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Teach Yourself to Write

RESOURCES-TIPS, Writer's Life

By Shirley Jump

You, too, can teach yourself to write. No, this isn’t an infomercial with Ron Popeil. It’s not a classified ad looking to take your money in exchange for nothing. It’s true advice for aspiring writers who come from nontraditional backgrounds and who want to learn how to write.

Many people feel daunted by their lack of a degree and think they shouldn’t be a writer because they didn’t go to college. While a degree is a wonderful tool, it’s not a necessity to make it in this industry. The key is learning to analyze the articles in your targeted markets and then adapt your words to fit those parameters. Although I have a degree in English, I learned very little in four years that I didn’t already know (except maybe the difference between an iamb and a trochee). Like most writers, my education came from the school of life, taught by my friends in the industry.

The first step is analysis. You already know you have to study the magazines you want to write for. Go beyond the masthead and delve into the articles. Get out your highlighter collection and color-code the amount of narrative as opposed to quotes from experts, the number of tips, the length of the introduction and the conclusion.

Then look at how the article was constructed. Virtually all articles follow the same pattern: Problem, analysis of the way to solve it, and happy resolution. In the typical women’s magazine, you might see an article entitled “Seven Steps to Slimmer Thighs.” Problem: chubby thighs. Steps to Solution: Seven exercises. Resolution: Do this for six weeks, and you’ll fit those college jeans.

Notice how much of the material was backed up by experts. Did the writer let the quotes do the work or did he use expert advice to enhance the material?

Now look at the tone and voice of the piece. Is it written in a breezy, conversational manner, like you might talk to a neighbor? Or is it more serious, filled with the kind of vocabulary words you dreaded in high school? Is it written in first person (I) or third (she and he)? Is it short and concise or filled with information?

Before you write your own article, write up an outline of the ones you studied. This will provide an accurate framework for writing. No one’s going to grade you on it, so just write it any format you wish (and if you can remember any Roman numerals over three, you get extra credit).

When you write your own article, mimic the ones you studied. Notice I didn’t say copy – just emulate them. Never, ever plagiarize another’s work. Then ask a good friend or colleague to read the one you studied and compare it to yours. Get honest feedback on whether you have accomplished your goal.

These steps are the quick fix to teaching yourself to write. The best way to understand the concepts of writing is to take classes, especially the targeted ones available online or in community education programs.

Join writing groups. There are hundreds of them available, but look for one that offers local meetings and opportunities. The Society of Professional Journalists (www.spj.org), of which I’m a member, is just one group with workshops and conferences for members around the country. You can find conference listings at http://writing.shawguides.com. A two-day conference is usually cheaper than a three-credit college class and will cover a wider variety of materials.

Join a critique group, either online or in real life. Try to be paired with someone who is further along in her career than you are. If you and your partner are both floundering around in the dark, neither of you will be much help to the other. Most experienced writers are more than willing to assist new writers.

Finally, never stop learning. I have been writing for more than twenty years and yet I still take classes. I learn something new every time and look at my craft in a slightly different way when the class is over. Education is a lifelong process that constantly challenges you to strive harder and write better.

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