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Those of us eager to improve our writing can find help from all kinds of sources.

I recently watched a TV interview with the composer, musician and singer Paul Simon by the "CBS Late Night" host, Stephen Colbert. Colbert asked Simon to describe his process of writing music and lyrics: Is he a perfectionist?

Simon pondered a bit before explaining that, in creating a song, he writes a part he decides is really good; another part that's pretty good; and something else that's just OK. Then, he says, he looks at the just-OK part, and he decides he hates it.

He punctuates his description with this gem: "The ear goes to the irritant."

Such a lyrical way to identify a problem; I wish Simon would write a song with that line in it. To hear or see a problem is to establish a base from which to solve it.

As soon as Simon spoke that line, I felt the excitement of recognition. Just as his ear goes to the irritant, so does mine — when I remember to read aloud what I have written.

And when I read anything, my coaching eye goes to the error. Errors leap off the page.

One of my Colorado College students called me negative, for pointing out every error in students' writing. I told him I wasn't being negative, I was being positive, by identifying problems we can fix; to achieve strength and clarity, by using words, sentences and paragraphs that say precisely what we mean.

Looking for help? Seek the advice of such great writers as William Zinsser, George V. Higgins and Stephen King.

Read the book "Keys to Great Writing," by Stephen Wilbers, the man who for 25 years produced the Star Tribune's column on writing well.

Now, here's my annual homage to the master, Joseph Conrad, who set this priceless standard:

"My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more — and it is everything."

Gary Gilson can be reached through