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 is an awful phrase.) 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?