Write better #3: Build muscle

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Sound advice from Chinese T-shirts

“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time…. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

That reassurance is from the late journalist and teacher William Zinsser, whose book ‘On Writing Well’ I just read. It’s an excellent guide, mixing the micro (such as why you should rarely use an exclamation mark; or why most adverbs are unnecessary), the techniques (how to construct a strong opening; how to adapt quotes yet stay true to your interviewee), and the principles (putting your own voice into your writing; homing in on ‘one corner’ of your subject). First published in 1976, it’s bang-on relevant today.

Non-writers often assume that good writers find their work easy, as Zinsser reminds us. They don’t. Find any honest account of a writer’s typical day — the Guardian’s Saturday column, for example — and you read of self-doubt, struggle, procrastination. And often, little to show for it all by evening time.

It’s not about quantity, though, as author Jake Arnott points out in one such column. He cites Truman Capote, who, once taunted for being such a slow writer that he might have only penned one single word after a full day’s work, responded: “Yes, but it was the right word”.

Getting to that right word takes a combination of perseverance and what Zinsser would call “caring deeply about words” — and that’s the difference.

That applies not only to writers. The same sense of cherishing one’s work is echoed by radio producer and host Ira Glass (of This American Life fame) when he describes the frustration that any creative beginner experiences in seeing the enormous gap between the great work they aspire to, and the mediocre stuff they keep churning out. The gap refuses to shift for a long time, says Glass, and there’s only one way to narrow it: “do a lot of work”.

Such advice shouldn’t be a revelation, but it’s good to (re-)hear it sometimes. I also love this quote from writer Jennifer Egan (cited on Brain Pickings):

“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

I don’t usually feel very accepting when my own paragraphs refuse to connect, when the words that emerge on my page don’t make my point any clearer, or when I’m still working on an article hours (and I mean many, many hours) after I thought I’d finish. But I’m going to try to think of those hours less as wasted time, more as muscle-building for the long-haul. At least I’m not the only one struggling.

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