MihirChronicles

NotesBooksLinksWorkArtMe

On Writing

06 September, 2020 - 116 min read


[Last Revised: 11/11/2022]

The underlying motivation for the piece stemmed from my personal hobby of reading. This led to fiddling with unstructured thoughts and ideas. It was hard for them to stick.

Writing became a necessary step to fix the problem.

Writing broadens your mind by turning abstraction such as intuition and ideas into concrete words. You are full of fuzzy ideas that are strongly supported by your intuition. However, intuition isn't a tool. It is a gut feeling. Intuition fuels your biased decisions. Turning intuition into tools means understanding their origins, limitations and how they interact with other ideas.

The tool available on hand is called writing. Why use such a tool? It is because writing is an investigative tool to explore your thought process.

Turning ideas into words supported by logical thinking will crystallize your ideas. Writing allows you to think about ideas more rationally by deliberately while questioning its origins and limitations. Writing extends memory and clarifies thinking which then can help you narrate well. Writing is another form of art which requires deep and clear thinking.

Writing helps you win. How? The person who can best formulate ideas can relay the best argument. Writing also preserves truth. It allows you to have profound and original ideas at your fingertip. Writing helps you sharpen your capacity to think, debate from first principles approach, and present intelligently. Writing prevents you from falling prey to fads and ideologies. It removes distraction.

The most complex hierarchies such as law, medicine, business, politics or academics require breaking down the complex theories into a simpler form. At this level of competency, you are required to communicate well by defending your strategy in business, economic policy in politics or thesis in academia research. Thus, well formulated thoughts become necessary and valuable to persuade your audience.

Lastly, exposing writing to others will question your intent and thought process. There is no better way to get feedback. The more you write and share, the more feedback you'll receive creating a positive feedback loop.

Some of the things I think, I find don’t make any sense when I start trying to write them down. You ought to be able to explain why you’re taking the job you’re taking, why you’re making the investment you’re making, or whatever it may be. And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more. — Warren Buffett

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard. — David McCullough

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. — Einstein

As a writer you should not judge. You should understand. — Ernest Hemingway

The pen is mightier than the sword. — Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Trivium

A clear sentence depends upon trivium. The discipline of logic, rhetoric and grammar, known collectively as trivium. Let's break them down.

  1. Logical perspective is an expository prose based on factual language. It is the product of your thinking. This requires critical thinking, collecting facts and reason from first principles. Logical perspective demands two questions:

    • What exactly are you talking about?
    • What exactly are you saying about it?
  2. Rhetoric style depends on what words you use and how you design your sentences. Designing your sentence depends upon logic.
  3. Grammar is the foundation upon which both logic and rhetoric rest. This one is notorious because you can confuse rules with regulations. The writer, like craftsman, works with the rules, and violates them when he or she must insightfully.

    • A regulation is an order for which you can see no real reason.
    • A rule is a requirement based on reason.

The discipline of logical and rhetorical are actually at odds with each other because one appeals to your reason and the other on your emotions. The conscientious writer or speaker will know the rules of grammar, understand the requirements of clear thinking, and constantly aware of the effects of a particular style. How to orchestrate these 3 creative forces is the job upon you.

Purpose driven writing

You must define your purpose for writing. For example, I want to understand capitalism. This purpose becomes the center of the universe when exploring the topic. You should let go of sentences or ideas that has nothing to do with the topic. Vagueness causes confusion. To create a bond with a reader, you need to stay ultra-focused on your purpose otherwise it will break the bond. If you start diverging from the original topic, it is time to rethink about the purpose.

For brevity, try to have one purpose for each sentence. But don't overkill on making your sentences so pure that they are boring or too dry to read. Narrative is as important as purpose to capture reader's attention. I'll address stylistic choices later for more fluid narrative. However, each sentence, paragraph and the essay should relentlessly focus on only one purpose.

Use titles to define your purpose.

Titles are important. If anytime you feel diverged, titles can be a good reminder of your purpose. If you can't understand your topic, your reader will most likely feel the same. Using something like “Systems, Free Society & Economy” can be dangerous because it does not allow a reader to understand the purpose of your writing. The title is so vague here. It is impossible to tell which type of systems or which free society. A better title could be “Capitalism and its role in America.” This will draw readers who are interested in understanding capitalism and its role in American economy. It is clear and concise.

Disadvantages of purpose.

There are circumstances when you have to explore beyond the boundaries of your purpose. You might be exploring topic A and B. But the topic B does not fit into topic A. This creates uncertainty and does not allow for singular purpose. During this emotional roller coaster, you may feel your exploration on topic B is a wasted effort since it does not tie into topic A. These doubts must be resisted because now you have a better understanding of a topic from different viewpoints. Perhaps, a better alternative is to review your purpose again.

Research

How to gather information on a topic you want to write about?

  • Use your experience and imagination to write. Go back to a moment when you were star struck. Share those experiences with your readers if they are relevant to your topic. The latter is always great for story telling which captures the reader's attention. Use your experiences by sharing a story.
  • Use first principles approach to find the universal laws of your topic. Reasoning from first principles will get you the most basic and foundational facts. It will remove the impurity of assumptions and biases. The idea is to break down the complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. Therefore, as a writer, it should be your obligation to keep trying until you get to the bottom of your topic and gather all evidence and facts.
  • Always invert because this will prevent you from being blindsided with one-sided opinion. Great thinkers and writers do this really well! For example, an inversion of advantages of capitalism can be what are the disadvantages of capitalism?
  • Use multidisciplinary approach to find how the topic is relevant in other fields. This can be simply by googling, “what is the relevance of X in the field ABC?” For example, how adaptive system such as survival of the fittest in biology and capitalism in economics are related to each other?
  • Run short experiments and tests by stress testing a set of data to derive a conclusion from the study. Running a short study should give you a direction on where to take your research. You should gather data from credible resources. Keep in mind, you are not a data analyst so don't spiral yourself into analysis paralysis. This step is to ensure that you have done your homework. Relying on other academic research should also be sufficient.

By now, you may also feel you are running out of ideas. What do you do when ideas stop flowing?

The simplest answer is to read more and research more. If you can't brain dump your ideas then there is nothing to share. In such a situation, don't pride yourself with know-it-all or coming up with excuses such as writer's block. Instead, go to a local library to read and research more. Ask your local librarian for book and publication recommendations on the topic you are writing about. Ask yourself two key questions to continue exploring and researching further:

  • What are key supporting points for your argument?
  • What are key arguments points for your topic?

In our case on the topic of capitalism:

  • Supporting point: State why capitalism is given such importance in western world?
  • Supporting point: Explore why capitalism is not working today for middle class.
  • Argument point: Predict how America would be different without capitalism.
  • Supporting point: Explore the biases found in 1% of wealthy population to continue supporting capitalism.
  • Argument point: State why China's system is prosperous today?

Ensure during this process note-taking is productive.

Highlighting is overrated. Instead, practice learning mindfully. How? Summarize each section of your publication or each chapter of your book. This step of exploring really enables you to apply rigor to understanding what you have just read. By doing this, you put your brain to work which will help you remember and expand your memory. Always read with a pen or pencil, so you can take notes right away. Putting this aside will only make you push the can further down the road. These are all good mental hygiene practices.

If you don't understand something, re-read those sentences again, but slowly and deeply. As you read, ask yourself, what does the author mean here? What were his intentions? What is the key point the author is trying to convey? Scribble away in margins as you answer these questions. This is called critical thinking by asking rigorous questions. Only by picking sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters apart, you can learn writer's intentions.

By now, you should have gathered enough material to move forward. Create a skeleton of your essay by outlining your key topics. An outline gives form and structure to your essay. Below is an example of an outline on capitalism:

  • Topic: What is capitalism?

    • Definitions from different sources
    • Are there any variations of capitalism found?
  • History

    • Where did it origin from?
    • When did capitalism develop?
    • What were the early days?
    • How has it evolved?
  • Multidisciplinary approach to link concepts together

    • Darwinian evolutionary theory
    • Laissez-faire
  • Why capitalism?

    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism?

      • What are the shortcomings of capitalism?

        • Unequal distribution
        • Pollution and other externalized costs
      • What are major achievements found in capitalistic economies?

        • Wealth generation
        • Technological advancement
        • Personal freedom
    • Private sector and public sector roles in capitalism
  • What are other alternatives and their consequences?

    • Fascism
    • Communism
    • Socialism

      • How has socialism played out in modern economics?

        • China (prosperous)
        • Venezuela (decline)
  • Future enhancements to capitalism

    • Is capitalism our best option available for economic prosperity?
    • Can capitalism uplift all or the weakest will always suffer?

      • What are some moral issues associated with capitalism?
    • An opinion on few things we can enhance within the system.
  • Conclusion
  • References & Bibliography

Once you have listed your key topics, take a moment to examine your outline. Ask yourself, what is still needed to convincingly and logically tie your points together? Ask yourself the two key questions we asked earlier to continue exploring and researching further:

  • What are key supporting points for your argument?
  • What are key inversion points for your topic?

Writing takes cognitive load which introduces writer's block. But it can be less taxing if you go after incremental wins. Use radically simple sentences and do not worry about grammatical syntax. The goal is to pen down whatever comes to your mind. Write basic ideas about the topic you already know. It is okay to sound elementary. For example, let's explore capitalism. For example, Capitalism is a free market. Capitalism is an economic system. America is built on capitalism.

Pretend you are writing a letter to someone either asking questions or explaining what you know. You should choose a person who you admire the most and pretend you are having a conversation with that person. This will bring forth your natural flow and tone. Writing this way will raise several questions which will make it easy to gather information when you start researching more. For example, Dear person, I want to explore what capitalism is and the implications of the economic system on our modern society. I understand capitalism is not perfect but is it the only system that works the best out of all the options available? If that is true, then how is China prospering built on socialist economic system?

Do not worry about polishing or editing your material just yet. Keep going! Do not worry about the length of your piece. The goal is to write down everything you know. Reading and research will come later.

First draft

When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you re-write it, you write it for everyone else. — Stephen King.

Once you feel confident about your well-thought-out outline, write sentences per outline heading to complete your paragraph. Do not follow any prescribed length for the number of sentences here. Use your notes that you gathered during the information gathering. Don’t worry too much about how well you are writing at this point including grammar, form or voice. With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence during your first draft.

And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every supporting point. Just enjoy writing. Think of your writing process as multiple stages.

The first stage is called the production stage. This is when you write your first draft. The purpose of the first draft is to produce paragraphs quick and dirty using your notes. Continue filling out the outline headings until you feel you have covered all key supporting points. You have now finished your production stage.

The second stage is called polishing stage. This is when you edit your content. They can be broken down into many drafts addressing clarity, grammar and voice.

Second draft

Remember in school, you were asked to write a 10-page essay? Classroom instructors force students to go on a tangent by going at maximum length to explain a topic. Students would be forced to think if instructors demanded their students to explain US Constitution in no more than two pages. The primary reason to write an essay is to formulate and organize informed and logical set of ideas about something important. However, it is not to test whether a student can write a 10-page essay on a given topic. Anyone can ramble!

Brevity is the ultimate soul of wit. Use fewer words and simple sentences because readers have no tolerance for rambling. Use fewer ideas per sentence. A paragraph should present a single idea by using short and concise sentences. Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words such as “however” or “thus” so that the reader can focus on the main message. Make your point and get out of their way. A good writing convey purpose with clarity. Occam's razor law applies not just to science but also to writing. The law states that given two paragraphs which convey almost the same meaning, the shorter paragraph is always better. But clarity is the hardest task to achieve. Coaching and constant practice can minimize and manage the problem, but never quite eliminate it. As Mark Twain said:

You can straighten a worm, but the crook is in him and only waiting.

Once you feel comfortable with your first draft, it is time to revise by cutting, rewriting, avoiding clichés, applying first person rules, avoiding passive voice, using caution with adverbs and using proper punctuations. Repeat the process until the clearest statements are achieved!

Cutting

Anything that can be said can be said clearly. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Slice every paragraph by each sentence and place it on its own line. The purpose of this step is to analyze each sentence in its isolation to explore an opportunity to cut words out. The point of cutting your writing isn’t to make it shorter. The point of cutting it is to make it better.

Keep track of your word count before and after. This will make you realize how much verbose it was than necessary. Cut, cut more and cut it again and again. Use minimalism to achieve clarity. Below are a few examples on how to cut.

  • When you cut your writing, you want to know that nothing else is to getting in.
  • While you are writing, ask Ask yourself, is it possible to preserve the original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Cut extra words or commas out whenever you can.
  • If you feel, you cannot cut, you are fooling yourself. The weather forecast calls for rainy conditions. It will probably rain.
  • Keep searching for sentences to kill. Cut until it hurts, and beyond. Kill sentences until it hurts.
  • Find sentences with multiple clauses that run on and on ,saying more than you need to, and confusing the heck out of your readers.
  • Slaughter every single adverb. You probably, do not actually need them because they are really pointless.
  • Slaughter clichés. A serious crisis. If a crisis isn’t serious, what is it? Or “mounting, incredible, interesting concerns/mounting, incredible, interesting pressure/mounting, incredible, interesting evidence.” Everything seems to be “mounting, incredible or interesting” nowadays.
  • Write comprehensibly clearly at a vocabulary level you have mastered so others can understand.
  • When writers use these rephrases, “In other words” or “That is to say” or “Put another way”, it is often a red flag. Say something once, why explain it again? Are you not confident in your original statement that you have to explain it again?

Don't italicize or use “quotations” to emphasize your arguments. If what you’re saying is important, you don’t need fonts or punctuation marks to prove it. And if what you’re saying isn’t important, no amount of italics or quotation marks can make it so. If what you’re saying can’t speak for itself, why are you speaking for it? If you really need to drive your points home, you can bold them.

Rewriting

The essence of rewriting is destruction. Cutting is bloody, but rewriting is destructive, because it requires brutal self-examination after you already put all that work into striving for perfection. Rewrite your sentences to be more precise (short and simple) and meaningful. Let go of whatever you love the most. Great writers don’t try to fix their own work but they try to destroy it. As Samuel Johnson, who set the standard for English prose in the 18th century, advised:

Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Check out Mark Twain's destroying his work. He chops his writing a few times until he violently crosses out his writing with two giant X’s over it. He commands himself to, “Give it up.”

Check out the revised manuscript(from the manuscript collection of the Morgan Library) of the novel Eugénie Grandet, by the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac. Blazac stood in the print shop while the printing of his novel was in progress. He yanked each page off to accommodate revision of his existing work. Notice how he glued sections of torn paper onto the revised manuscript. He is self-examining his work brutally till the last minute. This is the work of craftsmanship.

When you buy a novel, you're not paying for the words the author put on the page. You're paying for the heavy lifting the author did to remove the unnecessary ones. — Dan Brown

To examine each sentence, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Logic: what didn’t you agree with in your sentence?
  • Clarity: what is unclear about your sentence?
  • Interest: what is boring in your sentence?
  • Brevity: what is not necessary in your sentence?
  • Expansion: what unanswered questions were left out in your sentence?

Rewrite in a way that you are explaining a complex topic to a ten-year-old. The complexity of your writing should emerge from the strength of its ideas, not from how those ideas are worded. Remember to not drop key information while simplifying. By removing grammatical overhead, the underlying point stands out.‍

Let’s rewrite a paragraph without unnecessary words: To be brief on the sentence-level, you should remove filler words that don’t add necessary context to the sentence. This isn't intuitive to novice writers: extra words cause readers to unwittingly slow down and do extra work while reading. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s true point. Reading many extra words is also a chore for your brain. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.

  • Take 1: To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you exhaust readers, they quit reading.
  • Take 2: Your sentence is brief when no additional words can be removed. Being succinct is important because filler buries your talking points and bores readers into quitting.

Third Draft

Third draft is mostly centered around following hard rules and grammar.

Avoid cliches

“Going south” or “taking a nosedive” or “the only game in town” or “I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole” or “shoot first” or “ask questions later” are all examples of clichés. Clichés grow like viruses and spread like wildfire. This is not called writing but your fingers aimlessly moving and typing.

A cliché is any wording that springs automatically to mind and types itself, as if it has kidnapped your hands. — Jason Zweig

Some clichés get so overused that people have to introduce the enhanced version of those. Consider how often people use “unchartered waters“ in place of “uncharted waters,” or “the 800-pound elephant in the room” instead of “the 800-pound gorilla.” Reinventing these cliches with another animal is not thinking but aimlessly walking in the park.

Politicians tend to do this really well. See some more examples here.

First-person rules

“I think this, I know that, I feel like, trust me, myself and I” are endless echo of me me me and more me. First person is often utilized poorly among new writers. Writing in first person prevents you to stay independent and unbiased. You can get away with writing in the first person under two conditions:

  • You are a vastly experienced and successful writer with profound expertise in your subject, or
  • You poke fun at yourself.

Regarding the redundancy of “I” or any of the first-person pronouns, it is a matter of writing style. But if you want to adopt a writing style that does not sound biased, avoid first-person pronouns.

Avoid passive voices

According to Wikipedia, “In the passive voice the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the doer) of the action denoted by the verb.” Let's review some of the most obvious examples from YourDictionary.com that are easily overlooked:

  • Passive: At dinner, six shrimp were eaten by Harry.
  • Active: Harry ate six shrimp at dinner.
  • Passive: The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes.
  • Active: Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah.
  • Passive: The flat tire was changed by Sue.
  • Active: Sue changed the flat tire.
  • Passive: A movie is going to be watched by us tonight.
  • Active: We are going to watch a movie tonight.
  • Passive: The obstacle course was run by me in record time.
  • Active: I ran the obstacle course in record time.
  • Passive: It was a thrill for me to meet her.
  • Active: I was thrilled to meet her.

You would never write something like “A movie is going to be watched by us tonight.” YourDictionary.com implies that all passive structures hinge on various forms of the verb to be: am, is, was, were. If only! Getting rid of the passive voice is not a breeze. Passive language is the plague within you that infests your writing like how microbes infests your gut. This type of writing is a reflection of you.

Let's dissect an example by picking it apart: There is a growing number of people who find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.

The “there is a” is unnecessary. It’s one of the most common, and annoying, crutches of passive language. Once you develop the habit of recognizing “there is” as passive language that serves no purpose, you will be able to look at “There was somebody at the door” and automatically edit it to “Somebody was at the door.”

Let's revise our original example: A growing number of people find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.

Did something odd just happen? Do you notice that, without the “There is,” the “A growing number of people” looks exposed somehow? Before, we might have read right through it or past it. Now, without the vague illusion of authority imposed by “There is a,” we want to know, how many people? How fast is that number growing? The writer who wrote that sentence didn't know either otherwise he or she wouldn't leave it to the reader to figure it out. Writers resort to passive wording when they are actively trying to hide something. The thing they are trying to hide is usually their ignorance.

To concern, to happen, to involve, to occur, to represent, to mark, to illustrate, to symbolize, to signify, are called “distancing verbs.” Used like this, they insert a superficial buffer between the subject of a sentence and the action. They don’t meet the classic definition of “passive,” but they are passive. They can turn a good, direct sentence into a lame and halting mess.

Let's cover more examples:

  • The formation of the new government occurred after the rebels…
  • The debate between Democrats and Republicans concerns whether…
  • The misunderstanding among customers involved the price of…

Look more closely at those three examples. Do you see what they have in common? In each case, the writer has taken the logical choice for the verb that should drive the sentence and turned it into a noun, creating the need for a distancing verb that can barely pull its own weight. “Form” is a good, simple, direct verb that the writer has bloated into the noun chain of “the formation of,” which then necessitates the addition of “occurred.” In the next example, “debate” (as a verb) becomes “the debate” (as a noun) “between.” In the last one, “misunderstand” becomes “the misunderstanding among.”

In each case, the distancing verb is irrelevant. Turn the noun structure back into an active verb and then kill the distancing verb:

  • Passive: The formation of the new government occurred after the rebels…
  • Active: The rebels formed the new government after they…
  • Passive: The debate between Democrats and Republicans concerns whether…
  • Active: Democrats and Republicans are debating whether…
  • Passive: The misunderstanding among the customers involved the price of…
  • Active: The customers misunderstood the price of…

In a similar failure, some verbs feel active but fade into passivity in the wrong hands. Look what happens to the energetic verb “to stem” in this sentence: One reason why the struggling retail chain survived for years stemmed from the fact that consumers couldn’t find cheaper prices elsewhere.

What is this junk about “one reason” that “stemmed from the fact that”? The reason didn’t stem from anything! To make the sentence active, do this: The struggling retail chain survived for years because consumers couldn’t find cheaper prices elsewhere.

That makes the sentence a full 33% shorter, much clearer, and much more active. It also makes it say what the writer means. A subtle form of passive language is hard to spot but easy to fix. For example: The President said Congress was likely to approve the bill by Tuesday, despite many members of both houses being away from the nation’s capital for the long holiday weekend.

That “despite…being” or “despite [VERB]-ing” structure is common as dust and just as appealing. So far as I can tell, it’s become common because so many people refuse to write the simplest of all verbs: is, was, and were. Kill the “despite,” and you get: The President said Congress was likely to approve the bill by Tuesday, though many members of both houses are away from the nation’s capital for the long holiday weekend.

It’s simpler, cleaner, and more active. Writing better is all about paying attention to the smallest details. If you don’t treat each word with exquisite care, you can’t improve. Most people handle words as if they were pennies: light, cheap, dispensable. Instead, handle them as if they were 45-pound weights in the gym. Think before you pick them up. Look before you put them down. Make sure you choose the right one and put it in the right place. Words shouldn’t be cheap to you.

Have you made the logic of action in each sentence as simple and direct as possible? Is it clear who or what is the cause and who or what is affected? Are you tying unneeded words to the ankles of the subjects and objects of the sentence? Are you letting verbs do their work, or are you treating them as if they can’t move without crutches and canes?

Caution with adverbs

Mark Twain disliked them:

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me….this is her demon, the adverb is mine….I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more, I won’t.

Stephen King dislikes them:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day...fifty the day after that...and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.

It isn’t that adverbs are never necessary. It’s that they are so rarely necessary and so often misused. They are intentionally abused. Adverbs are often a signal that someone is trying to deceive or manipulate you. At a minimum, adverbs should put you on notice as a reader that the evidence isn’t convincing enough to hold itself up without an adverbial crutch.

Look at the following example: He is truly a legend in his own time.

Now parse it by deleting the adverb and using basic skills of critical thinking to interrogate what’s left of the sentence: He is truly a legend in his own time.

  • According to whom?
  • What does it mean to be a “legend in your own time”?
  • Who measures or determines how famous you have to be to qualify?
  • If the person is as famous as you imply, why do you have to remind your readers that he’s a legend?
  • And isn’t “legend in his own time” just a cliché anyway?

The adverb, intended to convince you without supporting evidence, is the weakest link in the sentence. Yank it out, and the whole sentence comes apart and falls clanking to the ground. “Truly” is there as marketing, not meaning, to get you to suspend your disbelief about something that is at best unproven (or unprovable) and at worst untrue.

A sign in the window of the restaurant declaring “TRULY THE BEST PIZZA IN TOWN” is telling you to prepare for a bad case of indigestion.

When you remove adverbs such as “really,” “truly,” “actually,” or “literally,” you force yourself to justify the verb and ask if you need those modifiers in the first place. If the verb is not strong enough, pick a stronger verb. For example, you can swap out verb such as “dislike” with a stronger verb, “hate.”

Concrete adverbs, such as wildly or coldly, inject specificity into sentences. Conceptual adverbs like truly or really drain the vividness out of sentences, replacing it with unsubstantiated claims you have to take on faith alone.

I literally died laughing. No, you didn't!

Punctuation

There is loss of clarity when misusing punctuation and marks the writers as someone who doesn’t pay attention to detail.

Periods: If you can, use a period instead of a comma or a hyphen. Never use a comma or a hyphen if using a period in its place wouldn’t change the sentence’s intended meaning. Following this rule will help you avoid several grammar mistakes. Consider these examples:

  • Incorrect: I don’t know why he’s singing, he’s next-level awful.
  • Incorrect: I’m not a liar, I just don’t respect the truth.
  • Incorrect: I have a hunch that you rollerblade, am I right?
  • Incorrect: Why would you smack a badger, that’s dangerous.

Read through those sentences once more. This time, imagine replacing each comma or hyphen with a period. The statements continue to read perfectly, right? The sentences’ meanings don’t change at all, right? Awesome. Then use that period instead of the comma/hyphen and you’ve just confidently avoided improper comma usage! (I’m not going to dive into how it is that you’re avoiding punctuation errors because that would necessitate a discussion on clauses, and I want to keep this guide short.) Here are the fixed examples:

  • Correct: I don’t know why he’s singing. He’s next-level awful.
  • Correct: I’m not a liar. I just don’t respect the truth.
  • Correct: I have a hunch that you rollerblade. Am I right?
  • Correct: Why would you smack a badger? That’s dangerous.

The takeaway is that unless you’re an experienced writer, train yourself to always take a second look whenever you use a comma or a hyphen. Ask yourself, “Can I replace this with a period?” If so, do it. This is the most important comma rule.

Commas: They denote a pause in speaking. Speak the sentence aloud to find pauses. You need a comma around a word located at the extreme end of a sentence that addresses someone being spoken to.

  • Correct: Matt, you eat way too many pimply pickles.
  • Correct: Why do you keep flicking my belly button, Matt?

In both examples, the person being spoken to is referenced at either extreme end of the sentence. Notice that the word used to address the person (e.g. “Matt”) is separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Always do this. If you don’t, you could run into the following problem:

  • Confusing: Let’s eat grandpa.
  • Very clear: Let’s eat, grandpa.
  • Confusing: Where’s the kitchen Matt?
  • Very clear: Where’s the kitchen, Matt?

What nonsense? You don't eat grandpa. Notice how the above two sentences have entirely different meanings based on the presence of a comma. The confusing example can be mistaken for, “Where is the kitchen mat [that I stand on while cooking]?” as opposed to, “Hey, Matt, where exactly is the kitchen located?” Comma rules make up the bulk of this page. Because not knowing when to use a comma is the most common punctuation mistake.

You need a comma around a word located at the extreme end of a sentence that answers a question with a yes or no word.

  • Correct: Yeah, he smelled like rabies and burned sausage.
  • Correct: Correct, I’m still waiting for Santa Claus’ therapist.
  • Correct: I don’t know what you’re talking about, no.

In the above examples, a positive (“yes”, “yeah”, “sure”, “correct”, etc.) or negative (“no”, “nah”, “nope”, “incorrect”, etc.) word begins or ends the sentence. As when addressing someone, always separate the affirmative or negative word from the rest of the sentence using a comma. If you don’t, you could end up with confusion:

  • Confusing: No one is still here.
  • Clear: No, one is still here.

In the first example, you’re stating that nobody is here. In the second, you’re responding to a question in the negative (“no”) then clarifying that “one [person] is still here.”

In a list, use a comma before the final “and.” When you have a series of items separated by commas, ensure that you place a final comma (an “Oxford comma”) before and:

  • Correct: To my parents, Jeff Bridges, and Wonder Woman.
  • Incorrect: To my parents, Jeff Bridges and Wonder Woman.

In the correct example, you’re dedicating a book to your parents, and Jeff Bridges, and Wonder Woman. That’s three individual people. In the incorrect example, you’re dedicating a book to your parents who you’re then identifying as Jeff Bridges and Wonder Woman. The lack of a concluding comma inadvertently changes the entire meaning of your sentence.

Takeaway: At the end of a list of items, always use a comma before the final “and.”

Use a comma before introducing a question. Place a comma before introducing a question — regardless of whether the question is wrapped in quotation marks:

  • Correct: I’ve been wondering, Why is that turtle so nasty?
  • Incorrect: I’ve been wondering why is that turtle is so nasty?
  • Correct: He was wondering, “Where are my hands?

Also, capitalize the first letter of the question (e.g. the “W” in “Why”). In the first example, this helps delineate the question so that it's interpreted outside the context of the containing sentence.

Tip: Quotes only surround a question when you’re word-for-word quoting something that was said. If you’re instead hypothetically posing a question, as is the case in the first example, then quotes are not needed.

Don’t use a comma to represent vocal pauses. Commas serve many purposes, but representing arbitrary pauses in speech is not one of them. For example, this is not when you should use a comma:

  • Incorrect: It’s a tough day in a man’s life, when he finds out he’s a robot.
  • Correct: It’s a tough day in a man’s life when he finds out he’s a robot.

The above sentence might be spoken with a pause between the words “life” and “when” in order to provide dramatic effect, but a comma is the wrong form of punctuation to capture a pause. Instead, an ellipsis (…) would be appropriate:

  • Correct: It’s a tough day in a man’s life… when he finds out he’s a robot.

The easiest way to avoid misusing commas in this manner is to ask yourself if using the comma makes the sentence read like a haiku. If so, replace it with an ellipsis or drop it altogether.

This leads into the next rule.

Ellipses: An ellipsis is a trio of periods (…). Don’t use it—unless you're quoting someone. You rarely see it used in textbooks, because it’s the sign of a lazy writer failing to structure their thoughts so that they fall within the lines of more common punctuation. In essence, the writer is falling back on free-form speech patterns. Speaking of which, that's the one place it’s okay to use an ellipsis: inside a quote.

For example, she said to me, “Linda… You need to get rid of that damn cat.”

Above, the purpose of the ellipsis is to insert a dramatic pause reflecting how the quote was originally articulated.

Don’t use ellipses in formal writing. Only consider using them within quoted speech.

Semicolons: It’s really easy to use semicolons [;] incorrectly, so my advice is to not use them in the first place. After all, semicolons are rarely needed to help communicate a point. Since it would be pedantic to not at least provide you with one example of proper semicolon usage, I will show you the case where it’s difficult to misuse it: when you’re connecting two sentences that use different sets of words to express the same idea.

  • Correct: She’s not a good listener; I feel like I’m talking to myself.
  • Correct: I can’t stop thinking about my dog; she is everything to me.
  • Incorrect: Those pants are gross; they smell bad too.
  • Incorrect: That person looks like a hamster; he’s weird.

Notice how the correct examples use a semicolon to conjoin two sentiments that are essentially making the same point but from different perspectives. (Sometimes this is desired for the purposes of emphasis.) This is when you would use a semicolon.

In contrast, notice how the incorrect examples use a semicolon to conjoin two sentiments that convey complementary but not redundant information. “That person looks like a hamster” is one sentiment. “He’s weird,” although perhaps related in thought, is a separate sentiment. They are not mere re-wordings. Do not use a semicolon here.

If we wanted to correctly use a semicolon for the last incorrect example, we could change the second part to, “That person looks like a hamster; he has rodent-like qualities.” In this way, we’re specifically describing what a hamster looks like instead of explicitly using the word “hamster.”

The primary takeaway from this rule is simple: Avoid using semicolons because they invite redundancy. Redundancy is bad in writing. Find a way to express yourself concisely. Further, when a semicolon is used in this way, it can often be seamlessly substituted for a period. And a period is better than a semicolon because readers are more familiar with them and are therefore less likely to pause to assess why you're using a semicolon.

Colon: Only use a colon when you’re presenting an example of what the words before the colon refer to.

  • Correct: There is only one God: Thor.
  • Correct: She had one piece of advice: Never slap a monkey.
  • Correct: This is how you play footsie: with your feet.
  • Correct: He is a smart man: He solves sudokus in seconds, speaks many languages, and is great with chipmunks.

There's also a second colon rule at work here: The words before the colon must be able to stand alone as a grammatically correct sentence. Meaning, if you replace the colon with a period, the words before the period make sense when read alone.

For example, below is incorrect colon usage:

  • Incorrect: Her favorite color was: blue.
  • Incorrect: I love penguins because: they stand out.

In these incorrect examples, the leading sentence couldn’t stand alone without adding words back in:

  • “Her favorite color was” is not a proper sentence. The “was” ends the sentence mid-thought. It simply doesn’t sound right.
  • “I love penguins because” also is not a proper sentence. “Because” is supposed to introduce a new thought, but doesn't.

In both of these incorrect examples, simply drop the colon and the sentence will magically read perfectly. (If punctuation serves zero grammatical purpose, don’t use it!)

The takeaway: Only use colons when your first sentence introduces the second sentence, but the first sentence could stand-alone if the next didn't exist.

Punctuation within quotation marks: American English dictates that punctuation (periods, exclamation marks, and question marks) should be placed inside quotation marks:

  • Correct: He said to me, “That’s one hell of a goat.”
  • Incorrect: He said to me, “That’s one hell of a goat”.
  • Correct: He asked, “Life sucks. Why am I so short?”
  • Incorrect: He asked, “Life sucks. Why am I so short”?
  • Correct: He yelled to the driver, “Go back to America!”
  • Incorrect: He yelled to the driver, “Go back to America”!

Punctuation within parentheses: If you’re wrapping a full sentence within parentheses, the final punctuation must stay within those parentheses:

  • Correct: John is stupid. (He scored 35 on an IQ test.) He’ll die young.
  • Incorrect: John is stupid. (He scored 35 on an IQ test). He’ll die young.

In contrast, if you’re wrapping merely a portion of a sentence in parentheses, leave the sentence’s ending punctuation outside the parentheses:

  • Correct: I’m going back home (Japan).
  • Incorrect: I’m going back home (Japan.)

Dashes: Dashes should emphasize the clauses you consider most important—without using bold or italics—and not only for defining terms. (Parentheses can present clauses more quietly and gently than commas.) Don’t lean on semicolons as a crutch to join loosely linked ideas. This only encourages bad writing. You can occasionally use contractions such as isn’t, don’t, it’s and shouldn’t. Don’t be overly formal. And don’t use exclamation marks to call attention to the significance of a point. You could say ‘surprisingly’ or ‘intriguingly’ instead, but don’t overdo it. Use these words only once or twice per paper.

Final draft

Your goal is to make your writing so concise that it can’t be summarized further. For the essay to succeed, brilliantly, it has to work at all of the levels of resolution simultaneously. You should not transfer any cognitive load to your readers. Logic should flow flawlessly and narrative should be fluid. Below are the levels of resolutions:

  • Word: choosing the right word precisely fitting at the right location.
  • Sentence: crafting a sentence so an idea or thought can be expressed correctly in a grammatically correct manner. Sharpen your sentences. Each sentence should examine the truth. Revise your sentences over and over again until each sentence becomes readable, believable and explainable to a young kid.
  • Paragraph: sentences should be properly arranged and sequenced inside a paragraph.
  • Paragraph arrangement: all of the paragraphs have to be arranged in a logical progression, from the beginning of the essay to the end to get us to the final destination.
  • Essay as a whole: an essay without originality or creativity can fail because it is not interesting or important. Sometimes a creative person, who is not technically proficient as a writer, can make the opposite mistake. Their choice of word is poor, their sentences are badly constructed and poorly organized within their paragraphs, their paragraphs has no intelligible relationship to one another, and yet the essay as a whole can succeed because there are valuable thoughts trapped within it.
  • Reader: an essay necessarily exists within a context of interpretation, made up of the reader. When you are writing something for someone, you need to know your audience. Questions to ask while you write:

    • Who is your audience? What assumptions can you make about the audience?
    • What is the purpose of your writing?
  • Culture: an essay necessarily exists within a context of interpretation, made up of culture that the reader is embedded in. Knowing your audience's culture is as important as knowing your audience. Context matters!

Find rhythm and style to build connection with your readers.

The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules—that it is a living and breathing thing, with something of the demoniacal in it—that it fits its proprietor tightly and yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as securely an integral part of him as that skin is…. In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a [writer], and it cannot be anything else.  To attempt to teach it is as silly as to set up courses in making love. — H.L. Mencken

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals-sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music. — Gary Provost

Inject questions and less-formal language to break up tone and maintain a friendly feeling. Informal expressions can be good for this, but they shouldn’t be too narrowly tied to a region. Similarly, use a personal tone because it can help to engage a reader.

Instead of trying to sound distinctive, just sound like you. Appealing to someone who’s never read you before is exactly like going out on a first date. The worst thing you can possibly do is to pretend to be someone other than yourself. Don’t try to be serious if you’re funny, funny if you’re serious, a mathematician if you’re a poet, or a poet if you’re a mathematician. Don’t show off a vocabulary you don’t have; don’t hide a sophistication that you do have. Straining to sound unique can end up making you sound just like every other wannabe, and nothing like yourself.

Let your voice emerge and let readers appreciate what you care about and the perspectives you see the world through.

See how Abraham Lincoln took a paragraph drafted by his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, and elevated it from rhetoric to political poetry.

Seward wrote: I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren.  Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken.  The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln transformed that to: I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Notice how Lincoln makes the abstract personal. Steward's draft has the chilly commanding tone given by a preacher who struggles to keep his ego in check. “I close” (you in the back row, wake up now!) and “I am sure” (Trust me, I know I’m right!). Lincoln infuses the passage with emotion and empathy—“I am loath to close” (You are my friends, and I hate to leave you) and “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies” (Please, I beg you, let’s live together in respect and friendship). Seward offered only a rhetorical implication that divine justice would redeem the nation. Lincoln offers the tangible hope that who we can be is who we are, that we all have angels within us.

At its best, writing becomes almost indistinguishable from music. Someone reading great writing, just like someone listening to great music, takes an intense, tactile pleasure in the rhythm and flow of the work, sensing instinctively what is about to come next and nevertheless being surprised and thrilled by it at the same time.

Great writers orchestrate that interplay between tension, suspense, surprise, release and completion. It is wild and sensual, deliberate and controlled, humorous and intelligent, all at once, all carried out with lightness and grace. The spontaneity is studied, the result of continuous refinement.

Lastly, providing examples is another stylistic choice. Examples make abstract statements specific. Your brain best remembers things this way. Provide before-and-after examples, or counterexamples, to clarify what you don’t **mean. Help readers orient themselves on a spectrum of right and wrong. If you make examples fun and topical, readers pay more attention. Don't waste time with examples if you're confident your point was self-evident.

Use references & bibliography. Jordan Peterson on references and bibliography:

  • When you write a sentence that contains what is supposed to be a fact or at least an informed opinion, and you have picked it up from something you read, then you have to refer to that source. Otherwise, following convention, people may accuse you of plagiarism, which is a form of theft (of intellectual property).
  • There are a large number of conventions that you can follow to properly structure your references and your bibliography (which is a list of books and articles that you have read to obtain relevant background information, but from which you may not have drawn any ideas specific enough to require a reference).
  • The conventions of the American Psychological Association (APA) are commonly used by essay writers. This convention generally requires the use of the last names of the authors of the source in parentheses after the sentence requiring a reference. For example, it is necessary to add a reference after a sentence containing an opinion which is not your own, or a fact that you have acquired from some source material (Peterson, 2014).
  • This sentence could also be constructed like this: Peterson (2014) claims that it is necessary to add a reference after a sentence containing an opinion which is not your own, or a fact that you have acquired from some source material.
  • There are also many conventions covering the use of a direct quote, which have to be followed when you directly quote someone, rather than paraphrasing them. Here is an example, adding the specific (fictional) number of the page containing the quoted material in the original manuscript: Peterson (2014, p. 19) claims that “the conventions of the American Psychological Association (APA) are commonly used by essay writers.” In the Reference List, at the end of the essay, Peterson’s paper might be listed, as follows (this is a fictional reference): Peterson, J.B. (2014). Essay writing for writers. Journal of Essay Writing, 01, 15-24.
  • Different conventions hold for different types of source material such as webpages, books, and articles. All the details regarding APA style can be found at APA style.
  • Your instructor may have recommended, or demanded, use of a different set of conventions. Information about other techniques and rules can be found at Easy Bib. It is necessary to master at least one convention. The rules are finicky and annoying. However, they are necessary, so that readers know what writers are up to. Furthermore, you only have to learn them once, so bite the bullet and do it.
  • Research & citation by Owl Purdue
  • Five levels of heading by APA style

Writing Legends

Name Bio
Anne Lamott Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer. I enjoy her humor and openness around hard topics that we all face within our society.
John McPhee McPhee is an American writer. He is considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. He is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
William Zinsser Zinsser was an American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher. It offers fundamental principles on how to write well.
Stephen King King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, crime, science-fiction, and fantasy novels.
Paul Graham PG is a well-known figure in the field of technology and startups. But what I most enjoy about him are his short essays. They are thought-provoking and well-written.
Henry Miller Miller was an American writer and painter infamous for breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new sort of “novel” that is a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism.
David Ogilvy David Mackenzie Ogilvy was a British advertising tycoon, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, and known as the “Father of Advertising.”
Kurt Vonnegut Vonnegut Jr. was an American writer known for his satirical and darkly humorous novels. In a career spanning over 50 years, he published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, five plays, and five nonfiction works.
Ernest Miller Hemingway Hemingway was an American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. His economical and understated style—which he termed the iceberg theory—had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his adventurous lifestyle and public image brought him admiration from later generations.
Jerry Seinfeld A legendary writer and stand-up comedian. He is best known for playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself in the sitcom Seinfeld.
William Strunk Jr. William Strunk Jr. was an American professor of English at Cornell University and author of The Elements of Style.
Anne Lamott
  • Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said—“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”.
  • One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”
  • Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
  • For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
  • Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
  • Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don't even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways.
  • You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
  • Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We told you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.
  • Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
  • E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
  • You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.
  • Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived...Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.
  • If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.
  • Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.
  • I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.
  • Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
  • You don't always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.
  • Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.
  • “But how?" my students ask. "How do you actually do it?" You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.
  • If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.
  • The problem is acceptance, which is something we're taught not to do. We're taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given- that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.
  • Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.
  • We all know we're going to die; what's important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.
  • My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.
  • I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it.
  • You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn't nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.
  • If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days--listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you've taken in, all that you've overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)
  • The society to which we belong seems to be dying or is already dead. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion-not to look around and say, 'Look at yourselves, you idiots!,' but to say, 'This is who we are.”
  • Having a baby is like suddenly getting the world's worst roommate.
  • I used to think that paired opposites were a given, that love was the opposite of hate, right the opposite of wrong. But now I think we sometimes buy into these concepts because it is so much easier to embrace absolutes than to suffer reality. I don't think anything is the opposite of love. Reality is unforgivingly complex.
  • If your wife locks you out of the house, you don't have a problem with your door.
  • The garden is one of the two great metaphors for humanity. The garden is about life and beauty and the impermanence of all living things. The garden is about feeding your children, providing food for the tribe. It’s part of an urgent territorial drive that we can probably trace back to animals storing food. It’s a competitive display mechanism, like having a prize bull, this greed for the best tomatoes and English tea roses. It’s about winning; about providing society with superior things; and about proving that you have taste, and good values, and you work hard. And what a wonderful relief, every so often, to know who the enemy is. Because in the garden, the enemy is everything: the aphids, the weather, time. And so you pour yourself into it, care so much, and see up close so much birth, and growth, and beauty, and danger, and triumph. And then everything dies anyway, right? But you just keep doing it.
  • Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.
  • We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in.
  • Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don't be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.
  • This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.
  • One thing I know for sure about raising children is that every single day a kid needs discipline.... But also every single day a kid needs a break.
  • Some people wanted to get rich or famous, but my friends and I wanted to get real. We wanted to get deep.
  • I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship's rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.
  • When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are.
  • and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear...
  • Being a writer guarantees that you will spend too much time alone -- and that as a result, your mind will begin to warp.
  • Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you are getting to know better every day, something is bound to happen.
  • If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.
  • A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way.
  • If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.
  • I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place.
  • But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
  • The way I dance is by writing.
  • Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.
  • Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.
  • You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.
  • Anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.
  • If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. You might as well call it a day and go bowling.
  • In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.
  • I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.
  • If you want to know how God feels about money, look at whom she gives it to.
  • I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge.
  • I told myself that historically when people do too well too quickly, they are a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.
  • Good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said.
  • You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

John McPhee
  • No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.
  • A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.
  • It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.
  • I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.
  • Another mantra, which I still write in chalk on the blackboard, is “A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.” It’s actually a quote from Cary Grant.
  • Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.
  • Writers come in two principal categories -- those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure.
  • A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows.
  • Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word?
  • For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream.
  • The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
  • If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” And unless you can identify what is not succeeding—unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops—how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?
  • “Norman Maclean called A River Runs Through It fiction, and the word “fiction” appeared in the book’s front matter. A River Runs Through It was autobiographical fact in nearly all aspects but one. For private reasons, the author had shifted the site of his brother’s murder and, being Norman Maclean, considered that change and others quite enough fabrication to disqualify the text as nonfiction.”
  • It is possible in managing a quote--not to say manipulating a quote--to present something that is both verbatim and false.
  • When you have writer’s block. You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair.
  • The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me.
  • You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you only have one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in–if not, it stays out.
  • Forget market research. Never market research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
  • In complex situations, quotations, fairly handled, can help keep judgement in the eye of the beholder.
  • Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand.
  • As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.
  • The lead—like the title—should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.
  • The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.
  • I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.
  • If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing. Don’t assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you have seen.
  • In the making of a long piece of factual writing, errors will occur, and in ways invisible to the writer.
  • Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.
  • What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
  • Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.

William Zinsser
  • The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.
  • Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time?
  • Try to avoid all words that end in “-ly”. Avoid words like “experiencing”.
  • If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you”?
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Be yourself.
  • To do this, you must relax, and have confidence.
  • If you aren’t allowed to use “I”, at least think “I” while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the “I”s out. It will warm up your impersonal style.
  • Soon after you confront the matter of preserving your identity, another question will occur to you, “Who am I writing for?” It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.
  • Most adverbs are unnecessary.
  • Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.
  • Most adjectives are also unnecessary.
  • Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit”, “a little”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “rather”, “quite”, “very”, “too”, “pretty much”, “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
  • Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence.
  • Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.
  • I only suggest avoiding one form—“I’d”, “he’d”, “we’d”, etc.—because “I’d” can mean both “I had” and “I would”, and readers can get well into a sentence before learning which meaning it is.
  • Always use “that” unless it makes your meaning ambiguous.
  • Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
  • Go with your interests. No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.
  • Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
  • Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.
  • Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.
  • Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.
  • Examine every word you put on paper. You'll find a surprising number that don't serve any purpose.
  • There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
  • Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
  • The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.
  • The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
  • Less is more.
  • Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.
  • If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
  • Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?
  • There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
  • Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other.
  • Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don't like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line. With every small refinement I feel that I'm coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won't the game.
  • Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  • Beware, then, of the long word that's no better than the short word: assistance" (help), "numerous" (many), "facilitate" (ease), "Individual" (man or woman), "remainder" (rest), "initial" (first), "implement" (do), "sufficient" (enough), "attempt" (try), "referred to as" (called), and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don't dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don't interface with anybody.
  • As a writer you must keep a tight rein on your subjective self—the traveler touched by new sights and sounds and smells—and keep an objective eye on the reader.
  • The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds.
  • The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.
  • Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves.
  • Writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.
  • Writers are the custodians of memory.
  • Don't annoy your readers by over-explaining--by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like "surprisingly," "predictably" and "of course," which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • 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.
  • But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every words that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
  • Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.
  • Adjectives are used as nouns (“greats,” “notables”). Nouns are used as verbs (“to host”), or they are chopped off to form verbs (“enthuse,” “emote”), or they are padded to form verbs (“beef up,” “put teeth into”). This is a world where eminent people are “famed” and their associates are “staffers,” where the future is always “upcoming” and someone is forever “firing off” a note. Nobody in America has sent a note or a memo or a telegram in years. Famed diplomat Condoleezza Rice, who hosts foreign notables to beef up the morale of top State Department staffers, sits down and fires off a lot of notes. Notes that are fired off are always fired in anger and from a sitting position. What the weapon is I’ve never found out.
  • Nouns now turn overnight into verbs. We target goals and we access facts. Train conductors announce that the train won’t platform. A sign on an airport door tells me that the door is alarmed. Companies are downsizing. It’s part of an ongoing effort to grow the business. “Ongoing” is a jargon word whose main use is to raise morale. We face our daily job with more zest if the boss tells us it’s an ongoing project; we give more willingly to institutions if they have targeted our funds for ongoing needs. Otherwise we might fall prey to disincentivization.
  • Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe that it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn’t. Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could.
  • One man’s romantic sunrise is another man’s hangover.
  • It wont do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it's usually because the writer hasn't be careful enough.
  • Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.
  • Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
  • A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time... If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard.
  • Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.
  • Most nonfiction writers have a definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation—to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing—to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.
  • There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in their current of energy--Normal mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers--that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch. You also have to turn on the switch. Nobody is going to do it for you.
  • Today the outlandish becomes routine overnight. The humorist is trying to say that it's still outlandish.
  • Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it's not a question of gimmicks to "personalize" the author. It's a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.
  • Good writing is lean and confident.
  • Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some.
  • Truth needs no adornment.
  • Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by typewriter or word processor, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and the revise; others can't write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense.
  • A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing.
  • Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper.
  • When I tell aspiring writers that they should think of themselves as part entertainer, they don’t like to hear it—the word smacks of carnivals and jugglers and clowns. But to succeed you must make your piece jump out of a newspaper or a magazine by being more diverting than everyone else’s piece. You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words. These seeming amusements in fact become your “style.”
  • It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
  • There is no minimum length for a sentence that’s acceptable in the eyes of God.
  • Don’t fight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good. Adjust your style accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.
  • You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.
  • Writing is such a lonely work that I try to keep myself cheered up.
  • Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.
  • But on the question of who you're writing for, don't be eager to please.
  • Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out.
  • Clichés are the enemy of taste.
  • ‘Myself’ is the refuge of idiots taught early that ‘me’ is a dirty word.
  • Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.
  • Remember that words are the only tools you’ve got. Learn to use them with originality and care. And also remember: somebody out there is listening.
  • Not every oak has to be gnarled.
  • Good writers are visible just behind their words.
  • Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
  • I don’t want to give somebody my input and get his feedback, though I’d be glad to offer my ideas and hear what he thinks of them.
  • We have become a society fearful of revealing who we are.
  • A generation ago our leaders told us where they stood and what they believed. Today they perform strenuous verbal feats to escape that fate.
  • Can (...) principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.
  • The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race.
  • Don't start a sentence with “however”—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don't end with “however”—by that time it has lost its howeverness.
  • Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.
  • I urge people to write in the first person: to use "I" and “me" and “we" and “us." They put up a fight.

Stephen King
  • Books are a uniquely portable magic.
  • Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.
  • It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.
  • I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
  • The adverb is not your friend.
  • Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
  • Reading at meal is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you uintend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
  • It was bad, but what in high school is not? At the time we're stuck in it, like hostages locked in a Turkish bath, high school seems like the most serious business in the world to just about all of us. It's not until the second or third class reunion that we start realizing how absurd the whole thing was.
  • Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.
  • Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or something yours is about. Your job in the second draft— one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.
  • It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.
  • The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second, when the study door swings open and the light of the world shines in.
  • Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with you translating what you see in your mind into words on the page.
  • You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. I think William Shakespeare said that.
  • If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
  • Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
  • One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, working for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed, and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.
  • The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don't get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.
  • If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?
  • Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away. Even William Strunk, that Mussolini of rhetoric, recognized the delicious pliability of language. “It is an old observation,” he writes, “that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.” Yet he goes on to add this thought, which I urge you to consider: “Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.
  • Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.
  • Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.
  • I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense.
  • The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction.
  • If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have.
  • The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will.
  • If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.
  • When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of coarse you do. When you're writing, you're creating your own worlds.
  • What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.
  • Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter.
  • The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.
  • When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
  • Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.
  • Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon. or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.
  • I think we're actually talking about creative sleep. Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream.
  • I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
  • Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
  • There were times...when it occurred to me that I was repeating my mother's life. Usually this thought struck me as funny. But if I happened to be tired, or if there were extra bills to pay and no money to pay them with, it seemed awful. I'd think 'This isn't the way our lives are supposed to be going.' Then I'd think 'Half the world has the same idea.
  • Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.
  • You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
  • You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
  • Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in...Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.
  • Reading is the creative center of a writer's life.
  • Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
  • Words have weight.
  • The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
  • Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. ...this book...is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
  • Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.
  • The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
  • I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
  • When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
  • I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.
  • Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do―to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.
  • Reading in bed can be heaven, assuming you can get just the right amount of light on the page and aren't prone to spilling your coffee or cognac on the sheets.
  • Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.
  • I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don't read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.
  • If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the tools to write.
  • It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.
  • It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
  • Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.
  • Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill,one of the prime reasons you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
  • Although deer season doesn’t start until November in Maine, the fields of October are often alive with gunshots; the locals are shooting as many peasants as they think their families will eat.
  • You try to tell yourself that you've been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it's true. Sometimes it doesn't work, that's all. Then you cry.
  • To write is human, to edit is divine.
  • Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
  • If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.
  • Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

Paul Graham

Reading about x doesn't just teach you about x; it also teaches you how to write. Would that matter? If we replaced reading, would anyone need to be good at writing? The reason it would matter is that writing is not just a way to convey ideas, but also a way to have them. A good writer doesn't just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery. Talking about your ideas with other people is a good way to develop them. But even after doing this, you'll find you still discover new things when you sit down to write. There is a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing. There are of course kinds of thinking that can be done without writing. If you don't need to go too deeply into a problem, you can solve it without writing. If you're thinking about how two pieces of machinery should fit together, writing about it probably won't help much. And when a problem can be described formally, you can sometimes solve it in your head. But if you need to solve a complicated, ill-defined problem, it will almost always help to write about it. Which in turn means that someone who's not good at writing will almost always be at a disadvantage in solving such problems. You can't think well without writing well, and you can't write well without reading well. And I mean that last "well" in both senses. You have to be good at reading, and read good things. People who just want information may find other ways to get it. But people who want to have ideas can't afford to.

It's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.

  • Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over.
  • Cut out everything unnecessary.
  • Write in a conversational tone.
  • Develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours.
  • Imitate writers you like.
  • If you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said.
  • Expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong.
  • Be confident enough to cut.
  • Have friends you trust read your stuff and tell you which bits are confusing or drag.
  • Don’t (always) make detailed outlines.
  • Mull ideas over for a few days before writing.
  • Carry a small notebook or scrap paper with you.
  • Start writing when you think of the first sentence; if a deadline forces you to start before that, just say the most important sentence first.
  • Write about stuff you like.
  • Don’t try to sound impressive.
  • Don’t hesitate to change the topic on the fly.
  • Use footnotes to contain digressions.
  • Use anaphora to knit sentences together.
  • Read your essays out loud to see (a) where you stumble over awkward phrases and (b) which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading).
  • Try to tell the reader something new and useful.
  • Work in fairly big quanta of time.
  • When you restart, begin by rereading what you have so far.
  • When you finish, leave yourself something easy to start with.
  • Accumulate notes for topics you plan to cover at the bottom of the file; don’t feel obliged to cover any of them.
  • Write for a reader who won’t read the essay as carefully as you do, just as pop songs are designed to sound ok on crappy car radios.
  • If you say anything mistaken, fix it immediately.
  • Ask friends which sentence you’ll regret most.
  • Go back and tone down harsh remarks.
  • Publish stuff online, because an audience makes you write more, and thus generate more ideas.
  • Print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen.
  • Use simple, germanic words.
  • Learn to distinguish surprises from digressions.
  • Learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.

Henry Miller

“When you can’t create you can work.”

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

David Ogilvy

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  • Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  • Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  • Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  • Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  • Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  • Check your quotations.
  • Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  • If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  • Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  • If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Kurt Vonnegut
  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible, to heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Ernest Miller Hemingway
  • The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.
  • The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.
  • Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.
  • You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.
  • Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

Jerry Seinfeld

Adulthood is the ability to be totally bored and remain standing.

  • Systemize: You've got to treat your brain like a new dog. The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid dog that is easily trained. The puppy brain is easy to master. You just have to confine it...through repetition and systematization.
  • Confront: If you break the human struggle down to one word, it is CONFRONT. And so, I approach everything that way. Confront the hardest task on your to-do list. Confront the problem you're putting off. Confront the workout. Confront the blank page.
  • Distractions: When there are no distractions, it enables the brain to feel free and flow. And that's the goal with creativity—to get your brain in a place where it feels free and can flow. Seinfeld writes with Bic pens on yellow legal pads.
  • Minimizing options: I have a writing session every day. My writing technique is just: You can't do anything else. You don't have to write, but you can't do anything else.
  • Stopping point: When sitting down to write, he knows exactly when he is going to stop writing. Most people sit down to work with an open-ended block of time. That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head. It’s like if you hire a trainer to get in shape, and you ask, ‘How long is the session?’ And he says, ‘It’s open-ended.’ Forget it. I’m not doing it. The brain needs rewards. And the reward is: the alarm goes off, and you’re done.
  • Exercise to de-stress mind: If you don't stress the body, he says, the mind is easily stressed. To build mental resilience, you got to put that ox in the plow, make it do stuff that it doesn’t want to do.
  • Medicority: I would teach you to learn to accept your mediocrity. You know, no one’s really that great. You know who’s great? The people that just put in a tremendous amount of hours. It’s a game of tonnage.
  • Humor: Being funny is one of the ultimate weapons a person can have in human society. It might even compete with being really good-looking.
  • Encouraging yourself: You have to know how to encourage yourself to be confident and courageous when you’re creating new material and also how to be harshly critical and go, “That’s good, but it’s not good enough—take it out.
  • Writing routine: Full focus. Do it daily. My writing technique is just, you can’t do anything else. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else. The writing is such an ordeal. That sustains me.
  • No expectations: This attitude is the exact right way to start out in the world of comedy. Expect nothing. Accept anything.
  • Just work. There is no secret. There is nothing you have to know. You just have to work and grind it out.

William Strunk Jr.
  • A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
  • Use the active voice where possible.

    • Instead of: The cat was chased by the dog. (passive)
    • Write: The dog chased the cat. (active)
  • Write statements in the positive form.

    • Instead of: He was not telling the truth.
    • Write: He was lying.
  • Avoid modals of uncertainty

    • Instead of: Proper dieting and exercise could help you lose weight.
    • Write: Proper dieting and exercise will help you lose weight.
  • Avoid overstating your argument.

    • Instead of: I’m completely certain that the current economic climate is definitely going to lead to a recession.
    • Write: Evidence shows that the current economic climate will likely lead to a recession, as evident in the fact that…
  • Place the key point at the end.

    • Instead of: He would never forgive such betrayal.
    • Write: Such betrayal he would never forgive.
  • Create an outline and stick to it.

    • Everything that needs to be said must be said.
    • Each part of the text should serve a purpose.
    • The structure of the text should be logical.
  • Use the paragraph as the basic unit of composition.
  • Use transitions to connect different parts of the text. These transitions include, for example, the following:

    • Sequence words: first, second, next, finally.
    • Examples: for example, for instance, such as, specifically, namely.
    • Additional evidence: furthermore, in addition, moreover, additionally.
    • Summary: in conclusion, in summary, overall.
  • The order of the text should reflect the order of the actions.

    • Instead of: I incubated the samples at room temperature, after I centrifuged them for 10 minutes.
    • Write: I centrifuged the samples for 10 minutes, and then incubated them at room temperature.
  • Keep related words together and unrelated words apart.

    • Instead of: John came over while I was working on my proposal with a box of pizza.
    • Write: John came over with a box of pizza while I was working on my proposal.
  • Split long sentences.
  • Use definite language.

    • Instead of: I like dogs more than most people.
    • Write: I like dogs more than I like most people.
  • In dialogue, ensure that the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Maintain consistency in verb tenses.

    • Instead of: During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and record them in the lab journal.
    • Write: During each session, we observed the fluid levels, and recorded them in the lab journal.
  • Convey connected ideas using a similar form.

    • nstead of: Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite drinkwas lemonade, and her favorite food was stir-fry.
    • Write: Richard’s favorite food was pizza, and he liked to drink soda, while Karen’s favorite food was stir-fry, and she liked to drink lemonade.
  • Omit unnecessary text.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers—very, really, etc.
  • Use the active voice and positive form.
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Conciseness must not come at the cost of clarity.
  • Be cautious in the use of idioms and slang.
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Avoid “fancy” vocabulary.
  • Avoid using foreign-language terms.
  • Be sparing in your use of adverbs.
  • Avoid repeating the same sentence structure.
  • Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
  • To achieve style, begin by affecting none.
  • The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.
  • If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud...Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?
  • When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.
  • Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.
  • A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer's enthusiasm.
  • Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is... If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.
  • It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.
  • A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
  • A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to breakthrough the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts - which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.


Practice

By “writing more,” I mean always writing mindfully—developing good mental hygiene by never being sloppy or lazy, whether you’re tossing off an email, putting together an office memo, or writing a note inside a birthday card. If you want to become a better writer, there’s no such thing as being off-duty. Treat every opportunity to write anything as a chance to improve. Challenge yourself to avoid lazy language and phrases that feel effortless. Every blank screen or empty piece of paper, no matter what its purpose, offers a new possibility to try being fresh and original.

By “reading more,” I mean reading as closely and deeply as you can. It doesn’t matter what you read, so long as it is good—and your definition of good doesn’t have to match mine. It only has to match yours. When you find writers you love, read everything they’ve written. Only by reading and rereading your favorite writers can you internalize what makes them great.

I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else. — Neil Gaiman

Your goal is not to parrot their style, but to learn from their craft. Every great writer is great in a different way, and you can learn from all of them. I’ve read dozens of my favorite books (and articles) dozens of times apiece; I’ve read hundreds of books and articles several times each. You don’t have to be as obsessed as I am, but if you want to become a much better writer you will have to become a much more diligent reader.

To practice more, you can place your topic under these four buckets:

  • Questions: Pose an intriguing question
  • Discoveries: Highlight new findings
  • Arguments: Present your case
  • Narratives: Share the beginning of a narrative

Use commonplace to dissect good writing and emulate great writers. Think of it as a practice book where you transcribe great sentences you come across. This is not a thinking book or a journal.

How can you develop the inner ear it takes to hear, and make the music of language? Read, read, read.

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. – Carl Sagan

Books that can be summarized are not worth reading. – N. N. Taleb

Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.” Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.” Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms & technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, & prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else. Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this). Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire). Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end. Prose must cohere: readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.” Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose. Read it aloud. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus. - Steven Pinker

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters. — Neil Gaiman

Sources

References

Books

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.
  • Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit by Steven Pressfield
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • The Paris Review Interviews
  • Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
  • Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor by Ward Farnsworth
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The New Oxford Guide To Writing by Thomas S. Kane

Articles