The Act of Writing

In a previous post I talked about becoming an active reader by taking part in and examining the communication between author and audience. Today I’m going to explore it.

Topic

William Zinsser said it best when he said “think small”. While he was talking about writing a memoir, thinking small applies to anything that you write about. Am I going to be able to effectively write about something as complicated SQL Server’s cost based optimizer in a single blog post? No. Can I talk about my opinion of O/R-Ms and their limitations? Sure.

Just like we scope projects in our day jobs, our writing projects need to have a scope. When I first started writing – and I mean actually writing, not just writing garbage down on paper – it was in college and my topics were handed down by my professors. I found myself saying there is absolutely no way I can write 10 pages about something as obscure as the philosophy of action and inaction in the Tao Te Ching. In a way, I was right – it turned out to be 45 pages that I edited down to 28. It was also the only time I saw an “A+” in college.

Limiting yourself and your writing in scope is a blessing. When I started blogging, I had no idea what to blog about. I thought that I needed to write long profound posts, just like so many prolific bloggers before me. I forgot that I am not one of those prolific bloggers. I cannot tell you how many blog posts I started and deleted before settling into a practical writing style. Want to know how to set up HTTP Redirects in IIS 6? Now you know.

Focusing on writing small, practical posts gave me the ability to focus on my writing.

Exercise

Writing is a craft not an art.

Crafts require skills that must be practiced. If I draw every day for the next 20 years, I’m not going to turn into Picasso; writing every day isn’t enough. You have to practice your craft to improve. Doing is not enough.

How should you practice writing? I don’t know. I can only tell you how I practice writing.

Imitate

You learned to walk and talk by imitating what you saw around you. You learned how to gain the acceptance of your peers by dressing and acting like them. You learned to do your job well by imitating the habits of the people you looked up to. Whatever you want to say about imitation, you have to acknowledge that we learn through imitation.

That’s how I learned to write: by imitating people better than me.

I remember my professor, Joe Musser, giving us assignment after assignment to imitate other authors. Most of the time these were attempts to force us into writing in a new way. It worked. I learned volumes about my voice as a writer and how to write by imitating other writers.

One assignment that I particularly recall was where we had to imitate a favorite author. One of my favorite authors has always been Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not because of the rampant drug abuse or expertly placed profanity that is found throughout his work. It’s because Thompson always wrote with a voice that was strong and clear. There was never any compromise in his style or his world view. They were inseparable.

Imitating a legend is difficult. When the legend has a style so distinct as to be the voice of a culture and an era, the task becomes Sisyphean.

I can’t tell you if I succeeded or failed in my endeavor. I no longer have that example of my writing. It’s probably for the best. What I can tell you is that I learned a lot about how to write from my attempts at imitation. Just take a look at a few of the things the man has written:

America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

It was the Law of the Sea, they said. Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.

These are vivid sentences. They say what they need to say and move on.

Thompson didn’t just imitate the writers he idolized, he transcribed them: “Thompson had an interesting way of studying the writers he loved. He would take and transcribe their works on his typewriter in an effort to discover each writer’s particular rhythm and flow. He typed ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘A Farewell To Arms’ in their entirety. He also was a constant letter writer and kept thorough records of his correspondences, much as Kerouac did.” fromHunter S Thompson

In order to become a better writer it’s important to understand what makes writing good. And it’s only then, when you understand how to go beyond stringing words together, that you can start getting better at writing.

Reduce

There’s no sentence that’s too short in the eyes of God.

William Zinsser said that. I believe he even wrote it in On Writing Well, his definitive guide to the process of writing. I have never read anything that changed the way I write more than that sentence.

When I was first learning to write we used the computer to submit our assignments. Our professors could grade our work via a program called Norton Textra Connect and send the results back to us. Instead, Professor Musser would print our assignments and use a red felt tip pen and cross out every extra word. Every last one of them was laid bare before my eyes. You have no idea how many extra words you’ve used until they’re crossed out on a piece of paper.

Look at the first sentence of the previous paragraph. It originally said:

When I was first learning how to write, we had to use the computer to submit all of our writing assignments.

I tinkered with the sentence and it became

When I was first learning how to write, we used the computer to submit all of our writing assignments.

That comma isn’t supposed to be there, neither is “all of”…

When I was first learning how to write we used the computer to submit our writing assignments.

Of course, we are talking about a writing class so I can assume my readers know that I’m talking about a writing assignment.

When I was first learning to write we used the computer to submit our assignments.

That’s much better.

After a few rounds of the professor making your work look like a bloodbath, you learn which words are extra. You learn to stop yourself from filling your writing with weasel words – those weak frilly words that sneak into our writing. There’s clutter in writing – a desire to be “one hundred percent complete” instead of “done.” Why say it in one word when you have four? It comes from the way we’re taught to write; the way we learn to appease the word count.

Write what you need to say and then write no more.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

Expand

Once you’ve taken your writing to the minimum, build it up. But only add words you need.

When I finally became comfortable stripping down my writing to no more than a few words that clearly conveyed my point, we were allowed to add embellishment. One Monday our assignment was to write an essay. Wednesday’s assignment was to remove every extra word. Friday’s assignment was to add back in the necessary words.

Once you’ve learned to excise every needless word like a diseased tooth, it becomes difficult to put descriptors back in. They float in front of you, weighing heavily on the page. “Do I need to say that it was simply ‘done’ or is there a better word?” Many writers keep a thesaurus next to their desk to help them choose words. Sometimes you need to decide to use two words instead of one. Or three. Or four. What better way is there to compare a wonderful vacation abroad with the mindless, bureaucratic, complexity of negotiating a United States Customs Declaration form than to wax eloquent with an overabundance of words. “The downside of the trip was filling out a form on our way back” does no justice to the experience.

Every word you add should be carefully chosen. Words have power and weight. Don’t weigh down your prose with empty phrases.

Further Reading

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide To Writing Nonfiction: 30th Anniversary Edition

The Proud Highway

Write good papers

Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Extracts of Zinsser

Visions and Revisions

On Memoir, Truth and ‘Writing Well’

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