Writing is magical. Brilliant prose takes complex thinking and offers the reader a lyrical, unlabored shortcut to wit and wisdom.
But writing that reads effortlessly takes great pain to create. To quote William Zissner, “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident.”
Finding success in writing starts with caring about what you have to say. Surround yourself with writers who give a damn; with enough exposure you’ll begin to see the why behind their words.
With that in mind, here are eighteen helpful ideas from writers who work hard to make each keystroke count. Learn from them.
The “Why” of Writing
With no exaggeration needed, language—and the ability to wield it—is one of the defining characteristics of being human: “After all, language is the thing that distinguishes us as a species, over all the others. Other creatures love their young, raise them, and nurture them. All animals seek warmth when it’s cold. But we’re the only ones with literature. You’re never going to see two monkeys talking about another one that’s been dead a hundred years.”
Designing for meaning rather than for the moment requires being a great communicator. As Paul Rand says, “Design is the method of putting form and content together.” Jarrod Drysdale expands on this point, adding: “A few years back, I tended to get excited about aesthetic concepts or features. Now when I start a design, the exciting part is connecting an audience with a great idea. After this change, design is just a tool to help me get the message across. It’s an artifact created along the way—not the goal.”
“The most important sort of disobedience is to write essays at all. Fortunately, this sort of disobedience shows signs of becoming rampant. It used to be that only a tiny number of officially approved writers were allowed to write essays. The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it.”
What causes writer’s block? According to Hunter Walk, it’s the need to feel confident that what’s written is unquestionably correct, with air-tight logic that cannot be challenged. Anxiety is inevitable in this state of mind, and the anxious writer seldom writes. If you want to find your best ideas, have the courage to keep writing—even when you might be wrong.
When the stereotype of the cabin-dwelling novelist is finally overcome, most people realize that writing is simply a way to bring abstract ideas into the tangible world. Psychologists have observed that this offers a number of benefits to health and happiness—even when you’re just jotting things down to close out your “mental tabs.”
“If you are trying to decide between a few people to fill a position, always hire the better writer… Good writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. They think clearly. And those are the qualities you need.”
Making Your Words Count
A rough draft is, in some form, the gist of what you’re trying to say. But Dan Ritzenthaler argues you should go with an idea prototype instead: “I’m not writing rough drafts anymore. I’m writing idea prototypes. I’m not writing to start an article, but to get an idea to a place that I can see it outside of my own brain. Where I can show it to someone else and see what happens. Then decide if I want to write the article.”
Making keystrokes matter has only grown in importance as communication and the text that powers it become increasingly inseparable. If you can’t cut the fluff, you can’t communicate well. Remember that “prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” The words you keep must be essential; the rest should be removed.
“Frames of reference are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway. You will never land smoothly on borrowed vividness. If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you.”
Good writing moves the reader effortlessly through the text. Reading suddenly becomes as quick as thought. Part of mastering flow in writing is understanding the interplay between short and long sentences. When used well, a short sentence can bring clarity, heighten suspense, or place a magnifying glass on a point of interest. With the added power of spacing, it can rest alone—a mark that it’s too important to be with anything else.
Stanford Professor of Communications JD Schramm boils down the advice he’s given over the years to executives, students, and everyone else who wants to tell a good story. A personal favorite: “Parachute in, don’t preamble. The best storytellers draw us immediately into the action. They capture our attention and set the tone for a unique audience experience. Drop us into the action and draw the lesson out later.”
Hoarding writing advice can put you in an editorial prison. Ann Handley’s “rules” are useful because they leave room to breathe; one of them in particular inspired the title of this post: “Writing well is part habit, part knowledge of some fundamental rules, and part giving a damn.”
The writers you admire create first drafts worthy of the garbage-bin, same as everyone else. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, a writer’s greatest fear is dying at his or her desk, “lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.” Editing makes the difference. Here’s a collection of advice and aphorisms on removing the inessential.
“I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right,” says author and essayist Cheryl Strayed. Along with novelist Thomas Mallon, Strayed makes the compelling point that becoming a better writer means finding the balance between the “mystical and mundane,” or having the wisdom to see that much of what gushes onto the page in a creative whirlwind will need to be edited out later on.
When you sit down to write, you often know where you’d like to end up. With each keystroke you get closer to the outcome, but uncertainty remains throughout the entire process. This can be intimidating, as Sally Kerrigan explains: “There’s this expectation of artful precision, mercurial grammatical rules, and the weird angst that comes with writing for other people. You start with a tidy nugget of an idea, but as you try to string it into language, it feels more like you’re pulling out your own intestines.”
“It’s no coincidence that the language of rhythm infiltrates the writer’s vocabulary. We speak of pacing, meter and cadence. We sense when a beat is missing from a line. We notice the flow in a section or the staccato rat-tat-tat in a series of sentences.”
17. Writing, Briefly
This is a piece I continually revisit. If you enjoy Paul Graham’s essays, this is a rare look into his process. Here’s a suggestion I use religiously: “read your essays out loud to see (a) where you stumble over awkward phrases and (b) which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading).”
“Just write” is tired advice, but it cannot be forgotten. If you’re looking for a way to make hard work easy, you won’t find it in writing. Know that you’ll struggle with the blank page until you fall off the chair, but until that day, keep sitting down and do the work.