HOW TO WRITE….Pennywit decides to take me up on my mockery of the five-paragraph format today and gives it a rousing defense. He cheats a bit, actually, by turning it into a defense of the five section essay, but what the hell. He thinks it’s “just another structure that a writer can use to organize his thoughts and guide his reader.”

Well, maybe. And I’m not exactly a sworn foe of the format since I’ve only known about it for the past 24 hours. But although I have no problem with mechanical aids to guide young minds, my real problem with the five paragraph format is that it seems so limited: even on its own terms it only applies to a very specific kind of writing. The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?

Writing a company newsletter? Nope. Technical writing? Nope. A college term paper? Nope. What you did on your summer vacation? Nope. Penning a postcard? Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a newspaper op-ed, a piece of advertising copy, or an argument for a voter pamphlet, I suppose it might come in handy. But how often do any of us do that?

(Or a blog! It would be good for that. Maybe the five paragraph format was just ahead of its time!)

It’s a funny thing. People frequently ask me how they can become better writers, and of course there’s no easy answer. There just aren’t any formulas for it.

But if I had to give one piece of advice ? well, I wouldn’t. I’d give two pieces of advice. The first is to ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk. This is possibly the worst writing advice ever to gain wide popularity. Honest.

But the second piece of advice ? the real one ? is so simple it seems almost silly to even say it: know what you want to say. This doesn’t have to take the form of the dreaded outline, it can just be a few words jotted down on a piece of paper. Or it can be entirely in your head. But somewhere, somehow, whether you’re persuading, describing, mocking, or whatever, you have to know what you want to say before you try and find the words to say it.

This seems obvious, but it’s the source of an awful lot of bad writing. As I learned when I was a technical writer, the reason so many instruction manuals are so hard to follow is that the writer never really understood the material in the first place. Frankly, it’s a miracle most tech writing turns out as well as it does.

So: think first, then write. You still have to learn the mechanical skills, of course, but I’d much rather edit someone who knows what he wants to say and just has trouble with grammar and syntax than the other way around. The first you can correct. The second is just hopeless.