In Stephen King's book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he describes a great process for helping competent writers become good writers. Although this book is primarily geared toward writers of fiction, I've found it very helpful as a technical writer. My biggest take-away after reading it twice is that to become a good writer, one must "read a lot and write a lot."
When my mom first saw my website, her first feedback was, "Wow, that's a lot of words. People don't read anymore... you probably should make it all into bulleted lists or something." I sighed. It's a point well taken; I've been known to skim through a blog post or email trying to grab the salient points. We're busy. But hear me out - if you don't read, you won't get better at writing.
Remember my previous post, where I described all the books on my shelf that have helped me become a better writer? One of the most important books was a style guide for my particular scientific discipline. I still recommend picking one up, but there's more to it than just having the book. If you don't read papers from your discipline, how will you really know what to shoot for?
What to read:
1) Publications in your discipline
Journal articles, posters, presentations... anything that is good communication in your discipline can help you learn how to communicate your flavor of science well. How do you know if it's good communication? If you can understand the topic better after consuming it than you did before.
2) Papers like what you plan to write
Are you writing for a particular publisher? Read several articles in that publisher's journals. Are you writing an internal company memo? Read as many memos as you can track down. Are you writing a research paper for school? Track down an upperclassman with good grades and ask if you can read their papers. You get the idea...
3) Anything and everything else
Before he gives the advice to read a lot and write a lot, Steve says to put grammar and vocabulary in your writer's toolbox. (Stephen King and I are on a first-name basis now; I've read at least 3/4 of what he's written, including lots of things where he's referred to himself as "Steve.")
The best way to boost your vocabulary is to read voraciously. (According to Merriam Webster, voracious means excessively eager. See? Reading works!) The best way to boost your grammar is to use reference books well, and to attend to the grammar in what you're reading.
Common complaint: "I don't have time to read."
Come back next Wednesday, and I'll give you pointers on how to make the time you need to accomplish your writing goals.
Are you an avid reader? If not, why not? If so, what do you read? Comment below; I'd love to hear from you!