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Panel of Experts

Karl Schellscheidt

SAT Prep Expert

  • BSE, Princeton University '90
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Fred Hargadon

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Don Betterton

Financial Aid Expert

  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
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Seamus Malin

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    Dir. of Financial Aid
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    International Office Director

What Makes a Good Writer?


eprep test prep videoWhat makes a good writer?

It’s a question that appears to have some magical, formulaic answer. For better or for worse, it doesn’t. A Princeton graduate and accomplished writer, John McPhee (’53), gave the best answer to this question: “Perseverance.” Of writing, McPhee said, “You have to stay with it.” Great writing doesn’t simply happen; it takes time, struggle, and a willingness to accept that sometimes you won’t know where you’re headed.

When will I know when I’ve gotten there (to where my writing is “good”)?

As in any other pursuit (baseball, ballet dancing, painting, playing guitar), there is never a time where the mastery of the skill is “over.” Similarly, the challenge of being a better writer will never cease to present itself to every single one of us. McPhee puts it more eloquently when he says, “Writers are unique. It’s like DNA, a snowflake, or a thumbprint; there are no two writers alike. Therefore a writer can only grow as that writer.” Thus, you should never compare your progress as a writer to anyone else’s, but you should understand that if you don’t write, you’ll never improve at writing.

What makes a good academic writer?

Do you have a sense that to be a successful academic writer, you will have to ramp up your use of five syllable words? Or perhaps you think that the less intelligible your writing, the more likely it will be classified as “intellectual”? It’s okay if you answered yes to either of these questions. We seemed to have created a culture where one is presumed to be more intelligent the less accessible one’s writing is to a reader. Have you ever heard someone remark: “Oh, he’s brilliant. I can’t understand a word he says.” It’s humorous, but guess what? You may have fallen prey to it in your own writing (or, at least, have been tempted to). We all have. But try to remember this pearl of wisdom from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges: “There’s nothing intellectually humiliating about writing clearly.”

Our education in writing has stressed the complicated over the simple. But good writing is not decoration; it invites a reader to belong to something significant through the clear expression of original ideas. Sometimes we use that decoration to hide the absence of an original idea. Worse yet, we believe that this decoration is equal to if not more important than the idea(s) conveyed. Thus, good academic writing requires the accomplishment of a two-fold task. Chris Hedges (again) said it best with a second simple declaration: “It is not enough to write well; you have to have something to say.”

In sum, it takes practice to improve as a writer, and that practice can at times be difficult and frustrating. But however frustrated and difficult you may find the task of writing, if you are invested in it and write around ideas you care about, your writing will move you to a place of deeper understanding—not just as a writer but as a person of the world. When you write more, you begin to notice more, and when you begin to notice more, your world takes on a whole new depth of meaning. That’s worth something, isn’t it?

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