When I look back at some of our early letters, it’s possible that they could have been written by Dr. Fox. But over the years, I think I’ve gradually found my voice. I’ve learned to write like I talk and like I think. Being simple-minded is helpful in this regard because you can’t show off sophistication that you don’t have.
Good writing is hard. It takes time. And practice. And more time. And more practice. And a lot of reading in between. It’s impossible to know good writing without seeing a lot of good (and bad) writing.
There are a lot of good writers in this business. There’s a lot more crap. In contrast to Dr. Fox, Jason Zweig is one of the most enjoyable authors in the industry. So it was encouraging to read that even an author of his caliber struggles with his own writing.
I rarely look at anything I’ve ever written without seeing a blighted mess of mushy language and shoddy thinking. At best, I’m pleased with about one-twentieth of what I write.
We’d be fortunate to publish something about one-twentieth as good as one of Jason’s pieces. But now we have a slightly better shot. Jason recently published a series of posts On Writing Better, which are an absolute must read for anyone and everyone dependent upon written communication. Here are my highlights:
- Good sentences come in all shapes and sizes. Good writing flashes between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the general.
- Just talk it out onto the page without overthinking.
- Once you pop the cork out of the bottle, keep pouring as fast and as long as you can. Do not revise or edit sentences you’ve already written. Keep rolling forward and don’t look back or you’ll lose momentum. If you lose momentum, step away and come back. Try again. Where you left off.
- If you get stuck, say these words out loud: “I want you to know about all this because” and immediately write down what you just said.
- If you’re writing something long and don’t have time to finish, stop midstream and pick it up the next day.
- Instead of trying to sound distinctive, just sound like you. Your style is yourself. How you write is who you are. Don’t show off vocabulary you don’t have; don’t hide a sophistication that you do have.
- Writing is like peeling the onion of your own ignorance.
- If you want to become a better writer, write more, and read more. Treat every opportunity to write anything as a chance to improve. Challenge yourself to avoid lazy language and phrases that feel effortless.
- Use words that are fresh; not other people’s leftover language.
- Don’t use nine words when six will do better. Be relentless in stripping your sentences of any extraneous words.
- Trying to purge every instance of passive language from every sentence will make your writing far better than it is.
- Cliches are just another form of passive language. A cliche is any wording that automatically comes to mind and types itself.
- Whatever you like most in your own writing is the thing your readers probably like the least.
- A little bit of boldface can go a long way. But if it’s a habit, stop.
- The point of cutting your writing isn’t to make it shorter. It’s to make it better. Cutting your writing is the surest way to find its weaknesses.
And here are a few tips for cutting your writing:
- First, make it longer. Throwing in every idea that stands a remote chance of being usable is liberating.
- Next, make a copy for posterity. Take a word count and put that at the top. Now take two-thirds of that and put it even bigger at the top. That’s where you need to end up. If you can’t cut your writing by a third, it isn’t worth reading.
- Now, cut hard and deep. Read as fast as you can. Identify the weakest paragraphs and delete them. Find the weakest sentences and kill them. Keep searching for sentences to kill.
- Kill all the adverbs. Slaughter every single weasel word.
- Finally, set it aside for a day or longer. Don’t touch it. Don’t think about it. Let it rest. And get some rest yourself.
- You have to regard your own work as garbage if it is to end up anything better than garbage.
- The essence of rewriting is destruction. It’s killing your darlings. Let go of pride.
- Let go of the idea that you wrote it. Do whatever it takes to see it as someone else’s work – paste it into another tool in a different font.
- If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
- Great writers don’t try to fix their own work. They try to destroy it.
- If you’re afraid something isn’t good enough, it’s not. Start from scratch.
For more on writing, see Stephen King, On Writing.