It is safe to say that completing an undergraduate degree in literature helped my academic writing skills. It also taught me to be verbose, use hefty words where more straightforward words might do, and always obfuscate instead of clarify (and make sure to use "obfuscate" at least once per paper).
During my degree program, we read literary works by authors like Melville, Dickens, Wallace Stevens, Henry James and Wordsworth.
These are undeniably great writers.
But, for the most part, the external rewards (i.e. grades) went to those students who could emulate a certain lofty academic style.
During my 4 years at university, I only had 2 professors who zeroed in on the true purpose of a worthwhile English course: developing the skills to think and write clearly and persuasively.
One of these instructors took the introduction to a long-winded essay that I had written, crossed out all of the useless words that I had used to fill the page, and circled part of a sentence.
"This idea is where you should start." he said.
He did two commendable things. He saw through my act of dressing up the paper with clever diction, and he cut straight to the heart of the idea that was worth expressing.
Looking at the published work of some of my other professors, it was evident that the game of producing complex, arcane writing permeated much of academia. It seemed that there were was some kind of unspoken rule that the more clever and difficult the writing, the more it belonged in the university context.
I was younger and more naive and idealistic then. So, I adopted the elevated language of the tribe, and didn't pay much attention to the professor who tried to teach me to write simply and concisely.
I was missing a vital piece of the puzzle:
Sure, I aspired to complete my degree, but that was extrinsic motivation. A carrot at the end of a very long stick.
I was missing a goal for the practice, the process, the growth of my abilities. So now, I am making up for lost time. Instead of writing offhandedly, I am writing with a direct sense of intention.
My goal now is to think and write clearly.
Which leads me to an important question: how do you actually begin to think and write more clearly?
You practice thinking clearly and writing clearly. You use simple words instead of complicated ones. You follow George Orwell's rules for writing. You play the one syllable game to get to the meat and potatoes of the ideas at hand.
It all seems deceptively simple. But it works.
You can improve the quality and clarity of your writing and thinking the same way a runner shaves off a tenth of a second at a time from her 100 metre dash, or the way a pianist works on her speed and consistency when playing the D flat major scale.
Focusing on the process while remaining clear on your goals is not only a surefire way to get better at writing and thinking. These tools work on anything you want to get better at.
And the wonderful news is that thinking clearly will result in a positive feedback loop, which will allow you to apply ideas more deliberately to whatever else you want to achieve.
What routines will allow you to practice thinking and writing clearly? What do you want your process to look like?
The bottom line is: you are in the driver's seat. You get to decide.