Alan Lenzi has a funny little post on a writing exercise for his fresher* class. As he notes, the kind of uber-structured writing he is forcing them to do is “boring and formulaic” but it’s also the only way to get people to write well.
Writing is one of those things that people, for whatever perverse reason, think you should be able to just sit down and do well. You hear all kinds of nonsense about writing “from the heart” and how writing shouldn’t be structured. The fact is, however, that good writers are like good musicians. The only way to make free, improvisational, artistically expressive music is to practice fundamentals until your fingers bleed. Nobody picks up a guitar and “just plays” jazz improv. Thousands of hours of practice go into “just playing.” Same deal with writing.
Want to be a good writer? Then go read Alan’s post, and practice until your fingers bleed. Only once you can work through a pedantic exercise like the one he’s designed are you ready to “just write.”
This is a point driven home particularly well in my single favorite book on English grammar, Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax. Learn the rules, and then learn how to break them. That’s what great writers do.
*I’m picking up on the British use of “fresher” instead of the gender-exclusive “freshman” you find in NA. HT to Mark Goodacre.