Average to Excellent: Turning Mediocrity into Mastery

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Do Great Writers Have a Process?

Every task performed throughout a lifetime is accomplished by means of a process. Regardless of the brevity or extensiveness of the procedures, everything has a degree of beginning, middle, and end. In school, the writing process is taught in a fairly straightforward manner: research, plan, write, and revise. The average writer is adept at these steps. When following a rubric of requirements, an average writer may go through each of these steps successfully and produce an acceptable product that conveys a message. However, the manner through which the average writer proceeds is different than the excellent writer. Whereas average writers typically follow these steps monotonously, completing one before moving on to the next, the masterful writer knows that the writing process can be much more individualized while still accomplishing what is needed. 

Should All Writers Write the Same Way?

In his book On Writing Well, renowned journalist and Yale professor William Zinsser (2006) postulates that for memorable writers, the writing process is often difficult and lonely. Moreover, Zinsser asserts that there is not, in fact, a right way or a wrong way to proceed with composition. While there are commonalities in terms of what the end product may be, the process of composition can happen in a plethora of ways. For example, Zinsser argues that some writers do not outline their pieces before they begin, while others have every piece plotted thoroughly, and neither is wrong. In fact, a single writer may write certain pieces with an outline and other pieces without, depending on what the writer feels like his or her exact needs are. This flexible embrace of different writing processes is a key feature of excellent writers as it relates to their own self-awareness; they know what works well for them in some situations but recognize that something else may work better in others. Conversely, average writers tend to approach every paper—regardless of audience, intent, or genre—in the same manner every time. This difference is also exhibited in the way writers choose the focus of their pieces.

How Do Excellent Writers Choose a Topic?

The task of choosing a topic may seem like a straightforward one for both mediocre and superb writers, but that is not a concrete reality. According to an article in the peer-reviewed journal California English, Macklin and Merrill (2017) contend that a task gives the writer direction as if the writer were on a roadmap. On the roadmap of topic choice, the ordinary writer is likely to stop at a major city. This writer may find out a lot of information about that city, or may be able to write about it in an efficient way, but it is likely a city of which an audience already has a broad understanding, or a city about which they may infer the majority of the details the writer could provide. In contrast, the advanced writer may follow the roadmap of topic choice to a rural community or unmarked territory. Even in cases in which the destination is predetermined for both writers, the exemplary writer may approach the town from the other side or may find an intriguing suburb associated with it. This willingness to explore the subtle nuances of a topic gives mature writers an edge that typical writers lack. The exploration of nuances is also seen in the expert’s consideration of an audience.

To What Degree Should Writers Think about their Audiences?

While most every writer begins with an audience in mind, a hallmark trait of an exceptional writer is that he or she tailors every aspect of the piece to the audience as though it were a custom-made suit. This writer considers what material is important and relevant to the intended audience as well as what evidence appeals to the audience and how to best present it (Macklin & Merrill, 2017). This writer also sees each reader as an individual person for whom the craft must be tailored, as “[. . .] there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship” (Zinsser, 2006, p. 25).  By contrast, the ordinary writer thinks about writing as a one-size-fits-all pair of sweatpants. To this writer, the audience is the reader that may lounge around and occasionally flip through a piece of writing before using it to prop up the leg on a wobbly table. The audience is temporary to mediocre writers, whereas to masterful writers, the audience is a long-lasting staple to be cherished.

In What Mediums Should They Publish?

In this increasingly digital age, electronic mediums for writing are becoming more prevalent. Internet-based platforms rapidly increase the availability of and ease with which readers can access new material. With this has come a form of digital colloquialism that has adjusted the previously acceptable rules of writing to allow for the casualness of social media and blog posts. Blog posts can now have more readers than many newspapers, and the sharing of articles online has dramatically boosted their visibility. Similarly, digital reading devices make paperless novels a reality. This evolution has formed a crossroads for writers as not all formats of publication are appropriate for all pieces of writing. The mediocre writer typically finds success with one particular medium and applies the same approach used for the medium to others. For example, a writer may develop quite a following on a weekly blog about common household fixes. As ambition sets in, that writer may attempt to publish those same blog posts directly into a book medium with little success. This is because a book may not be the best medium for the kind of writing produced by that particular writer. Advanced writers recognize that medium is just as important as audience. An article in the New England Reading Association Journal points out that audiences and mediums are not just “buzzwords” but instead are “task-defining” (Dagostino & Casatelli, 2017, pg. 101). For the exceptional writer, the consideration of a writing medium is an intentional part of composition. 

Is Voice Important?

In addition to audience and medium, voice is arguably one of the greatest contributing factors to memorability. Various pieces of writing can cover the same topic with essentially the same message yet have significantly different effects on the reader. This is because in writing, the ultimate product being sold is the author’s voice. Zinsser (2006) equates a writer without a voice to a designer or painter without a style, much like a mundane hotel room that could be in any hotel in the world rather than a site reminiscent of a nostalgic moment. An excellent writer has a unique voice that sets him or her apart from others. Though this writer learns from other masters, this writer does not merely imitate the stylistic methodologies of other writers but is invested in his or her own work to such a degree that the writer shines through amidst the words. An excellent writer’s voice is similar to that of a popular musician with a distinctive sound; even when a new song comes on the radio, the listener can identify the singer without knowing the lyrics. Some may argue that for writers of fiction, the voice of the writer can be a weakness that needs to be overcome. However, many successful writers contend that the mark of greatness is when a writer can alter word choice based on circumstance and genre but maintain a unique personage through voice.

Does Word Choice Really Matter?

Readers can often remember a selection of writing because of the impact of the word choice; quotes are memorialized on plaques, in journals, and on Pinterest boards regularly due to the preciseness with which a writer captured an idea or emotion. In the words of Macklin and Merrill (2017), “How you say it matters” (p. 13). Average writers are often tempted to add derivative wording and superfluous details when writing due to their overestimation of the audience’s desire for it. However, pompous does not equal praiseworthy. Writers with a mastery of word choice include the cleanest components in their sentences and ensure that all the words used are purposeful. This is not to say that writers with mastery should not use hefty wording, but rather, they make a habit of using words that mean exactly what they want to convey. For example, the use of the word “superfluous” earlier in this paragraph could more simply have been “extra.” However, the connotations of the words are different even though their literal meanings are similar. Whereas “extra” implies “in excess,” by contrast “superfluous” adds the connotation of “unnecessary.” Both words are technically correct, but one more concisely describes the context of the sentence. Average writers are content with words that are correct, whereas excellent writers will seek words with perspicacity to find the one that fits their intention exactly. 

How Many Words Is Too Many?

Page requirements and word counts can at times be thorns in a writer’s side, but great writers view clutter as something to be avoided, while average writers may be content to fill space. In 1942 under the Roosevelt administration, the President received a memo from his own government describing the need to limit visibility during air raids. The memo read, “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination” (Zinsser, 2006, p. 7). Roosevelt requested the memo be revised and stated, “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going, to put something across the windows” (Zinsser, 2006, p. 7). In this case, the original version of the memo is much longer and much more difficult to understand, even though it is not technically erroneous. Roosevelt’s translation is concise, and it was a better fit for the audience at the time as it included all levels of staff in the building. An average writer may strive for more syllables in an attempt to sound more sophisticated, but a great writer recognizes that more words for the sake of more words creates a distracting cacophony of verbiage. Similarly, an ordinary writer often uses unnecessary phrases like, “I might add,” or “in this paper I will talk about…” Extraordinary writers see these fillers for what they are: clutter. There is no need for a writer to state “I might add,” because the writer has already added something to finish that sentence, making the prefix unnecessary. Similarly, the words “in this paper” are unnecessary because the reader is reading the paper, thus already knows that the discussion in the paper is, in fact, in the paper. Great writers avoid word clutter and markedly increase their credibility by consistently revising their work.

Is Revision a Necessary Step?

Just as a chef may tweak, change, and adjust a recipe until it is perfect, a writer as well must alter his or her work. Zinsser (2006) describes editing as the “essence of writing” and postulates that any accomplished writer has written numerous drafts of a polished piece and even then may never be fully satisfied. To Zinsser, writing is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Pedestrian writers may complete a paper and have a sense of accomplishment simply because it is finished is reasonably coherent whereas an advanced writer considers his or her piece carefully. Many scholars contend that revision is the most important aspect of the writing process. Moreover, they suggest that editing should go far beyond proofreading and error correction. In most cases, revision should include meaningful changes that enhance the message, readability, or credibility of the piece (Macklin & Merrill, 2017). While self-editing is quite vital, also important is the concept of peer review.

Is Peer Review Valid?

Though people tend to shy away from criticism, writers do at times reach out to peers for assistance whether voluntarily or as a precursor to submission. In a study published in the International Journal of Progressive Education, writers engaging in meaningful peer review reported feelings of empowerment, improved scholastic standing, and a greater sense of their own writing style (Austria, 2017).  Peer review is different from other editing services because it relies on the collaborative exchange of constructive feedback from colleagues or associates rather than simply on an authority figure marking areas for correction, improvement, or deletion. An average, ordinary writer may see peer review as another step toward completion or an opportunity to defend his or her work with a fierce sense of protection and pride. However, defense is not an aspect of effective peer review. Austria (2017) reports that its efficacy is closely tied to a writer’s willingness to accept feedback.  As the study points out, effective peer review involves the writer considering the perspectives of peers as a snapshot of future readers. The extraordinary writer is able to set aside egocentric feelings and defensive inclinations for the benefit of improvement. This writer sees peer review as a tool that is not just for a single assignment; the feedback received through the peer review process can be applied to future writing endeavors, as well. 

Overarching Answer

Outstanding writers differ from average writers in many ways. By emulating how great writers act with regard to the proceeding questions, an ordinary writer can endeavor to be extraordinary. Paying special attention to the individualized writing process and topic choices, the writer can simplify his or her own practice. Additionally, the writer can consider his or her intended audience and an appropriate medium for the piece. If the writer crafts a unique voice, chooses words wisely, and avoids clutter, a writer can stand out among others for quality work. By incorporating effective editing and quality peer reviews, this writer can improve to the extent of memorability. In turn, this will help the writer’s work to become more meaningful, adding fodder to the writer’s credibility. Readers will begin to seek out the great writer’s works due to their fondness for the writer’s honed craftsmanship. This cyclical approach may birth more new ideas, writing projects, and compositions, ultimately resulting far more than a passable skill for writing; the mediocre writer can become a masterful one.

References

Austria, M. B. (2017). Peer response as an effective writing strategy. International Journal of Progressive Education, 13(2), 95-104.

Dagostino, L., & Casatelli, C. (2017). Content creation for a new generation: A guide for digital writing. New England Reading Association Journal, 52(1), 94-105.

Macklin, T., & Merrill, M. (2017). Revising rhetorically: Audience, task, and purpose. California English, 23(1), 12-14.

Zinsser, W. (2006). On Writing Well (7th ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.