A Shortcut to Becoming a Better Writer

A man on a forest path looking for a shortcut

The primary way to become a better writer is, of course, writing. Practicing any skill is how you march down the mastery path. I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago in large part because I’ve written hundreds of pages over the past decade.

But that’s not the only reason I’m a better writer than I used to be. Another cause of my improvement is what I read. I regularly read a type of book that’s been largely ignored by our educational systems: popular, persuasive nonfiction.

The Great Mismatch of Language Arts Curricula

You see, in language arts classes, students primarily read fiction – novels, plays, and short stories – but they primarily write nonfiction – essays and research papers. This mismatch is a problem because the students don’t have examples of good nonfiction writing to emulate.

They do have to read nonfiction, especially in history classes, but the nonfiction we offer them is dry and tedious rather than compelling and persuasive. Don’t get me wrong, I love textbooks, but they’re not examples of great writing.

A student on a couch struggling to understand a textbook

What’s missing from the reading students do is popular nonfiction. I’m talking about the types of nonfiction books that are meant to be informative, persuasive, and entertaining enough to sell millions of copies. In these books, you will find examples of great writing.

Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Ryan Holiday come to mind as examples from my own reading. I don’t deliberately try to copy their style, but I know my writing has been influenced – for the better – by their books.

Why Popular Nonfiction?

Many students’ writing is unclear and ambiguous, making it easy to misunderstand. Meanwhile, popular nonfiction authors express ideas with crystalline clarity. They break ideas down into component parts. They explain complicated subjects with enlightening metaphors. They connect concepts from seemingly disparate domains in surprising and insightful ways. They say exactly what they mean.

Most students’ writing is too wordy, full of redundancy and repetition. Popular nonfiction is edited down to be as concise as possible to prevent readers from getting bored.

Many students struggle to convincingly defend their thesis, connecting their evidence to their argument in only the most basic of ways. In popular nonfiction, on the other hand, the writing cuts apart opposing points of view with surgical precision, brings evidence down like a hammer, and drives home the argument like a grand slam slugger.

A baseball batter hitting a home run

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Now, the goal of reading popular nonfiction is not to walk away agreeing with everything these authors say. The goal is to see examples of well-developed thinking articulated in clear writing.

Ideally, your bookshelf should contain authors who contradict each other. This will help you read and think more critically.

Most student papers I see have logical shortcomings: body paragraphs that don’t really support their thesis, analysis that doesn’t quite follow from the evidence. By reading books that disagree with one another, you will learn to question what you read, and, as a result, you’ll become better at spotting the problems with your own arguments.

Emulation is Not Plagiarism

As you read best-selling nonfiction authors, you can take elements of their writing styles and incorporate them into your own papers. This isn’t plagiarism. All creative work draws inspiration from others. You’ve already been unconsciously influenced by everything you’ve ever read. You might as well start deliberately choosing what you read in order to become a better writer.

A major turning point in my own writing came during the summer of my junior year of college. I read a few popular nonfiction books: The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, and The Moral Animal and Nonzero by Robert Wright. I was intrigued by their ideas and found the books difficult to put down. But the most significant change brought by reading these books was their impact on my writing.

During my senior year of college, my essays improved dramatically. I branched out and experimented with different styles. I wrote more compelling introductions. I made bolder arguments. I said more with less. And I crafted conclusions that truly made you feel like the essay had come full circle.

Persuasive writing is an art, and to become a great artist, you have to consume the type of art you wish to create. Since school isn’t going to do that for you, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and read the kinds of books that will make you a better writer.

The Surprising Power of 5 Minutes a Day

A five minute smartphone timer

What happens if you do five minutes of exercise today?

Not much.

You’ll probably have a slightly better day because exercise is good for your brain, but you won’t look or feel very differently.

What happens if you do five minutes of exercise every day?

Again, not much in the short run.

But what happens over the course of a year?

Let’s say you’re not totally consistent, and you miss some days because of vacations or being sick or whatever. So over the next year, you exercise for five minutes a day for 300 days. That adds up to 1500 minutes, or 25 hours of exercise.

25 hours of exercise will have a serious impact on your mind and body. All those five-minute sessions stack up to something significant.

Now let’s apply this to school.

Would you become a dramatically better math student with five minutes a day of extra practice?

In the short run, no. But if you kept it up, by this time next year, yes. How could 25 hours of extra practice not help?

The same applies to five minutes a day of vocabulary-building, reading, or writing. If you want to see long-term growth, five minutes a day will get you there.

A child reading a book

This would even work for something medium-term, like ACT prep or studying for an AP test. Five minutes a day is way better than nothing.

This approach embraces the philosophy that everything counts: Every day is a chance to take a step forward, and every step forward is worthwhile.

Personally, I’m doing five minutes a day of Spanish practice via Duolingo. I’m not dramatically better at Spanish than I was six months ago, but I am noticeably better. And it’s an easy, sustainable habit.

Five minutes a day is easy.

That’s the whole point. Five minutes is too short to honestly say to yourself, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time.” It’s too easy for your brain to think, “That’s too hard!”

Doing five minutes can cure your procrastination.

You can do five minutes even when you’re feeling tired and lazy. You can do five minutes when you’re sick. You can do it when you’re on vacation. You can do five minutes every day, no matter what.

Long-term thinking is the key.

a road stretching off into the distance

We don’t do five minutes a day because we think short term. We focus on the benefits we’ll get immediately or this week or this month. We don’t think about the benefits that will accumulate and compound over the next year or decade.

Two years ago, I could barely do one push-up. So I did one push-up a day, every day for a month. It got easier. The next month, I did two push-ups a day. This month, I’m doing 24 push-ups a day.

This did not rapidly transform my body, but that was never the goal. I didn’t start this habit thinking about the next two months or even the next two years. I started it thinking about the next two decades. I wanted long-term strength.

This kind of long-term thinking has given me the patience to progress at a slow but sustainable rate. Over the last two years, I’ve done thousands of push-ups, and I’m noticeably stronger. Over the coming decades, I will do tens of thousands of push-ups, becoming far stronger than I ever thought possible. And my push-up habit doesn’t even take five minutes to do.

What can you do with five minutes a day?

What areas of your life would benefit from this approach?

Is there something you’ve been avoiding?

Is there a personal or professional weakness you should be addressing?

Is there a skill you’ve always wanted to learn but never had the time?

If you start working on it for five minutes a day, a few years from now, you’ll be very glad you did.

P.S. For more habit-formation ideas, check out my other blog, Becoming Better. I also offer one-on-one habit coaching, using proven strategies and supportive accountability to help you achieve your goals and live an extraordinary life.

Should You Make a To-Do List for Your Child?

A to-do list

Here’s something I’ve seen a lot lately:

  1. The parent checks their child’s online grades and is unhappy with what they see.
  2. There’s a bunch of missing work, so the parent makes a list of all the missing work on a piece of paper.
  3. They present this to-do list to the student saying, “Here are all the homework assignments you need to complete.”
  4. Then, to the parent’s dismay, the child does not do the tasks on the list.

What’s going on here?

Why You Shouldn’t Make a To-Do List for Your Child

The main problem is about ownership. If the parent makes the to-do list, they’re taking ownership of the child’s work. Thus, the student doesn’t have to. The parent is doing the hunting, sorting, recording, thinking, and caring, so the child doesn’t have to. The result? Passivity and inaction.

A teenager resisting parental lectures

Another response, very common with teenagers, is active resistance. People don’t like to be told what to do, and this tendency is particularly pronounced in teenagers. So, when you present your 15-year-old with a list of things to do, their response might be to deliberately ignore that list. They probably intended to do some of that work, but now they won’t because you’re nagging them to do it.

This is just another classic example of how micromanaging backfires.

What Should Parents Do?

The challenge is that many students genuinely need executive function support. They lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to handle it all on their own. So the answer isn’t to step back and do nothing.

There’s a middle ground between micromanaging and doing nothing called “scaffolding.” This means providing structure, support, and guidance without putting yourself in the driver’s seat.

With regard to to-do lists, parents can try the following:

  • Model list-making in your own life.
  • Provide the tools of list-making: paper, pens/pencils, sticky notes, sticky sheets, planners, calendars, etc.
  • Suggest ways to make their to-do list more organized or effective, and suggest a maintenance schedule, but don’t get upset if they ignore all of your suggestions.
  • Go through the list-making process together, with the student doing all of the searching and writing. You’re just playing the role of coach – helping them stay on task and decide what should be written down.

A parent providing support while the child makes her own to-do list

Whose Homework is It?

You can’t force your child to write a to-do list and expect buy-in. If you mandate that a list be written and written in a particular way, your child will see it as just another thing they have to do to avoid getting in trouble. They won’t put things on the list because they intend to do them. They’ll write things down just to keep you from getting upset.

A student’s to-do list should be theirs and theirs alone. If parents write the list for them or micromanage the list, then the student doesn’t see it as meaningful or valuable. If the parent is in charge of the to-do list, then it’s as though the homework belongs to the parent.

And just as students need to be the owners of their grades, they need to be the owners of their homework – responsible for tracking it, doing it, and turning it in. If you take on that responsibility, your child will never learn to become responsible for themselves.

More Parenting Ideas

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