Writing begins with a blank page. It starts with a feeling of doubt, the uneasy sense of not being able to craft the first sentence. We know what to say, but we’ve hit the wall. And so we step away and head somewhere else, an amusing website or the kitchen for coffee. Once we’ve procrastinated long enough, a sting of guilt lures us back to the blank page, which still needs that dreaded first sentence—and that ominous first paragraph.
Such are the melodramatic moments of the writing process. It’s a constant tug of war between craving perfection and feeling incompetent, idealism versus pessimism. And because this mental clash is necessary—no one ever wrote the perfect first sentence—it’s impossible to avoid false starts or the terrifying feeling that you’re simply inadequate. There’s nothing pleasant about it.
Given how difficult this process is, it’s a no brainer to seek advice on how to write well. Instead of fine-tuning an opening paragraph for hours, listen to your favorite writers talk about how they write. Take notes on a piece of writing that you enjoyed; try to figure out what makes it good.
When I did, I uncovered a valuable insight. I used to think that great writers had good ideas all along—as if they were walking encyclopedias from the beginning—but I realized that it’s the other way around. Great writers have great ideas because they became great writers—it’s the act of writing that triggers good thinking.
That’s why I feature the occasional post on grammar and usage on this blog. Writing forces us to confront the gaps in our knowledge. If you can’t explain an idea clearly on paper, you probably can’t explain the idea at all. And while writing well won’t guarantee a promotion, poor writing could have the opposite effect.
That brings me to Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead—specifically chapter five, “On Thinking and Writing Well.” I re-read this short book last night and found a few insights that I’d like to share. We’ve already touched on the first:
Don’t Assume That You Are Aware of All You Know Before You Have Written It
No one can think through all the implications of a complicated body of information before putting a word on paper, any more than one can think through how all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle will fit together when they are spread out of a table. The act of beginning the text involves suspension of disbelief… just as you have to write each sentence as if it is final draft, even though you know that it probability will not survive, you also have to start writing as if you know what you know, even though you realize that your thinking is going to change, perhaps radically, as you go along.
(See also Dan Pink’s Convocation Address: “writing… is a way to figure out what you actually think”)
Kill Your Darlings
Probably the best writing tip there is. Here’s Murray:
In his essay “On Style” [Arthur Quiller-Couch] wrote, “whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
It has happened to me many times. I write a sentence or paragraph that I’m extremely proud of. It’s way above my usual expressiveness, nuance, and imagination. I just love it. Then a still, small voice says to me, “It doesn’t belong.” My impulse is to respond, “Who cares if it doesn’t belong? It’s great.” But the still, small voice is right. You’ll know it when it happens to you. Delete it. Mourn it, but delete it.
Let the Final Draft Cool Overnight
A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative insights.
There’s no mystery to this. Writing is not a unitary thing. Even a piece of less than a thousand words has dozens of moving parts, and it is not within the scope of the human mind, or at least my human mind, to review all those moving parts consciously and at one time. And so while watching a TV show the evening after finishing the piece, a word or phrase will pop into my head that works much better than the one I used in the afternoon. At three in the morning, I will suddenly awaken and realize to my horror that there’s an obvious lacuna in my argument—so obvious that it’s inconceivable I could have missed it. But I did, and, by letting the final draft cool overnight, found it.
Talk to Yourself
The easiest way to identify clunkiness in your prose is to hear it, out loud or in your head. The awkward phrase or the clumsy Latinate word becomes obvious. It sounds clunky. Right now, for example, I’m still fretting over the phrase “I know from experience that there’s a good chance…” in the preceding paragraph. The “that there’s” combination sounds clunky and is driving me crazy. I’ll probably leave it unchanged so I can use it as an illustration. Otherwise, I’d go back and fix it.