How to Become a Better Writer

To become a better writer, you must do two things.

First, you must read good writing. That means identifying good writers and tracking down what they wrote. Thomas Sowell is an excellent writer. Choose any of these articles at random, and read it:

Reading good writers accomplishes two things. First, it sharpens your instinct for good writing. Knowing what good writing looks like, you are more likely to produce good written work yourself. Second, consistent exposure to good writing makes you painfully aware of bad writing, especially your own. Ask yourself, as you gaze upon a line of your own: “Would H.L. Mencken have written this drab, prolix, pedestrian sentence?” (The libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard recommended Mencken as a good example of someone an aspiring writer should read.)

If you are an absolute beginner at writing, compare your first few efforts with the works of the great writers you’ve been reading. If you don’t notice a major difference, your instincts for good writing have not been properly honed. Keep reading until — let me be blunt about this — you are embarrassed by your writing. That is the first sign that you’re on your way to becoming a good writer.

Click here to read the rest of my article (which I wrote at 1:00 in the morning when I suddenly remembered it was due today).

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  • Anonymous

    I have certainly been embarrassed by some of the things I have written, put away, and then have come back to. I strive to get better every day and read works by people that I feel are much smarter than me and more experienced than me.

  • TJ

    This is a great article. When I first started out, my writing was terrible. I started to improve only after I kept at it for years and read dozens of classic literary works so I could learn how to properly articulate my thoughts. One thing I’m still working on is keeping the word count down.

  • Anonymous

    Two comments after reading this.

    Never use a big word when a diminutive one will do.

    And a famous quote:

    “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

  • SomewhatStaid

    I had a philosophy professor who would assign, say, a 25 page journal article by an analytic philosopher as a reading, and then ask us to thoroughly summarize and evaluate the author’s position in a single, 12 point, TImes New Roman, 1″ margin, double-spaced page. I don’t believe anything ever did so much good for my writing as that class.

  • Jim

    Needs a link to “Politics and the English Language” (Orwell). That is also on LRC, but for some reason I can’t get the link to post.

  • Pastor Ko-Rect

    Now that you’ve mastered teaching history, you are starting to build your resume for a second subject? Is that because the victor always writes history and you are hedging your bets? Can we expect Liberty Classroom to change it’s name to Oxford classroom?

  • Trappedinbluestate

    What are Mencken’s political views? If my memory serves me, the quotes I usually see from him rub me the wrong way. Please clarify.
    A great book is William Zinsser “On Writing Well”, which is fun and easy to read, and describes specific techniques to use and to avoid. I’ve read it several times.

  • Robert

    In “Notes on Democracy,” he asserts that the vast majority of the population has arrested development, meaning that there are millions of 40 year old men walking around with the intellectual capacity of 16 year olds. He thinks that democracy will produce bad results because although most people might be capable of working and supporting themselves, they aren’t going to be voting for wise policies.

    Here’s a fun quote from “In Defense of Women” to summarize his feelings about other men:
    “The attitude of the typical man toward beauty in its various forms is,
    in fact, an attitude of suspicion and hostility. He does not regard a work of
    art as merely inert and stupid; he regards it as, in some indefinable way,
    positively offensive.” p.170

    I don’t know whether he was correct, but its a tribute to good writing that it still holds up 90 years later.

  • Put A Cap On That Bald Spot

    Another bit of advice may be to look for the writers you consider good and find out who they consider to be good writers. In H.L. Mencken’s case, he had extremely high praise for Joseph Conrad, going so far as to say Conrad is a better writer than himself.
    I could drone on here for paragraphs about how wonderful an experience it is for an atheist/agnostic libertarian (in America) to read Mencken, but it wouldn’t be worth the time of anyone reading my comment. I would just recommend buying/downloading everything you can find by him and reading it while imagining what it must’ve been like to be him in those heady days of the 20s. What a fantastic time it must’ve been for him!

  • Shannon Davis

    Lesson one, don’t listen to this fucktard. Unless he is smart enough to quote someone else who might actually have relevance. Though Faulkner was against organized religion and heres a quote BY Hemmingway “Religion is the opium of the poor” So by his own rule both the people he quoted are heathens and stupid. Wow talk about a forked tongue! Huh Marktard?

  • John Farrell

    Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”
    – Mark Twain (who, incidentally, could turn a phrase or two when he made a stab at it)

  • Liberty4ev

    Dear Tom,

    Thanks for the excellent advice! I consider YOU one of the better modern writers that I read. You have a talent for taking complicated subjects and making them understandable and interesting. You get an A+ from me for clarity. :)

    I HATED writing in high school and college because the focus was on mechanics. As an adult, I LOVE to write, and wish I had more time to do so. My personal rule is to write as though I am conversing with someone, and to use the Keep It Simple, Stupid method. Simplicity and clarity are important to me. This “method” has also helped my child (who absolutely deplores writing) write effectively when he has to.

    The only thing I would add is to proofread with a critical eye to make sure your writing says what you actually mean.