According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), slightly more than one-quarter of all students, in grades 8 through 12, are proficient writers. Most achieve a basic level.
Basic almost sounds acceptable—until you read the definition. It is considered partial mastery and allows for spelling, grammar, usage, capitalization, and punctuation errors, even if these mistakes impede the meaning of the work. Consider it poor writing, passable if the reader makes an effort.
The NAEP also asked students whether writing was one of their favorite subjects. About half said yes, probably believing they are proficient writers. As many university professions can attest, the average student is more confident in his or her ability to write than his or her actual work indicates. It’s a false confidence that many will take with them into adulthood.
Many people think they are good writers, and some people really are good. But most aren’t good writers as much as they are “better” writers. Better than what? Better than those who write poorly. How can you tell if you are a good writer? Start by asking yourself some honest questions:
1. Do you use a thesaurus to avoid word duplication? If you do, stop it. The only reason to use a thesaurus is to find a more accurate word. All too often, writers who lean too heavily on their thesaurus create new problems with improper substitutions. A synonym is similar and not the same.
2. Do you pay attention to where words land in relation to others? Good. Misplaced modifiers cause more writing errors than almost any other style and usage error. (Here’s an example: While driving down the street, a tree began to fall toward the car.) Read every sentence as if it stands alone to improve it.
3. Do you understand the difference between affect and effect? Affect and effect are two of several dozen words that people misuse and confuse. There are dozens of others: who and whom, immigrant and emigrant, jibe and jive, adverse and averse, etc. If you don’t know the difference, know when to look them up.
4. Do you punch up words to make your writing more exciting? I hope not. Though some marketers like to drop in words like “stunning,” “exciting,” or “best ever,” unsubstantiated superlatives are likely to drive customers away. Worse, too much hype can ensure a negative experience.
5. Do you know the difference between active and passive writing? Even good writers sometimes confuse passive writing with writing in the past tense. The difference between active writing and passive writing is whether the subject is doing something or an object is having something done to it.
6. Do you look for words that will make your writing sound smarter? I hope not. Smart writing doesn’t require fancy words. It requires accuracy and economy of language. You don’t have to write “he stated” when you mean “he said.” Said and says are fine 95 percent of the time.
7. Have you double-checked your work for redundancies? The reason that “write tight” becomes the mantra of great writers is because they know that time is valuable. No one wants to waste it by having to circle around, summarize, or repeat it. Not even for $5 million dollars.
8. Do you assume that every writer develops his or her own style? They do to a degree, but that should not be your first thought about style. Style simply means putting your content in an acceptable form. This post, for instance, is a conversational style that pays homage to the AP Stylebook, but there are many more forms than this one.
9. Are you such a great writer that you can bang out an article? Though there are a few people in the profession who can do it, great writers wouldn’t dream of it. They recognize that writing is a process, requiring at least three distinct steps: writing, editing, and proofreading.
10. Does your content lie around like a rug? The great show vs. tell debate deserves its own post. Suffice to say that writers who like tell vs. show have confused showing with being unnecessarily descriptive. It’s not the same. Showing is about substantiation, accuracy, and vividness. It’s about knowing whether to write “angry man” or “he fumed,” “luxurious sheets” or “Egyptian cotton.”
A version of this article first appeared on Richard Becker’s blog.