On Writing Well


On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

The two most important books that influenced me on writing are Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I have also been influenced by reading wonderful prose stylists like Bertrand Russell and Will Durant. Finally I was heavily influenced by a graduate school mentor William Charron, who forced me to rewrite my master’s thesis about ten times. I sometimes think he overdid it–seeking perfection in one’s writing causes paralysis–but he taught me the invaluable lesson of rewriting, which is the single best secret to good writing that I know of.

Unfortunately the time constraints of researching and writing a daily blog make this impossible. I certainly reread my posts and make quick changes before publication, but I don’t have the time for the ten or twenty rewrites that would be necessary for really good prose. So it’s a tradeoff. I sometimes substitute quantity for quality, but I think there is value in not overanalyzing a topic too. Stream of consciousness writing, being less constrained than obsessive rewriting, allows one to proceed without undue delay and is also more revelatory of one’s true feelings.

Recently I read the interview about writing with psychologist Steven Pinker at edge.org. Pinker reasons that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind,.” But writing is “cognitively unnatural,” according to Pinker. Until the last few millennia, for almost the entire time there have been modern human beings, no one wrote anything. In fact it is an odd way to communicate. You don’t see your audience,  you don’t know who they are or what they know, and they don’t ask you questions. It is so different from face to face conversation.

Pinker thinks we write to draw another’s attention to something. “When you write … you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.” This may seem obvious but consider how much writing is done to impress, like academic writing, or to protect oneself, like legal jargon. So while we write for ourselves–to learn and understand–we surely write for our audience too. Not to impress them, perform for them, protect ourselves, or shove dogma down their throat–but to see new things with them. To point out things that both the writer and the reader may have missed.

Leaving a small part of myself after I am gone—a legacy if you will of the best of me—motivates my writing. It’s not as good as real immortality, and I may still get a cryonics policy, but it is something. To leave a small part of yourself in this electronic cloud. To leave a soft whisper in the air. Humans have been trying to do this for millennia.

4 thoughts on “On Writing Well

  1. Can’t read what’s on the piece of paper…can you up the resolution or describe what the picture is of?

  2. Wasn’t meant to be read. Just an image of old writing. Could have used cave art instead.

  3. I was also taught that ‘good writing is re-writing’, and that was certainly driven home to me while writing a master’s thesis and later a non-fiction book.

    Hemmingway said that he wrote portions of his books dozens of times. His writing day began by reading much of his ongoing work, editing and re-writing along the way, so that by the time the book was completed he had done many revisions. A good example to follow if time allows.

  4. You are absolutely correct, good writing, for most of us, involves continual rewriting. There may be exceptions, I have heard that Bertrand Russell wrote his essays in longhand with virtually no corrections, but if true he is an exception. Thanks for the comment.

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