I want to explore writing. I’m by no means a prolific or even good writer, but the best way to improve is to write about it.
I’m referencing On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It’s a guide to non-fiction writing.
This post is for myself as reference, and hopefully, I will re-write and change my views with more experience.
- Why writing is important
- Rules for writing Better
- My current process
Writing is thinking. Writing better = better thinking
Despite all the advances in technology, we still communicate largely through the medium of written word. Emails, texts, blog posts, books, articles. Even video and film at the base level involves writing. Organisations communicate tasks and plans mainly through email. A badly written message can do real harm in the world. Your words are not inconsequential.
If you want to understand a topic at a deeper level, write about it. You can learn by asking questions, researching, and then solidifying the venture in ink. You can write about tech, Japanese food in London, a memoir, a journal, an essay, a blog, a tweet.
You are capturing ephemeral thoughts and giving a level of permanency to them. In my experience, I don’t really know what I think, until I write it down.
Convoluted or unclear writing is just a reflection of convoluted and unclear thought. Clear writing is a reflection of clear thought. By learning how to write well, you are learning how to think well. I think this translates to speaking well too.
Rules for Writing
The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it. But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
I used to think writing more was a good thing. But now I realise, if it can be said in fewer words, it’s better. Similarly with programming. Refactoring code is essential.
Simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing down complex ideas. It means that you approach them from first principles, and write in such a way that a logical chain is formed. You don’t repeat and add bloat.
Know what you want to explore
Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. “ William Zinsser
You should have a topic or theme you want to explore. It’s best to start with a question, and then explore how best to answer it.
The writing should have a direction but you don’t necessarily have to conclude anything.
“Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.”
Cut away at the fat. If you are repeating sentences, get rid of them. Zinsser talks about how he would put brackets around any superfluous words or sentences. Soon his students would create mental brackets in real time.
I want to emphasise that this is about non-fiction writing. In fiction writing, the florid language and description adds to the image created.
Write a lot
The tools of distribution have been democratised. Anyone with access to a computer and basic literacy in tech can have their own blog within 10-15 minutes.
‘no-one’ has an excuse not to create. You can iterate and improve by writing everyday, and one day, you will be a better writer. At the least, you will be a clearer thinker.
It’s all permission-less , irrespective of if anyone finds it useful. Make sure at least you are gaining something from it.
Style : Flow
Good writing tends to flow by interspersing long and short sentences together.
I think this happens subconsciously, and you shouldn’t deliberately or mathematically calculate this.
Make it personal
Zinsser advocates using 1st person : ‘I, Me, Mine’. You want to share your opinion and personal outlook. Tell your own story.
In school, I was told by English teachers to write impartially. ‘Hemingway’s description of the Old man symbolises blah blah’. Literary analysis is boring and dry.
It is far more interesting to share YOUR opinion, your stories, and what YOU’VE LEARNT. “Writing is an act of ego”.
Be open, honest and vulnerable. Authentic. Share a story.
Write for Yourself
A good book is like a conversation. And like all conversation, it goes through the filter of life experiences, outlook and disposition of the listener or reader. Each reader experiences a book differently. Even the same reader at different points in life experiences a book differently. “No man steps in the same river twice”.
I remember I enjoyed ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ as a teenager. But re-reading it now, it does nothing. It seems long and convoluted.
Similarly, I read Marcus Aurelius ‘Meditations’ as a teen. I barely made it past the third page. But I picked it up again in my early 20’s, and it radically changed my life.
The point is, you can’t guarantee a reader will connect. But you can guarantee that you write for yourself. To satisfy your own intellectual curiosity, or simply because you have something important to say.
Write for an audience of one : yourself.
This might seem contrary to the previous advice. But It’s a matter of technique vs style. Like a woodworker - technique is like perfecting the skills of cutting, sanding, lacquering etc. But at the end of the day, you want to create because you are compelled.
All the best artists steal. You learn by imitation. If writing is like gardening, reading is like choosing the seeds you want to plant. Read widely, and read deeply.
There is no prescription in writing. Writing in the passive voice doesn’t automatically make it dull, but here are a few rules Zinsser advocates:
- Keep paragraphs short - writing is visual. A long chunk of text can discourage a reader from even starting
- Organise your piece into subsections
- Active : ‘Joe saw him’ - is stronger than ‘He was seen by Joe’
- Write about your interests
Lastly, Writing is not a contest. It’s a process.
- Follow genuine intellectual curiosity
- Read about the topic
- Leave it in your subconscious
- If you feel compelled - write about it
- Then re-read through- and trim the fat
- Publish (if low stakes)
- Otherwise, re-write, re-write re-write.
Zinnser also suggests reading it out loud. And in higher stakes publication, obviously obtain impartial feedback.
I basically live my entire life digitally. I have almost no ‘junk’ lying around, because it is stored in ‘0’s and 1’s.
All my notes are digital, all documents, banking/passwords, reading, note taking, journalling, even drawing- is all digital.
Therefore I think a lot about what tools I allow into my life.
Kindle : I remember when I got my first Kindle at the airport when I was 15. I fell in love instantly. Although I do enjoy paper books, the Kindle is far more convenient. Amazon wins in the end anyways. I just end up buying both the digital and physical copies for my favourite reads.
Obsidian : I store any notes I’m compelled to take in .md format, and visualise them in ‘Obsidian’
DayOne : This is the best journalling app out there. I like it because it is entirely private. With paper journals, I feel like I write with someone over my shoulder concerned that one day someone might read it. It stops me from being radically transparent. I type much faster than I write with a pen. I like that it organises notes, doesn’t take up room.
IA Writer : again, I write everything in markdown format. Great app
These are all just personal tools. Everyone has their own preferences and systems. I’m very organised, so like systemically thinking about these topics, but others prefer a much less regimented approach.
I don’t think good writing is intuitive. It is actually really hard. Luckily, I don’t want to ‘become’ a writer. I just like to write.