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. Continue reading “Write better #3: Build muscle”

Write better #2: Shipbuilding

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Lost in the detail

Here’s a lovely illustration of why all writers – even the best ones – need an editor:

“In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior.

What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.”

Michael Crichton, quoted in the Paris Review

Continue reading “Write better #2: Shipbuilding”

Write better #1

Michelle Obama’s recent speech at the Democratic National Convention caught attention far and wide— but what made it so good? Journalism training specialists Poynter have a useful analysis here.

Speeches are a valuable resource for learning effective writing: as Poynter’s author points out, because they’re meant to be heard, they use more rhetorical devices than stuff that’s written down. The sound and the flow and the language jumps out at you, even if you don’t know why that is.

There’s lots of good stuff in the post about choice of language and structure, but one lesson I particularly like is: express your best thought in a short sentence, preferably using simple words (“when they go low, we go high”). It’s an approach that applies to most forms of communication, and reminded me of another helpful (and helpfully brief) resource. Continue reading “Write better #1”