There’s no tip that I’ve found that does more for a student, or someone wanting to learn to write, or grow as a writer, than this one. This is the tip: writing occurs in three steps. Okay, get help, and make it great.

Those words may not be ideal because you may not want to make your writing great, maybe that’s too aspirational, but the idea itself is that there are three distinct stages in writing. It’ll foul you up to skip the first two stages—you’ll try for perfection and you or your student will try to write something, but it won’t sound perfect enough. Usually you’ll get stuck trying to think up the perfect thing to write, and you won’t end up writing anything. What do I need to write that will sound great? That’s the problem, you don’t start with great, you don’t start with perfect. You can try to get there, but you don’t start there.

So here’s how you start. Okay: you just write something that sounds okay. “The dog chased the cat into the pimento tree.” Does that sound okay? I don’t know what a pimento tree is, but it does sound okay. I could change the dog-cat sequence: “The cat chased a dog into the dog house.” That’s a little odd, but it’s still okay. “The cat cornflake Jim Overton.” That doesn’t sound okay; I don’t know what that means, it’s not really a sentence. It’s missing a verb, for one thing. You’re just wanting to write okay to begin with.

Once you’ve written something that is okay, you want to get some help. This is where you can have an editor, or parent, or a friend, or someone, even yourself, take a look at what you wrote and make some suggestions. You step away from your writing for a little bit, let it get cold, then come back and read it. You’ll find you see it with fresh eyes. You can give yourself help. Help is all about, “Does this sound a little better? Does it sound better this way or that way?” Some other pair of eyes looking at your writing is helpful. You can make tweaks and changes and move towards greatness.

Your writing doesn’t have to be great, but if you want it to be better, you certainly do need to revise your first draft. In my experience of writing books, writing articles, writing anything, is that it’s never really finished. It’s just sort of abandoned, so there’s a place at which we just stop, because we’ve done okay, we got some help, and we’ve made it plenty good for what we’re trying to accomplish, maybe even great.

-Dr. Fred Ray Lybrand
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