Are Great Writers Made or Born that Way?

Does writing come naturally to you? Or is stringing words together a painful process, akin to a root canal or IRS audit? For some writers, the words seem to flow so easily. For others, the dance seems less like a waltz and more like a spin in the mosh pit.

Is the ability to write well something you’re born with? Or can we all learn to write better? How?

Our guest expert Tony Castagno shares his thoughts on the subject. Tony is an accomplished professional writer who teaches Communication Science at the University of Connecticut and heads high-tech business consultants The Rowe Group (more about Tony below).

Good writers … nature or nurture? Your gut reaction, please.

Tony Castagno: I think it’s a combination of the two. I do believe being a really good writer is a talent just like being a really good piano player is a talent. But even if you’re not a talented writer by nature, by practicing and practicing and practicing, you can become a pretty adept writer. There are people who decide to learn to play the piano, and while they might not become fantastic concert pianists — they become skilled enough to be able to get hired to play. The same goes for writers. The more you write, the more you practice writing, and the more you get critiqued — the better you become.

When a new group of students walks into your classroom, can you tell who has what it takes to become a professional writer?

TC: Actually, I can. On the first day of class, I ask students to write just a couple of paragraphs about something that happened in the last few weeks. That one short assignment tells me a lot. There are always a few people who are really outstanding in their writing. They all have the basics down. They have good grammar. They have good sentence structure. They can put together sentences that follow each other logically. And they pick an interesting topic to write about — or make their topic sound interesting. Those are all necessary skills in the communications world.

What are some of the traits of good writers?

TC: First off, when they write about something, they understand what they’re talking about before they start writing about it. They can conceptualize it, sketch out an outline, and then put it down on paper. Second, they can express concepts in a language that’s appropriate for their audience, so that they don’t speak above or below their audience. They have it properly targeted.

Third, there’s a logical sequence to their writing, something that’s helped greatly by starting with an outline. One sentence leads to the next, and one paragraph leads to the next. And fourth, they have the basics down, such as good spelling, good sentence structure, and good grammar. I keep coming back to the basics. There are lots of tools out there now that help if you’re not the world’s best speller or grammarian.

There’s nothing like a big-honkin’ typo to compromise your writing.

TC: That’s true, you lose credibility. Though you really do need to know when to override the spell-check and grammar-check systems. The lexicons are fairly limited, and grammar suggestions sometimes are just plain wrong.

The other thing I’ve found is that some students who have grown up with cell phones and texting are so used to using text messaging shortcuts — like “R” for “are” — that it creeps in to their regular writing. I remind them not to use slang in their more formal writing. It may be OK for some blogs or Facebook pages, but not in professional writing.

What are some hints anyone can use to improve their writing — whether they’re professional writers or people who need to write as part of their jobs?

TC:

1. Start with an outline and a solid idea of what your main point is, your thesis

2.Write sentences that are simple but not juvenile. Sometimes people tend to use sentences that are too complex.

3. Write in the active voice much more so than in the passive voice.

4. Write in a conversational style that’s easy to read. This works well for many types of communications, including web copywriting. Even more formal business writing can be more effective if it’s not stiff and riddled with jargon.

5. Get your work critiqued as often as possible and by as many people as possible. Don’t be precious about your work. Let other people bleed all over it. Then look at the changes they’ve made, think about why they’ve made them, and incorporate the ones that improve the writing.

6. Run the spell check and the grammar check, and get someone — a coworker, a friend, or a family member — to give your writing a final proofread. Don’t let anything go out with typos. That includes business emails and memos, too.

I keep coming back to practice, practice, practice. Writing is a progressive process.

The more you write — the better you can become.

About the Expert: Tony Castagno teaches Communication Science at the University of Connecticut and heads The Rowe Group, which works with high-tech start-ups, helping them position themselves optimally, target their markets effectively, and grow rapidly to success. He has more than 25 years experience in business development, public relations, marketing, and writing. For 17 years, he headed the public relations group for one of the country’s largest nuclear power operations. He has written countless brochures, news releases, and other corporate documents, and his work has been published in more than 50 reference books and other publications. He received the UConn/Avery Point campus’s 2010 Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Member of the Adjunct Faculty.

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