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Ask HN: How to become a better at writing?
15 points by soulbadguy on Aug 4, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments
Can someone suggest a good starting point (on-line courses, books,blog etc...) to improve my writing skills. I am mainly interested in technical writing ( research papers, blog post, source code comments and documentation), but i would also like to be able to construct a narrative text around a string of arguments when i need to debate/convince someone by text. Random questions : I am an avid reader, are there ways i can use my reading to improve my writing? (maybe getting into the habit or writing a review/summary of books i read? ) Is there an on-line community where i can post text i wrote and get some constructive feedback ?



Former professional writer for the Wall Street Journal here. The dirty little secret of writing is that it never gets easy. It might look like other writers can bust out beautiful seamless prose without breaking a sweat, but what you don't see are the hundreds of little revisions and rewrites that happen, sometimes just inside their brain. Writing is hard, and stays that way.

Because writing, at its most fundamental level, is the art of making your own ideas more clear to yourself. So how do you become a better writer? Become a more clear thinker. And yes, that is hard. Ironically, continuing to write is one of the best ways to do it.


The dirty little secret of writing is that it never gets easy. It might look like other writers can bust out beautiful seamless prose without breaking a sweat, but what you don't see are the hundreds of little revisions and rewrites that happen, sometimes just inside their brain.

That is so true. I read somewhere once that a big reason many people don't try writing is because they read their favorite writers, and then try to write something, and when their words don't come out like, say, Stephen King, they give up. And the thing I was reading (sorry, don't remember the exact source now) was basically making the same point you just made. So, if you want to write like Stephen King, or Dean Koontz, or Haruki Murakami or Ernest Hemingway or whoever, you have to realize that their works didn't just flow from their fingertips in one continuous stream of perfection, from beginning direct to end. The great writers revise and revise and edit and revise and rewriter obsessively. Or so I hear. Koontz is notorious for saying that he only writes one page at a time, and he keeps rewriting that page until he's happy with it.

Because writing, at its most fundamental level, is the art of making your own ideas more clear to yourself. So how do you become a better writer? Become a more clear thinker.

That reminds me of another book that I see recommended here on HN quite often, and which I myself bought on such a recommendation. It's called The Pyramid Principle.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Pyramid-Principle-Writing-Thinking...

I'm only part way through it, but I think it's quite worthwhile. The basic premise is about logic and clarity and organization in thinking & writing.


this really resonate with me. Even through school, i got some compliment on my writing from time to time, but i think i assume i was/doing something wrong because it never seemed to become easier or more natural. Maybe i just need to keep at it. Any idea where i can contructive feedback on what i write ?

"Because writing, at its most fundamental level, is the art of making your own ideas more clear to yourself" : this is quotable :)

Beside writing, any other though on becoming a better thinker ?


Five steps: 1) Read good writing, especially in the genre in which you want to write.

2) Write first drafts. I prefer to think of it as vomiting words to a page.

3) Edit. Ultimately, this is what will make the writing good.

4) Get good feedback. Have a small group of people you work well with give you constructive feedback. They have to be invested enough to care and closely read one or more drafts.

5) Talk with people about the technical topics. This can help you clarify your thinking.


An application: Grammarly, a course https://www.coursera.org/learn/communication-in-the-workplac...

I think you should have a fixed position (perhaps you are eclectic) and try to convince someone, then try to change the position and think otherwise. To convince someone is to know about what they expect, some psychology required.

The best thing is to have something interesting to say. Why do you want people to read you? Do you have something interesting to say? Are you going to write a book?


Thanks for the link; To answer your question as to why i want to write, first i love beautiful text. I read almost exclusively non fiction books and on a pretty wide variety of subjects. So by beauty here i am not so much referring to the aesthetic style, but more to the way some authors seems to have such a clear flow/structure in the way they present their material, that it almost make me feel smart to read them. It happens very often that i would reread a page or a section of a book, simply because while i remember the point made and the arguments used, the flow between the arguments was so natural that it's a joy to read.So part of wanting to write is just me trying to understand that mechanic.

Secondly i think there is level of insight that one can only reach by writing consistently on subject. So i want to write first to refine my own thinking and also write well enough so other people want to read and criticize/engage my ideas. I want to use writing as a way to develop my ability to communicate complex ideas better, and also to synthesise new perspective from a related web of ideas (booth of which i think are what make a good author/writer).


You'll have to pardon the lack of links. It's past midnight over here and I logged in real quick from my phone.

There is a course on grammar that just started last week on edx, so far seems to be good. There is another one which i can't recall neither the name nor if it's on edx or coursera nor if it started already or when it begins on writing essays or something along those lines.

What mindcrime and nsheth17 said is basically the jist of it. You gotta right to become good at it, everyday, like anything else in life. Practice, practice, practice. Read, read, read. And in this case, write every day.


You won't go far wrong following the rules from George Orwell's Politics and the English language:

1.) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


There are some useful tips to become a good writer. In my school days I was not able to complete academic writing tasks. The problem was I know about the topic very well but I was not able to express my ideas in English. One of my friend suggested http://essaysorigin.com/ which help me to solve my writing problems by providing inexpensive and best quality essays.


There are some useful tips to become a good writer. In my school days I was not able to complete academic writing tasks. The problem was I know about the topic very well but I was not able to express my ideas in English. One of my friend suggested http://essaysorigin.com/ which help me to solve my writing problems by providing inexpensive and best quality essays.


Stephen King said something like "To become a better writer, write a lot and read a lot". Here's a couple of articles that discuss that idea more:

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/dreamgates/2011/06/read-...

http://writetodone.com/how-to-use-reading-to-become-a-better...

Beyond that, there are, of course, tons of books for writers, including some specifically for tech writers. A lot of what you'll find on the shelf at, say, Barnes & Noble is about fiction writing, but then again, to some extent you could say that good writing is good writing regardless of whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I don't claim to be a great writer, but I can share a few titles from my own bookshelf on writing:

1. The Elements of Style - Strunk & White

2. On Writing Well - William Zinsser

3. NLP For Writers - Bekki Hill

4. A Certain 'Je Ne Sais Quoi' - Chloe Rhodes

5. A Manual For Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations - Kate L. Turabian

6. The Elements of Technical Writing - Gary Blake & Robert W. Bly

7. The Art of Scientific Writing - Ebel, Bliefert, Russey

8. Writers Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing - Michelle Rubert (ed.)

9. On Writing - Stephen King

10. Zen In The Art of Writing - Ray Bradbury

11. Eats, Shoots & Leaves - Lynne Truss

12. Where Do You Get Your Ideas - Fred White

13. The Complete Guide to Article Writing - Naveed Saleh

14. HBR Guide To Better Business Writing - Bryan A. Garner

15. Make A Scene - Jordan E. Rosenfeld

16. Beginnings, Middles, & Ends - Nancy Kress

I'm also a big believer in having a strong vocabulary, even though I don't try to write in a pretentious, sesquipedalian fashion very often. But sometimes it helps to have that "just right" word available. To that end, I recommend:

17. Big Words You Should Know - David Olsen, Michelle Bevilacqua and Justin Cord Hayes

18. The Words You Should Know To Sound Smart - Robert W. Bly

19. The Dictionary of Difficult Words - John Ayto

20. Rogets Thesaurus of Words For Intellectuals - David Olsen, Michelle Bevilacqua, and Justin Cord Hayes

21. The Thinker's Thesaurus - Peter E. Meltzer

22. Fiske Word Power - Fiske, Mallison, Mandell

23. The Well Spoken Thesaurus - Tom Heehler

24. They Have A Word For It - Howard Rheingold

and remember, as Aldous Huxley said "The proper study of mankind is books". And on that note, may I recommend keeping a couple of books of quotations around. A good quote can be quite useful.

25. Mark My Words - Great Quotations and the Stories Behind Them - Nigel Rees

26. The Giant Book of American Quotations - Carruth & Ehrlich

as for websites and blogs and what-not, there is a technical writing subreddit:

http://technicalwriting.reddit.com

and https://writing.reddit.com

and

https://writinghub.reddit.com

You also can't go wrong studying the essays of George Orwell

http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/index_en

And I think that's about all I have to contribute, except to reiterate "write a lot, read a lot".

Source: I have no particular distinction as a writer, but I have managed to get a few articles published at InfoWorld: http://www.infoworld.com/author/Phil-Rhodes/ and I've written quite a few blog posts for my full-time employer, like: http://mammothdata.com/big-data-open-source-risk-managment/ and I have written most of the content on the Fogbeam company blog: http://fogbeam.blogspot.com I like to think that if I keep reading and writing, I might actually acquire some skill at it some day.

HTH, YMMV, IANAL, WTFBBQ, ETC.


thanks ! i am going trough the amazon reviews to try to pick some of those books. Do you have a top 5 for a beginner ?


1, 2, 6, 7 and 9 from the list above would probably be a good starting place.




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