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On Writing Well covers insights and tips on writing non-fiction—from people and places to science and business.
Clear writing is clear thinking. To write well, write—and rewrite, and rewrite again—to be clear. Along the process, practice to become confident with yourself and the message you want to share with another person.
Computers have replaced the typewriter, the delete key has replaced the wastebasket, and various other keys insert, move and rearrange whole chunks of text. But nothing has replaced the writer. He or she is still stuck with the same old job of saying something that other people will want to read.
Writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.
Rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
The professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.
There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.
Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.
The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.
Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.
Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.
Take the adjective “personal,” as in “a personal friend of mine,” “his personal feeling” or “her personal physician.” It’s typical of hundreds of words that can be eliminated.
“Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?”
The long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called) and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.
Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself.
It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.
Good writers are visible just behind their words. If you aren’t allowed to use “I,” at least think “I” while you write, or write the first draft in the first person and then take the “I”s out. It will warm up your impersonal style.
Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.
Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.
Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.
Readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.
Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write. Therefore think small. Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop. This is also a matter of energy and morale. An unwieldy writing task is a drain on your enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.
Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”
Next the lead must do some real work. It must provide hard details that tell the reader why the piece was written and why he ought to read it. But don’t dwell on the reason. Coax the reader a little more; keep him inquisitive.
Take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph. Try to give that sentence an extra twist of humor or surprise, like the periodic “snapper” in the routine of a stand-up comic. Make the reader smile and you’ve got him for at least one more paragraph.
One moral of this story is that you should always collect more material than you will use.
Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing the obvious people.
Just tell a story. It’s such a simple solution, so obvious and unsophisticated, that we often forget that it’s available to us. But narrative is the oldest and most compelling method of holding someone’s attention; everybody wants to be told a story.
The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it.
Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing. If something surprises you it will also surprise—and delight—the people you are writing for, especially as you conclude your story and send them on their way.
Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an activeverb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.
Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t set up a business that you can start or launch. Don’t say that the president of the company stepped down. Did he resign? Did he retire? Did he get fired? Be precise. Use precise verbs.
Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness.
The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.
Learn to alert the reader as soon as possible to any change in mood from the previous sentence. At least a dozen words will do this job for you: “but,” “yet,” “however,” “nevertheless,” “still,” “instead,” “thus,” “therefore,” “meanwhile,” “now,” “later,” “today,” “subsequently” and several more. I can’t overstate how much easier it is for readers to process a sentence if you start with “but” when you’re shifting direction. Or, conversely, how much harder it is if they must wait until the end to realize that you have shifted.
There’s no rule against such informality—trust your ear and your instincts. I only suggest avoiding one form—“I’d,” “he’d,” “we’d,” etc.—because “I’d” can mean both “I had” and “I would,” and readers can get well into a sentence before learning which meaning it is. Often it’s not the one they thought it was.
Credibility is just as fragile for a writer as for a President. Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect. It’s too great a risk, and not worth taking.
Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.
Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.
Your subconscious mind does more writing than you think. Often you’ll spend a whole day trying to fight your way out of some verbal thicket in which you seem to be tangled beyond salvation. Frequently a solution will occur to you the next morning when you plunge back in. While you slept, your writer’s mind didn’t. A writer is always working. Stay alert to the currents around you. Much of what you see and hear will come back, having percolated for days or months or even years through your subconscious mind, just when your conscious mind, laboring to write, needs it.
Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved 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.
Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.
People will write better and with more enjoyment if they write about what they care about.
Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can figure out. Try not to use words like “surprisingly,” “predictably” and “of course,” which put a value on a fact before the reader encounters the fact. Trust your material.
No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.
Motivation is at the heart of writing. If nonfiction is where you do your best writing, or your best teaching of writing, don’t be buffaloed into the idea that it’s an inferior species. The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.
Often you’ll find yourself embarking on an article so apparently lifeless—the history of an institution, or some local issue such as storm sewers—that you will quail at the prospect of keeping your readers, or even yourself, awake. Take heart. You’ll find the solution if you look for the human element.
The best way to practice is to go out and interview people. The interview itself is one of the most popular nonfiction forms, so you should master it early.
To learn the craft of nonfiction you must push yourself out into the real world—your town or your city or your county—and pretend that you’re writing for a real publication. If it helps, decide which publication you are hypothetically writing for. Choose as your subject someone whose job is so important, or so interesting, or so unusual that the average reader would want to read about that person.
Never go into an interview without doing whatever homework you can. If you are interviewing a town official, know his or her voting record. If it’s an actress, know what plays or movies she has been in. You will be resented if you inquire about facts you could have learned in advance.
Your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately. If he carefully weighed two sides of an issue and you only quote his views of one side, making him seem to favor that position, you will misrepresent what he told you. Or you might misrepresent him by quoting him out of context, or by choosing only some flashy remark without adding the serious afterthought. You are dealing with a person’s honor and reputation—and also with your own.
The nonfiction writer’s rare privilege is to have the whole wonderful world of real people to write about. When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.
People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.
The article that records everything you did on your trip will fascinate you because it was your trip. Will it fascinate the reader? It won’t. The mere agglomeration of detail is no free pass to the reader’s interest. The detail must be significant.
As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that “the shore was scattered with rocks” or that “occasionally a seagull flew over.” Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant. They may be important to your narrative; they may be unusual, or colorful, or comic, or entertaining. But make sure they do useful work.
Your main task as a travel writer is to find the central idea of the place you’re dealing with.
On the question of who you’re writing for, don’t be eager to please. If you consciously write for a teacher or for an editor, you’ll end up not writing for anybody. If you write for yourself, you’ll reach the people you want to write for
Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.
Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.
A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.” As tenets go, it’s not flattering, but a technical writer can never forget it. You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.
Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works. Then it forces you to take the reader through the same sequence of ideas and deductions that made the process clear to you.
Any organization that won’t take the trouble to be both clear and personal in its writing will lose friends, customers and money.
A simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.
Another rule is: don’t give away too much of the plot. Tell readers just enough to let them decide whether it’s the kind of story they tend to enjoy, but not so much that you’ll kill their enjoyment.
Criticism is a serious intellectual act. It tries to evaluate serious works of art and to place them in the context of what has been done before in that medium or by that artist.
Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It’s secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool—and sometimes their only tool—for making an important point.
Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and clichés.
Clichés are one of the things you should keep listening for when you rewrite and read your successive drafts aloud. Notice how incriminating they sound, convicting you of being satisfied to use the same old chestnuts instead of making an effort to replace them with fresh phrases of your own. Clichés are the enemy of taste.
Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become. By reading other writers you also plug yourself into a longer tradition that enriches you. Sometimes you will tap a vein of eloquence or racial memory that gives your writing a depth it could never attain on its own.
Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.
The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.
Any time you can tell a story in the form of a quest or a pilgrimage you’ll be ahead of the game. Readers bearing their own associations will do some of your work for you.
Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell.
Each sentence contains one thought—and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.
Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.
If you look long enough you can usually find a proper name or a metaphor that will bring those dull but necessary facts to life.
Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required. The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn’t totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense. Readers should always feel that you know more about your subject than you’ve put in writing.
As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you. Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.
Remember this when you write your own family history. Don’t try to be a “writer.” Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you.
You are the protagonist in your memoir—the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. Like siblings.
If you would like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take an obsessive pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen—editors, agents and publishers—whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high. Too many writers are browbeaten into settling for less than their best.
Remember that the craft of nonfiction writing involves more than writing. It also means being reliable. Editors will properly drop a writer they can’t count on.
Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.