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Originally published on Medium
Aggregated advice from the best books on how to write
I read two of the best books on writing. On Writing by Stephen King, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Looks like Zinsser was playing a joke on King, but Zinsser published first. There goes my joke.
Here are the main points to keep in mind. All quotes, unless attributed are from William Zinsser.
“ Most articles you write contain a lot of fluff”, says Zinsser.
“ Not mine”, thought my inner voice. Re-reading my first draft, I had to admit.
You can cut down an article by 30% and lose nothing but words.
“Presently, Currently, At this point in time” are all cluttering up the word “now”.
“With the possible exception of” is cluttering up “except”
“Due to the fact that” is cluttering up “because”
“They totally lacked the ability to” is cluttering up “They couldn’t”
“For the purpose of” is cluttering up “for”
Clutter shows up frequently in official writing unfortunately — perhaps to sound important. The aim is to get the point across. Don’t make your readers look for the point through the garbage.
Bad writing comes from fear. Fear your reader won’t understand. So you overwrite. You add too many words. — Stephen King
Say it like it is
It’s the language of the flight attendant demonstrating the oxygen mask that will drop down if the plane should run out of air. “In the unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality,” she begins — a phrase so oxygen-depriving in itself that we are prepared for any disaster.
You don’t need to garnish your prose.
You lose your identity trying to ape someone else’s.
If the ingredients are good — you’ll end up with a great dish. Keep it simple. Add soy sauce to fresh tomato ketchup — you’ll end up with a mess nobody understands.
“Are you experiencing any pain?” or _“Does it hurt?” — _what do you use when you speak?
Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. If you’re not a person who says “indeed” or “moreover,” or who calls someone an individual (“he’s a fine individual”), please don’t write it.
The guiding question to avoid clutter: Do you say it like you write it?
Work like an artist
Artists first deconstruct their subject into spheres, cylinders and cubes. Then they make sure these objects align. Then, they look at each sphere, cylinder, cube and refine it further — to match their idea of the subject.
Instead of trying to write a masterpiece in one try, work in drafts.
Their spheres, cylinders and cubes are your paragraphs. Get the idea in place. Make sure all spheres and cubes align — your paragraphs must flow from one to the next, establishing your ideas. You’ll fix the language later.
This way, you don’t get blocked looking for the perfect paragraph, and can continue following your trail of thought.
You become confident in putting down words on paper because you know it isn’t the final piece. Not yet. You’ll come back to it again, refining it till you get the masterpiece.
It is the same with writing code. You don’t begin with the masterpiece. You begin with a vertical slice— functionality from end to end. Then you improve it.
The best way to go about this? Rewriting.
Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
These texts below are more valuable than any masterpiece.
You wouldn’t create your best writing on the first draft — as we saw in writing like an artist. Here’s the crucial step of refining it via rewrites.
An example of how Zinsser would do it
The original writing, with comments:
There used to be a time when neighbors took care of one another, he remembered. [Put “he remembered” first to establish reflective tone.] It no longer seemed to happen that way, however. [The contrast supplied by “however” must come first. Start with “But.” Also establish America locale.] He wondered if it was because everyone in the modern world was so busy. [All these sentences are the same length and have the same soporific rhythm; turn this one into a question?] It occurred to him that people today have so many things to do that they don’t have time for old-fashioned friendship. [Sentence essentially repeats previous sentence; kill it or warm it up with specific detail.] Things didn’t work that way in America in previous eras. [Reader is still in the present; reverse the sentence to tell him he’s now in the past. “America” no longer needed if inserted earlier.] And he knew that the situation was very different in other countries, as he recalled from the years when he lived in villages in Spain and Italy. [Reader is still in America. Use a negative transition word to get him to Europe. Sentence is also too flabby. Break it into two sentences?] It almost seemed to him that as people got richer and built their houses farther apart they isolated themselves from the essentials of life. [Irony deferred too long. Plant irony early. Sharpen the paradox about richness.] And there was another thought that troubled him. [This is the real point of the paragraph; signal the reader that it’s important. Avoid weak “there was” construction.] His friends had deserted him when he needed them most during his recent illness. [Reshape to end with “most”; the last word is the one that stays in the reader’s ear and gives the sentence its punch. Hold sickness for next sentence; it’s a separate thought.] It was almost as if they found him guilty of doing something shameful. [Introduce sickness here as the reason for the shame. Omit “guilty”; it’s implicit.] “He recalled reading somewhere about societies in primitive parts of the world in which sick people were shunned, though he had never heard of any such ritual in America. [Sentence starts slowly and stays sluggish and dull. Break it into shorter units. Snap off the ironic point.]
He remembered that neighbors used to take care of one another. But that no longer seemed to happen in America. Was it because everyone was so busy? Were people really so preoccupied with their television sets and their cars and their fitness programs that they had no time for friendship? In previous eras that was never true. Nor was it how families lived in other parts of the world. Even in the poorest villages of Spain and Italy, he recalled, people would drop in with a loaf of bread. An ironic idea struck him: as people got richer they cut themselves off from the richness of life. But what really troubled him was an even more shocking fact. The time when his friends deserted him was the time when he needed them most. By getting sick he almost seemed to have done something shameful. He knew that other societies had a custom of “shunning” people who were very ill. But that ritual only existed in primitive cultures. Or did it?
This is one of the best practical how-to’s on rewrite I found on the web—
Choose your words
You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. The English language is rich in strong and supple words. Take the time to root around and find the ones you want.
This is a good opportunity to get clarity on your idea.
If you find a list of synonyms, but not all of them fit, ask yourself Why not? What subtle aspect of your idea are you missing that makes the synonym not fit in.
Hear the melody
When you’re reading, you’re hearing yourself speak. Words that flow make beautiful prose.
Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls”
Times like these try men’s souls.
How trying it is to live in these times!
These are trying times for men’s souls.
Soulwise, these are trying times.
Yes, a poem isn’t the only writing full of rhymes.
Take some thyme. Thynk about it. But don’t overdo it.
Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight. Unity not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies your readers’ subconscious need for order and reassures them that all is well at the helm.
This is the most important idea Zinsser introduced me to.
There are several kind of unities:
Unity of pronoun — are you writing in the first person, as a participant, or in the third person, as an observer? or in the second person?
Unity means sticking to the pronoun you chose.
Unity of tense — don’t lose your time zone. If you were speaking about the past, stay in the past — till you use contrast to bring the reader back to the present.
Unity means sticking to the tense you’re in.
Unity of mood — are you writing about something sad? Is the next sentence turning the mood — without any warnings?
Contrast when the mood changes. Don’t wait for the reader to figure it out towards the end of the sentence. This generates friction.
Is there something the reader should have been told early in the sentence that you put near the end? Does he know when he starts sentence B that you’ve made a shift — of subject, tense, tone, emphasis — from sentence A?
Instead of controlling your material, your material is controlling you. That wouldn’t happen if you took time to establish certain unities
Questions to establish unity
In what capacity am I going to address the reader? (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?)
What pronoun and tense am I going to use? What style? (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?)
What attitude am I going to take toward the material? (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?)
How much do I want to cover? What one point do I want to make?
Decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude. Some points are best made by earnestness, some by dry understatement, some by humor.
Be precise with your verbs
Many verbs also carry in their imagery or in their sound a suggestion of what they mean: glitter, dazzle, twirl, beguile, scatter, swagger, poke, pamper, vex. Probably no other language has such a vast supply of verbs so bright with color. Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work.
It’s the difference between “stepped down” and “fired” or “resign”. One communicates exactly what happened, the other leads to the same outcome — through an imprecise path.
‘I carried the body’ is stronger than ‘The body was carried’. —Stephen King
This is something the Hemingway app will scream at you for. Use it to find out where you might be straggling.
Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of “quotes” you can weave into it as you go along. Often you’ll find yourself embarking on an article so apparently lifeless — the history of an institution, or some local issue such as storm sewers — that you will quail at the prospect of keeping your readers, or even yourself, awake.
In such a case, find the missing “I”; the person involved in the story. Being personal can make your writing come alive.
Writers are obviously at their most natural when they write in the first person. Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.
The final tip
Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear — their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.
Of course, their words or mine aren’t law — you’ve got to figure out what works for you. Good luck.
If you’d like to read the books, here they are. Affiliate links.
You might also like
- Algorithms to Live By
- A framework for first principles thinking
- How to escape mediocrity