Share your knowledge and help a younger writer succeed

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2012 - 10:15 AM

At this time every year I usually write a New Year's column challenging you to improve your writing. This year I'd like to try something different. Rather than asking you to look inward, how about looking outward? I challenge you to share your knowledge with a younger writer.

Here's how you might make a difference:

•Simply offer to help. You might begin the conversation by sharing a story about a writing challenge or failure early in your own career. What was it like for you on your first day on the job? What didn't you know that you needed to know? Did you learn the hard way, or did an older, more experienced writer provide a helping hand?

•Share your favorite book on writing. Used copies are fine. Marked up copies are better. Maybe it's your old copy of William Strunk and E.B. White's "The Elements of Style" from college. Maybe it's William Zinsser's classic "On Writing Well," Rosalie Maggio's helpful "How to Say It" or Stephen King's lively "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." (For some of my other favorites, Google "Wilbers recommendations.")

•Talk about the importance of effective writing and why it matters, both professionally and personally. Sometimes it's just a matter of encouraging someone to take pride in their writing, which involves taking time to do it well. As many people have pointed out, good writing is revised writing. Rarely does a writer get everything right in the first draft.

•Discuss the elements of good writing. Review the five basic components: approach, organization, support, word choice and language rules. (See "Wilbers elements.") Help identify strengths and weaknesses. Maybe this person is good at organizing their message, but they don't offer enough examples or sufficient evidence to support their assertions. Maybe they're great at providing relevant detail, but they're making basic errors in word choice such as writing "flaunt the rules" when they mean "flout the rules." Or maybe they would have placed the period at the end of the preceding sentence after rather than before the closing quotation marks. (See "Wilbers punctuation.")

•Offer to review that person's writing. Perhaps most helpful is looking at a document in progress, but pointing out strengths and weaknesses in older copy can be useful, especially if you do it at regular intervals, maybe once a week or once a month. Genuine improvement requires sustained effort over time. With a partner, it's not only more likely but also more fun.

•If the person you're helping is making numerous errors in grammar, word choice and punctuation, keep track. Download and print a checklist of the 75 most common errors. Pay particular attention to errors that show up repeatedly.

If you like the idea of helping others during this holiday season, I challenge you to share your knowledge. If you do, please tell me your stories. I'd like to pass them along to other readers.

Good luck with your resolution. What could be more satisfying than helping a younger writer succeed?

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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