On Writing Well

Computer have replaced the typewriter, the delete key have replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange the whole chunks of text. But nothing have replaced the writer. He or she still stuck with same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.

Principles

The Transaction

Ultimately, the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.

There’s a personal transaction that in the heart of good non-fiction writing. Out of it come two of the most important qualities that this book will go in search of: humanity and warmth.

Simplicity

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Many few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third one. Remember this in the moment of despair. If you find writing is hard it’s because it is hard.

On Zinsser’s writing routine:
With each rewrite I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that not doing useful work. Than I go over it once more, reading it aloud , and I’m always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut.

Clutter

Beware, then, of the long words that’s not better than short words: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “implement” (do), etc.

Look for 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? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think is beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

Style

Reader want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. There a fundamental rule is: be yourself.

You should relax and you should have confidence.

It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away three of four paragraph of an article, or even a first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the author begin to sound like himself or herself. Not only are those paragraphs impersonal or ornate; they don’t say anything – they are self conscious attempt at a fancy prologue. What I’m always looking for as an editor is a sentence that says something like “I’ll never forget the day when I…”. I think, “Aha. A person!”.

Good writers are visible just behind their words. If you are not allowed to use “I”, at least think “I” when you write, or write the first draft in first person and then take “I”s out. It will warm up your impersonal style.

Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Audience

You’re writing primary to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment, you will also entertain readers who are worth writing for.

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 fine individual”), please don’t write it.

Words

If all your sentences move at the same plodding gait, which even you recognize as deadly but don’t know how to cure read them aloud. You’ll begin to hear where all troubles lies. See if you can get variety by reversing an order of the sentence, or by substituting a word that has freshness or oddity, or by altering the length of your sentences so they don’t all sound as they came out of same machine. An occasional short sentence can carry a tremendous punch. It’s stays in a reader’s ear.

Methods

Unity

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem.

Before start writing ask yourself “Which one point do I want to make?”. Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts of five – just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and altitude.

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 would reach. Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.

The Lead and Ending

The most important sentence in your article is the first one. If it’s doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.

Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph – it’s a crucial springboard to the next paragraph.

Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first one.

Bits and Pieces

Writing is not Contest. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.

Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be fixed by simply getting rid of it.

Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual – it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.

You wan’t write well until you understand that writing is evolving process, not a finished product. Nobody expect you to get it right the first time, or even the second time.

Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE button and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace the humdrum word with one that have more precision or color. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase the drab sentence to give it 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 the game.

The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must given room to play it. Don’t annoy your readers by over explaining – by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try to not use words like “surprisingly”, “predictably” and “of course”, which put value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material (meaning write for yourself).

Forms

Memoirs

The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.

Business Writing

Any organization that won’t take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will loose friends, customer and money.

Attitudes

Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of creative process for anyone learning an art or craft.

Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.

When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper. Given a choice between two travel companions – and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him – we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip.