Category Archives: Writing

About Writing

I have written about my favorite book on writing, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, numerous times on this blog. While perusing some old files I found the original notes I took while reading the book. I thought my readers might benefit.

The myths of writing – it’s fun, easy, you never rewrite, quit if it isn’t going well, don’t write if you feel unhappy, circulate among the literary world, use symbolism, etc.

The truth of writing – writing is hard work, you always rewrite, have a schedule, write all the time, work alone, and say what you mean.

Simplicity – Cut out all extra words and paragraphs. If the reader is lost it’s because you aren’t writing clearly, the sentences are cluttered, shoddily constructed, don’t follow logically, words are misused, etc. Ask yourself, what are you trying to say?

Clutter – Examine every word and see if it does work. You will probably find that half of all words can be cut without losing meaning. Don’t use big words, jargon, clichés, and elongated phrases.

Style – Strip your writing to the essentials before putting any dressing on the structure. Without good structure the house won’t stand But be yourself, don’t wear a wig. Have confidence and relax. Say what you mean, don’t bob and weave like a politician.

The Audience – You are the audience. Yes, you must write clearly so the audience can follow, but when it comes to what you say or who you are, forget the audience.

Words – Avoid phrases and clichés; find the words you want. Use them with care.

Usage – It is hard to separate good usage from jargon. Use good words that already exist, unless you need a new one.

Unity – “You learn to write by writing.” You are trying to solve a problem when you write. Will you write as a participant or an observer; in the past tense or present tense, formal or casual, involved or detached, amused or judgmental? How much do I want to cover and what point am I trying to make? And don’t bite off more than you can chew; consider the point you want to make and make it.

The Lead and the Ending – The first sentences are the most important; they must capture readers and tell them why you are writing. And know when to end, don’t go on and on and on and on.

Bits and Pieces – Use active verbs and active voice. Use small words rather than long ones. Adverbs are generally redundant and weaken sentences. Adjectives are also unnecessary. (The adverb is usually contained in the verb, and the adjective in the noun.) Little qualifiers like very, quite, a bit, too, pretty much, rather, somewhat, a little, sort of, and similar small words should never be used.

Punctuation – The period? Use it sooner rather than later. Almost never use an exclamation point. The semi-colon should generally be used less than the period or dash. The dash is great. The colon should be used only before lists.

Miscellaneous – Let the reader know when you change moods with but, yet, however, now, etc. Contractions are fine. Generally prefer that to which. Be wary of sentences that talk about people but don’t mention them. (The common reaction is laughter.) Be wary and limit the use of helping verbs. (forms of to be). Don’t use two or three nouns instead of one noun or even better use a verb. (Communication facilitation skills development intervention.) Resist overstatement and exaggeration. (Messerly’s class is like ten atom bombs going off in my head.) Remember that writing isn’t a contest; write for yourself. The quickest fix for a bad sentence—elimination. Keep your paragraphs short because reading is visual, and organize ideas with paragraphs. The best way to handle the gender problem is by using plurals. AND AS ALWAYS, GOOD WRITING IS REWRITING—GOOD WRITERS CAN’T STOP FIDDLING WITH THEIR SENTENCES. Finally, it is usually best to write about what you care about.

Writing about science and technology – Liberal arts majors fear science; science majors fear writing. But “writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who can think clearly can write clearly.” You just need to write one sentence that follows logically from another. Start with one important fact and continue to explain one fact after another—never assume the reader knows anything. Write science like a person, not a scientist.

Humor – “Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” Write what’s true and humor will be intertwined.

The Sound of Your Voice – But don’t try to be too cute, condescending or use clichés. Find good writers in your field and imitate them. You will usually find that they use short, strong words, not long ones. For a great example of such writing read Abe Lincoln.

Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence – If you enjoy what you are writing about, there is a good chance the audience will too. Write with a sense of joy. Write about what you enjoy.

The Tyranny of the Final Product – Don’t worry about the result, worry about the process. A large part of the process is how you’re going to put it all together—what is the outline? Think of your writing as a quest to find out who you are and what you believe. And decide what you are trying to say.

A Writer’s Decisions – A logical progression of sentence and paragraph will keep the reader interested. Choose words carefully, especially the first sentences. And cut, cut, cut.

Write as Well as You Can – Bring humor, sincerity, and enthusiasm to your writing, and remember, quality is its own reward. You are a travel companion; brighten our trip. Choose verbs over nouns, active verbs over passive ones, short words over long ones, and concrete details rather than vague abstractions. Remember, someone is reading what you’re writing. Do you want to torture them?

More on Writing Well

 A recent post mentioned the two writing books that most influenced my writing.  But there is another one that influenced me: William Zinsser’s Writing To Learn. I pulled it down from my bookshelf recently and found it marked up throughout. On the inside cover I found the inscription “Read, April 2000.” Somehow I had forgotten about it. Below are a few highlighted passages from the book.

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“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly …”

“Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it.”

” … the essence of writing is rewriting.”

“Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own.”

“Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting a windshield: The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather into a sensible shape.”

“… I draw on two sources of energy that I commend to anyone trying to survive in this vulnerable craft: confidence and ego.”

” … I learned at an early age what has been an important principle to me ever since—that what we want to do we will do well.”

” What finally impels them [writers] is not the work they achieve, but the work of achieving it.”

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Why do I care about writing well? Because language is our most advanced form of communication. With it, ideas move between minds. This movement opens minds, and changing minds change the world. I’ll do my best to take the passion and enthusiasm within and give it artistic form. I cannot say success will follow, but I will try my best. – JGM

How To Write Well

E. B. White (1899 – 1977) at age 77, writing in the boathouse of his home in Maine.

I learned most of what I know about writing from two books: William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

                                                                              

William Zinsser (1922 – ) age 86, writing in his Manhattan office.

From Strunk and White I learned the essence of good writing in three sentences:

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.

From Zinsser I learned the process of good writing from sentences like these : 

Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people seem to think it does … 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.

I also learned a lot about writing from a graduate school mentor, William B. Charron. He made me rewrite my master’s thesis about ten times. Literally! The process was laborious, but the end product was carefully and conscientiously crafted. He poured over my every word with diligence, and my writing was the beneficiary. I thank him.

Professor William B. Charron today, in his mid 70s.

Examples of Great Writing: “The Value of Philosophy”

Will Durant                                                            Bertrand Russell

Yesterday’s column discussed good writing, mentioning the great prose stylists Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. (Who are also two of my intellectual heroes.) Here are examples of their extraordinary prose on the question of the value of philosophy. The first is from the introduction to Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy (1929), and the second is from the final chapter of Russell’s classic, The Problems of Philosophy (1912). I’ll let their beautiful prose speak for itself.

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? It is a shameful question: we do not ask it of poetry, which is also an imaginative construction of a world incompletely known. If poetry reveals to us the beauty our untaught eyes have missed and philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the worlds wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office and yet all the while remain ignorantly naive, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire and blindly miserable? …

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes. the balance of mind which once came of a warm religious faith is gone; science has taken from us the supernatural bases of our morality and all the world seems consumed in a disorderly individualism that reflects the chaotic fragmentation of our character.

We face again the problem that harassed Socrates: how shall we find a natural ethic to replace the supernatural sanctions that have ceased to influence the behavior of men? Without philosophy, without that total vision which unifies purposes and establishes the hierarchy of desires we fritter away our social heritage in cynical corruption on the one hand and in revolutionary madness on the other; we abandon in a moment our idealism and plunge into the cooperative suicide of war; we have a hundred thousand politicians, and not a single statesman.

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harrassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge which has made us drunk with our power, and we shall not be saved without wisdom.

And now we hear from Russell:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value — perhaps its chief value — through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps — friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad — it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

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.