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Writing Tips from 'On Writing Well'

Values

Two of the most important qualities of a book: Humanity and Warmth. It's about using the English language to achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Writing is a craft, you need to establish a daily routine and stick to it. A man who stops writing because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself, and will go broke.

‘the self who emerges on paper is often more stiffer than the self who emerges to write’


Style

Don't make the mistake of taking simplicity to such an extreme that you lack any style ('Dick likes Jane', 'See Spot Run')

Be yourself, be confident, relax. Write in an honest way with words that come naturally.

Writers who deliberately garnish their prose cause them to lose what makes them unique, because the reader will notice that you are faking. People are connected if they know a human is writing. It's wonderful to have a day when you're reading and exclaim: 'Aha! A person!'


Audience

Write words and ideas that solely please yourself (E.B. White writing about Chickens, H.L.Mencken condemning Christian pieties with his 'pyrotechnical use of the American Language'). However, make sure to work hard to master the objective tools of writing (clarity, knowledge of material, grammar) for the reader.

Never say anything in writing you wouldn't feel comfortable saying in conversation. You're probably not a person that says 'indeed', 'moreover' and 'individual' ('he's a fine individual', don't).


Words

Bear in mind the sound and rhythm of your words, readers hear what they are reading far more than you realise.

Get yourself a thesaurus and use it frequently. Learn the difference between 'coax', 'cajole, 'wheedle'.

Writing is learned by imitation. To get better at writing, read the men and women who write the way you want to, and figure out how they did it.


Paragraphs

Keep your paragraphs short (with exceptions). Writing is visual, short paragraphs are inviting, long paragraphs are intimidating.

Don't go overboard though, only split a paragraph if needed. A succession of tiny paragraphs (like with many newspapers) is as annoying as a paragraph that's too long.

Great nonfiction writers always think in terms of paragraph units instead of sentence units.


Rewriting

The first draft is often bad. It's always wordy, not clear, pretentious. Rewriting a draft is where the battle is won or lost.

Rewriting doesn't mean writing a different second version, it mostly consists of reshaping and tightening your first draft.

Keep putting yourself in the reader's position and find places where you might lose the reader or more things they need to know.

It's a delight to delete entire words, sentences, paragraphs, of dull or unnecessary writing.


Methods

  • During writing you might have new thoughts and ideas. Follow the feeling and change course if it's right, don't be weighed down by a preconceived plan.
  • Your writing won't ever be definitive, you will never cover all the facts or viewpoints about an issue. So every writing project should be reduced before you start (Herman Melville reduced Moby Dick from a story about whales, to one man pursuing one whale).
  • Have a unity of mood, in a travel article don't swap from writing your personal story to being a travel brochure ('My wife and I found this hotel and it was fun' to 'Hong Kong affords many opportunities to eat in Chinese restaurants').
  • Have a starting that hooks the reader (it could be few eye-catching sentences, or a few intriguing paragraphs if needed).
  • Have an ending that surprises or has a twist of humor.
  • Writing is not a contest, the only contest is with yourself.
  • Your subconscious mind is still solving problems even when you're not consciously working. Often after a night's rest, a sentence that you've been struggling with will emerge clean.
  • Don't overstate, it's cringe ('I felt as if 747 jets were flying through my brain', 'I seriously considered jumping out the building and killing myself')
  • It's great to use 'And' and 'But' at the start of your sentences.
  • Many times you might go through a troublesome phase of rephrasing and restructuring a difficult sentence, when the best solution is just to remove it.
  • There's nothing more interesting than the truth (people's quirks, their drama, their wonderfulness).
  • Write about whatever subject you want, nothing is stupid when someone takes it seriously. Write whatever your heart tells you, and you will engage your readers

  • Source:

    On Writing Well(Book), Chapter 1, 4-10