the million dollar question with about a billion dollars worth of answers and approaches. how to become a better writer? i don’t offer the definitive answer to this question…if i had this, i’d be a trillionaire (rounding out my unachievable financial goals reference for good measure)!
there are loads of books on how to be a better writer. and while they can provide sound advice, they often lack the one element needed in writing…good storytelling.
we know scholarly writing is innately formulaic, impersonal, emotionless, and full of thesaurus-ized words. and yet, scholarly writing and peer-reviewed works are the main forms of currency in the research and knowledge creation space. other forms of writing are frowned upon if not outright rejected in peer-reviewed journals. the incentive structure within higher education doesn’t allow for much outside of our tenure and promotion requirements, thus making it challenging to be a storyteller, focusing your energies on being an excellent scholarly writer. but with the many ways to publish your research for the public, practicing writing chops can only help!
start with storytelling.
but good storytelling is what connects us…to the work, to the subject, to the writer, to the experience. research and scholarly work tell stories of adversity, resilience, successes, and failures. those stories deserve to be told.
storytelling feels like one of those things where you can’t quite define it, but you know it when you see it. personally, i feel committed, engrained, fascinated, invested, and focused when i am reading a good story. it’s just me and the words on the page.
you can share your works without sacrificing rigor. part of this process is through good storytelling. the research is always there to back you up, always. the storytelling is what will reach the people, what connects them to the story. for example, instead of focusing on telling a story of your data on how the growth of short-term rentals has negatively impacted housing sales due to demand/lack of regulation, frame it as a story of families priced out of their homes after generations, and rely on the data to highlight the research.
where do good, rigorous stories live?
publications like The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Esquire, and The New Yorker are havens of excellent, well-structured prose. writers and journalists tell stories but also in a structured, fact-based manner that can reach our hearts but we also trust to be rigorous and researched. so often, i take to reading articles in these publications not for the topic, but for the writing. good storytelling exists in the way sentences are formed on the page. other notable outlets include Longreads and Public Books.
you also do not have to read full novels to get an appreciation for the written word. short stories, journalistic publications, and online platforms such as Medium offer a wide range of stories. Substack is also noteworthy in its offerings as it allows writers the freedom to build their own audience without the gatekeeping of press houses, news outlets, or any other structure in place keeping writers from their readers and thinkers from their followers. Substack is my new favorite place to hang out.
following poets and fiction writers is another apt way to discover the beautiful side of writing. Roxane Gay and Saeed Jones have a way with words that leaves me yearning for more. beyond their books and other published works, they both use Substack (Roxane Gay’s The Audacity and Saeed Jones’ Werk-In-Progress) as an outlet of content dissemination and communicating with their audience.
how to become a storyteller
consider the many ways your research and findings could tell a good story. the person or groups of people whose lives you can impact. what’s their story? if you don’t know, spend some time finding out. revisit your ‘why’. why are you studying this topic? what made you dedicate your life to studying this particular area? write your own story.
you can become a better writer by reading and critiquing prose. consume poetry. note the patterns. stop to appreciate unique word usage. pay attention to the construction of sentences, paragraphs, and entire pieces. note your physical and emotional responses to the prose. ultimately, sentence structure, word choice, word count, etc are all important, but good storytelling takes the cake.
also, don’t force any of these things. reading good works shouldn’t feel like work, it should feel like a beautiful gift. and soon enough, you will be able to gift the same to others.
to become a better writer, actively read and critique prose.
who are some beautiful writers you follow? what is it about their prose that keeps you coming back?