Michelle Obama’s sage writing advice

During the President and First Lady’s recent trip to England, Michelle Obama spoke to schoolgirls in London on a number of topics. As an editor and writer, I was struck by her wise advice about how to achieve goals:

… I would encourage you all to read, read, read. Just keep reading. And writing is another skill. It’s practice. It’s practice. The more you write, the better you get. Drafts–our kids are learning the first draft means nothing. You’re going to do seven, 10 drafts. That’s writing, it’s not failure, it’s not the teacher not liking you because it’s all marked up in red. When you get to be a good writer, you mark your own stuff in red, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, and you rewrite. That’s what writing is.

“The first draft means nothing,” she said. Over the years, I’ve seen more beginning writers than I can count become discouraged after completing a first draft. They sweat over the first round, sometimes for weeks or months–only to get feedback that it’s not quite there yet, or even that they still have a long way to go.

This can be discouraging. I understand.

The truth is, writing isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t end with the first draft. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying–or, at the very least, probably trying to cheer you up a little. In fact, in my experience as an editor in a number of environments (whether journalistic, academic, or otherwise), every piece of published writing I’ve worked on has gone through an average of four to seven revision stages.

For a little perspective on what a piece of writing goes through before it hits print or the Web, take a look at the standard publishing process.

Procedures vary, but many publishing houses will put a manuscript through review, first, by a developmental editor or peer review editor, and often both; then, by manuscript or copy editors; and, finally, by proofreaders. (For more about the different types of editing, see Levels of editing.) Whether there is one copyeditor or proofreader, or more than one of each, depends on the resources available to the publishing environment. Where accuracy is a high priority–such as for, say, school textbooks or national print publications–proofreading alone may comprise several stages. Quality journalistic publications will include an additional stage for fact checking, in which every statement of fact is scrutinized for accuracy. And in each successive stage, the author’s original writing is further smoothed, polished, and refined.

The point in describing all this is not to discourage anyone. Rather, it’s to enlighten you regarding the stages of effort required to produce a single polished piece of writing. It bears repeating: writing isn’t exactly a breeze. It takes work and–as the First Lady expertly describes–many, many revisions.

The First Lady had further suggestions about writing:

Read, write, read, read. If the president were here–one of his greatest strengths is reading. That’s one of the reasons why he’s a good communicator, why he’s such a good writer. He’s a voracious reader. So we’re trying to get our girls, no matter what, to just be–to love reading and to challenge themselves with what they read, and not just read the gossip books but to push themselves beyond and do things that maybe they wouldn’t do.

This advice is beyond reproach. I see many writers searching for a more expressive tone, a more elegant style–and yet they don’t take the time to read the writers who’ve come before them. The best advice for anyone who wants to write well is to read–and read well. In fact, I once saw Susan Sontag speak, before her death, while I was in college in Chicago. When asked how to write well, she offered advice very similar to Michelle Obama’s: “Read. Just–read. Read as much you can.”

In the meantime, if you’re searching for ways to improve your writing, that’s what editors are here for. We’re trained in crafting elegant speech from a first draft, in creating a cohesive whole from notes scratched on a legal pad. If you’ve got a project you’re working on and you’re struggling to make it come together, consider getting an editor. The best editors are experts in the stages I described above–whether conceptual-level developmental editing, sentence-level copyediting, fact checking, or simply ensuring a piece is error-free before publication.

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