Two Politically Incorrect Ways To Improve Writing

When I killed the five-paragraph essay, it wasn’t because I thought there was anything wrong with it. Some like it–I don’t object, but I started wondering, “Is this how I read?” If not, am I being honest to my students forcing them to write this way?

The way we communicate is changing. We have to be willing to change along with it.

Over time, we’ve trained our students to ask a question I hate, “How long does this have to be?” as if length alone determines the quality of the work. Like a Zen monk on a hill, I answer “Long enough to leave me feeling smarter when I’m done.” I tell students to perform “The Test.”


The Test

“The Test” is somewhat inappropriate from an education standpoint. “Imagine someone you know who isn’t very smart.” This isn’t politically correct considering I’ve written extensively about the fact we’re all smart. We all have gifts–sometimes school doesn’t recognize them. Just for the purposes of this exercise, though, allow me to misbehave.

I ask students to visualize silently because this exercise can go horribly wrong. They have their person in mind. They’re jumping out of desks trying to tell me.

“No names! Look at your work. Imagine your person’s here. Hand over what you’ve written. Say, ‘Can you tell me what this is about?’ If they can, with details, it’s long and good enough.”

Sometimes at the very moment I ask “Does this pass ‘The Test?’” an unsuspecting kid walks by. Everyone laughs. This makes the kid paranoid, and for that, I feel slightly sorry, but not guilty, because he or she should’ve been in class anyway.

I tell students how my writing’s changed over the years. “Nobody ever read my academic writing. It was boring. Now people read my stuff. I write simply, from the heart–it makes all the difference.”

We write for a purpose–to educate, inspire or communicate. To do that, the key is often to write less–get rid of clutter. Students are intrigued. Write less? That’s something they can stand behind.

I’m fooling them on that point, because most authors agree writing shorter pieces is harder than writing at great length.

Since I’ve hooked them, I tell one more story, a personal one about a crushing blow that changed my writing forever, giving me permission to write from the heart, helping me edit so I could be read, not shred.

“My author friend was giving a big talk. He said, ‘I was thinking about you when I gave my talk.’ I was honored and excited. What would a best-selling author say about me?

“He said, ‘If you need a priest, get a priest. Don’t burden your reader.’” My students watched me deflate–get completely crushed in that moment. They know the feeling–they get crushed, too. It’s what school does for many.

This was indeed a crushing blow. A writer I respect, whose writing I love, was telling me to go find a priest or confidante. Respect my readers. Stop dumping on them. Writing is not a journal. It’s not to be put out to the public unless it serves a purpose.

This was the best single piece of advice I’ve ever received. I treasure it. Feedback is a funny thing–most people say, “Yeah, that’s good,” and let a person walk through life producing less than their best work. Only the people who care will take the risk and say what needs to be said. We all need one or two of those people–students and teachers alike.

“The priest filter” transformed my writing. I began to see when my writing had purpose and when it was venting on a page. I run my writing through “the priest filter” every single time. Then, I put it on the chopping block and chop away.

Write Less, Say More

1. Write once, edit more. Any great author will tell you this. When editing, do it once for grammar and mechanics, taking out all the mistakes. Then, do it again for content. Are citations needed? Are the facts right? Does it serve the purpose you intended and prove the points necessary? Does it pass “The Test?” Have you put it through “the priest filter?”

2. Walk away. Don’t be a last-minute writer. Put the writing down, and walk away. Come back later with fresh eyes. It makes the world of difference. If you’re running behind schedule, go do something else for a while, then return. Ideally, you should give yourself at least a day’s break. I put aside major works for much longer than that. My editing improves exponentially when I return.

3. Simplify. Simplify your writing. This is tough for a writer’s ego, but a gift to the reader. Use short sentences and simple words. This is not to say dumb it down.

Here’s an example: would you want to read a twenty-page thesis on Ashikaga Japan? Probably not. If I told some samurai stories, you’d be interested. I should never write to prove my own intelligence, I’m writing to give something to my reader. I don’t want to my writing to sound like a vocabulary lesson.

Ernest Hemingway urged writers to write short sentences. Mark Twain said, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” Stephen King stated, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” You don’t have to tell me the girl snuck quietly into the closet to avoid the serial killer. If you’ve done your job as a writer and I’m intelligent, I should know.

Writing is powerful. Good writing is rare. The Common Cores integrate writing into every aspect of student’s lives. Whether or not you support CCSS, writing is a big-money skill. Done well, it gives students a distinct advantage in a changing economy where they’ll be responsible to make their own path, where college will be out of reach for many, and where the average student will have multiple careers. Students will need many tools in their toolbox to be flexible and succeed. Writing is one of the most valuable. I hope it will be one of the tools they love best.


[Credits: The author in the story is Kamal Ravikant, whose “Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It” and “Live Your Truth” are inspirational summer reads. Stephen King’s “On Writing” made me realize I could write–anyone can–with the proper spirit, dedication, and habits. It remains my single favorite writing book, and but for a few “f” words, I’d assign it to every student. Since I can’t, I leave a copy on my desk and hope it gets stolen and read by the next generation of Pulitzer-winning authors.]


  1. Bill

    July 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Hi I had said to myself I was going to have words with the next person who used the cliche ‘dumb down’ in a professional piece; however your use of it in the context of writing simply and directly is actually admirable!

  2. Jackie Stone

    July 13, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    My favorite non-PC way to tell someone how long an assignment needs to be is like a mini-skirt; long enough to cover the subject, short enough to keep it interesting :).

    I like your thoughts on this. Thank you for sharing.