How to Become a Better Writer

By John Yoest Published on September 10, 2018

“Send me people who can write,” says the hiring manager. “Give me staffers who can communicate.” Every boss wants it. Every professor tries to teach it. But what is the most effective and efficient method to get good writing?

For the annual Research Day at The Catholic University of America, we conducted a simple test to grade written essays by measuring the motivation of the student: Did the student write better for a large audience compared to the normal “audience” of only the grading professor?

We found that students write better for a large number of readers than when they are writing just for the eyes of the instructor.

“Write down the revelation and
make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.”
Habakkuk 2:2

Public Versus Private Essays: What We Found

My students were given web-based articles to read and asked to post a 200-word analysis in the comments section. The short essays — memos — were in the public domain and could be read by large audiences.

I then had the same students turn in a 200-word essay to me with the understanding that this assignment would be private for my eyes only.

We then evaluated the two sets of comments. Public and private essays were randomly selected from 30 students. Names were removed and qualified evaluators judged the two samples from the same student.

The students did not know of the comparison when they each submitted two memos — but only that:

One memo: only the professor would read.

One memo: would be published as a public comment.

Evaluators graded each student’s memos and selected one as the better of the two. Evaluations included both a subjective appeal and a rubric on grammar, punctuation, persuasion and rhetoric.

The public essays were better written. Graders picked the open, broadcasted essays as the better writing 60 percent of the time. Our theory is that the student was more motivated for the essays written for public comment.

Dr. Kevin Rulo, Director of the Writing Center at The Catholic University of America, who was an advisor on this study, was not surprised. He says that the best writing has:

1) An editor

2) Multiple drafts and evolutions

So what is the best way to get this accountability?

Editors Help Writers Become Better

Two management clichés apply: (1) People do those things well the things the boss checks, and (2) What gets measured, gets done. An editor provides the expertise to guide the writer to a better product. The best writers always have a second reader. Putting pen to paper gets better with practice — because writing is a practice like Law, Medicine, Public Speaking or Management. These skills get perfected with repetition and correction.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17

Multiple editors and readers can make for a better essay. But even the threat of a mean-spirited editor might be enough to produce better writing.

The Kissinger Challenge: Multiple Drafts Produces Better Writing

Ambassador Winston Lord tells a story, archived at George Washington University, about what it was like to work for Kissinger, and the level of excellence and preparation that he demanded. When Lord was a young man, he said:

I would go in with a draft of the speech. [Kissinger] called me in the next day and said, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ I said, ‘Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again.’

So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, ‘Are you sure this is the best you can do?’

Kissinger and Lord kept this up through eight drafts. Finally on the ninth draft, Lord lost patience:

… I really got exasperated and I said, ‘Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out — this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.’

He then looked at me and said, ‘In that case, now I’ll read it.’

Students must write and write a lot. But all this copy needs a number of laps around the editorial track. The “Kissinger Challenge” — multiple drafts — can go a long way toward ensuring that the reader gets the best writing.

This research builds on the Kissinger Challenge and suggests that in addition to multiple drafts, the prospect of multiple readers produces better writing and a better writer. Classroom instruction has traditionally provided a personalized experience — submit a paper to one professor and get individual critique back. But writing groups may be another helpful approach in business. This accountability deserves more study. But at the moment, it looks like crowd-sourced-editing, might actually lead to better writing.

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