee maker - something that he knows someone else will read and edit. And, like it says on the bottle: later, rinse, repeat!

Good luck!

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Reading good writing is great for learning to write (what a sentence!). Reading BAD writing is even better for learning to write. Give your friend some examples of terrible writing and ask them what makes it terrible. Writing is like book design--the better it is, the less you notice it. By reading something that is well-written, we're more likely to get caught up in the content than the structure. Critiquing something poorly-written supercharges our analysis engines. The more practiced we are at analyzing the work of others, the better we'll be at analyzing our own work.

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For me, the best way to improve my writing is to edit and re-edit, over and over, without mercy, deleting superfluous junk and beefing up weak ideas. I usually end up with a paper that's about half as long as I started with.

There's no doubt about it: the way to learn to write is to write.

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