on writing

It takes nerve to write and it takes even more nerve to write about writing. For good reasons, most writers prefer to address other topics. Many great writers, however, and some lesser ones, have taken a crack at it. What makes me think that I have anything to add? Hubris.

Those of us who are afflicted with a writing habit have a need to sort out the problem of the good and evil within you and me. Either that, or we like to see our names in print.

People who say they know why they write are lying. Writing doesn't pay enough to make any sense.

Someone once said that when a jazz trumpeter plays, the audience can hear every minute of every hour of every day of practice he has put into his craft. In the same way, the reader can see in every sentence you write how much effort you've invested in your craft. You can't put anything over on an audience, at least not for long. Your reader will see not only how good a craftsperson you are, but, what's more important, she'll see what's in your soul.

Okay, so you wanna be a writa. How then do you make yourself intimate with a piece of paper or a computer screen, without looking like a fool? Most people think that being intimate means disclosing all, but there's a fine line between refreshing honesty and repulsive self-indulgence.

Every time I sit down to write, I come face to face with my shortcomings as a writer and as a person. This is not a business for the faint of heart. All I have to do is look at the paragraph I've written, and I can see how far I have to go.

Like it or not, writers are in the entertainment business. Our challenge is to bring the reader along, sentence by sentence, by telling a story, telling a joke, or by dazzling them with the brilliance of our analysis. That is, we have to give them some kind of value they can't get elsewhere.

We're also in the truth business. Whether it be literal truth for a non-fiction writer, or a larger, more universal truth for fiction, you have to give yourself a reason to write. You have to believe in something. I know it sounds arrogant, but I believe that other people would be better off if they read my stuff.

To simplify things a bit, I was bored and boring for the first few decades of my life. Some might say I still am. Then I discovered that I had strong opinions I needed to voice and the ability on a good day to go one millimeter beneath the surface of a question. I hope that these qualities have put me a little ahead of the pack.

It kills me to read professional writers who have style and talent to kill for, but nothing to say. What a waste.

As far as learning how to write is concerned, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The first is message.

I don't know what to say to people who believe that there's nothing special about them or their experiences — nothing that others would want to read about. I start with the premise that everyone has a story to tell. That's why god gave us voices to speak with and fingers to type with. All the birds have songs to sing, stories to tell, and so do you. Moreover, you're the only person who knows what it feels like to be you, the only person who can tell your story. You're the best person in the world to tell us what it feels like to be you.

It's wonderful to admire and even fall in love with other people's writing. But true love is about realizing your own fullest potential, not merging your personality with someone else's.

The second aspect of learning to write is the mechanics — the medium, if you will. As a writer, you should know all about grammar and usage. You should study them. Then you can break the rules as you see fit. At your own risk, of course, but there's no reward without risk.

What to Avoid

My formal training is in math, so my first peeve is writing that has logic problems, writing that hasn't been thought through. Redundancies, oxymorons, and other flubs fall into that category. You didn't think it through. The classic redundancy is Rio Grande River. That's bad enough, but I once heard someone say, "The Great El Rio Grande River." That's too good, too original, to change. If you can be redundant in an original, creative way, then go for it.


My second peeve is jargon, such as foreign expressions that are designed to impress, when there's a perfectly good English expression that means the same thing.

Omit Needless Words

When I was growing up, life was simple in the Ford's neighborhood. All the Mommies were pretty and all the Daddies wore business suits and brought home the bacon. Language was simple, too. For example, God gave us baseball-obsessed youths First Base, Second Base, Third Base, and Home. And He looked upon the Bases and declared them Good. Notice the beauty and simplicity of the jargon. Bag was slang for any base except home, which was a plate, not a bag. Are you with me so far?

For example, you might say, he stubbed his toe on first base, or she slid so hard into second base, it came loose and the umps had to put it back. If you were talking about any of the bases First through Third, you might use the word bag and say that she missed the bag and was called out, or that he tripped over the bag and fell.

Somewhere along the way, some announcers raised by permissive parents who had failed to properly potty train them lost their way and started talking about "the First Base Bag" and "the Second Base Bag." Please, it's First Base, not the First Base Bag.

Not to be outdone by God, the Devil invented football and gave us First Down, Second Down, Third Down, and Fourth Down. (The Devil isn't particularly original.) Then he looked upon his Downs, frowned his approval, and declared them perfect for fall weekend entertainment. So it was from the 1940s through most of the 1970s.

I don't want to say that the Human Potential Movement is the source of all that is wrong with our fair country, but I'm tempted to say that it's responsible for many of its linguistic problems. It seems that some announcers who had attended one too many weekend seminars decided that henceforth there would be no more Third Downs, only Third Down Situations.

One might ask the humble question, how was the union of states that Washington had started and Lincoln had preserved able to survive for so long without a single Third Down Situation? No one who poses such a question understands the Human Potential Movement. The 1970s unleashed the full potential of humankind to abuse the English language.

As in, "Bill, the coach is facing a tough Third Down Situation here." As if the coach is facing an existential dilemma comparable to Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. In the New Football, the head coach conferring with the quarterback at the sidelines is comparable to Socrates imparting wisdom to Plato by way of a few well-chosen questions. ("And what, my son, will happen if we go outside and they are also thinking outside?")

I don't care if they go outside, go inside, or pass, or kick, or throw their helmets down in disgust and walk off the field — but please don't talk to me about Third Down Situations. It's Third Down.

I say, play football already! In the old days, the coach would send in a play for the team to run on Third Down, and they would run it, and they would make their yardage or not, and that would be the end of that.

So you don't want to say Rio Grande River or First Base Bag or Third Down Situation. But keep in mind that in certain oratorical and lyrical traditions, you never say something just once, especially if it's something important!

None of the rules are in stone.


Avoid clichés. This includes so-called conventional wisdom, or anything that has been repeated so many times that people take it to be true, no matter how false. For example, "He decided not to run for reelection because he wants to spend more time with his family." Just once, I'd like to read in the press that a candidate is tossing her hat into the ring because she decided that she was spending way too much time with her family, and they were driving her nuts.

Don't insult the reader. Tell me the truth: she's quitting because her pollster told her she was going to lose the next election. Or because her doctor told her she needed to have major surgery. But don't lie to me. I'm an adult; I can take the truth.

Another howler is, "This is a very physical football team." Just once, I'd like to hear the announcer say, "You know, Jim, this is one of the most mental teams in the whole AFC."

I know that jocks are an easy target, but I simply can't resist. The Stanford basketball coach once said, "This is one of the deepest teams we've had in the last couple of years." Huh? This is one of the three or four deepest teams we've had in the last two years? As they used to say when I was growing up, thimk.

Tighten up the logic.


I rarely use the word very. It's my way of disciplining myself to chose the right verb, instead of choosing a weaker verb and then trying to strengthen it with an all-purpose intensifier.

Avoid intensifiers like pretty, rather, and very. The current scourge of writing and speech is "literally," which people use even when they mean, "figuratively," its opposite.

It's not about style at all; it's about telling the truth. Don't worry about your style. Just tell me as much of the truth as you can, in as few words as you can, and your style will take care of itself.

The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White heavily influenced me. Omit the extra word, sentence, or paragraph. Shorter is better than longer, other things being equal.

Here's my rule for needless words: Try the sentence without the word in question. If the sentence works, leave the word out; otherwise, leave it in.

Sometimes it's hard to cut a paragraph you've worked hard on. Don't get rid of it, exactly, just move it into a file that contains some extra stuff you might need someday. If it begs and screams to be let back into the piece, put it back. But if it only grumbles and whimpers a little, leave it out.

The longer the work, the more opportunity you have to include things that are strictly speaking off-topic. That's why people write novels, so they can impress you with how much they know about the weather in Moscow, or the migratory habits of the Canadian caribou, or what keeps an airplane in flight. Nevertheless, everything in your piece, regardless of its length, should further the mission, so to speak, of that piece.

Most writers live with deadlines and editors breathing down their necks, so they need to churn out a certain number of words per day. They measure their success by how many words they wrote that day. I take the opposite approach. I see how many words I can eliminate that day. Removing stuff is where the real work is. If I can eliminate a hundred words, one by one, in a day, I know my piece is making real progress.


I've lost count of how many times I've rewritten my first manuscript. It's around thirteen or fourteen, but it wasn't ready for others' eyes until about the twelfth draft. I got it down from about twelve hundred pages of notes to a slim, trim two hundred and fifty pages.

When I started the book, personal computers were in their infancy, and I didn't own one. My tools were a manual typewriter, scissors, and scotch tape. You should have seen our living room. Every horizontal surface was covered with manuscript pages. Now I only clutter my hard drive. See how much progress humankind has made in just two decades? The personal computer allows you to concentrate all the chaos in one place, and your guests can sit on the couch.

You're rewriting like a maniac. How do you know when to quit? My rule is to keep making changes as long as they improve the piece. When I find that I'm changing a word, and then on the next rewrite I'm changing it back to what it was before, I know I'm getting close to the limit of my feeble powers. It's best at this point to put the piece into the hands of a professional. I've done my best. They can take it from here.

I'm never satisfied with a sentence. Except for the occasional two- or three-word sentence, where I sometimes get the feeling I've nailed it.

It boils down to this: write about something you feel passionate about; be prepared to rewrite as many times as it takes to get it right; and know your craft, your profession.

One of the paradoxes of writing is that it requires you to have an iron ass, the ability to sit by yourself for long periods in front of your computer display. But to have something to write about, you need to get out of the house and experience life. You need to spend half your time moving your ass and the other half cramming it into a chair.

Most of the time, writer's block is simply having nothing compelling to write about.

If the act of writing, of cutting and pasting hour after hour, sounds about as exciting to you as taking out the trash, then you probably won't succeed over the long term as a writer.

As far as getting published is concerned, you must find an ally in someone who works in the profession. Such as an editor, a publisher, or another writer. Find someone who is in the business, who believes in the worth of your work, and who is willing to go the distance with you in trying to get it into other people's hands.

Good luck.

Here are some fractured rules:

A preposition is a bad word to end a sentence with.

It's a very bad idea to use a common, all-purpose intensifier.

Never, never say something twice when you can say it just as well once.

Your writing will be much better *sans* all of those trendy foreign expressions.

Generally, it's a bad idea to begin a sentence with an unattached adverb.

Resolve to never split an infinitive.

Avoid clichés like the plague.

Avoid parentheses. (Unless, of course, you can't.)

All rules are made to be broken. Except this one.

Final Thoughts

One of the big lies of the how-to books on writing is that you can teach writing. The truth is that writing is a passion, something you must do, not an occasional avocation.

Anne Lamott says that if you're thinking that when this happens or that happens, when you get the house in the country, when you get married or divorced, or when you hit the lottery, then you'll finally be able to write, you'll never be a writer. A writer writes because she has to; she couldn't stop if she tried.

It isn't so much that you create the work; it's that the work creates you. It's fashionable to say that this or that work inspired me or changed my life. Perhaps so, but the work changes, or even creates, the writer far more than it changes the reader.


Rita Mae Brown, Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anaïs Nin, On Writing
Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art
William Strunk, Jr. with E. B. White, The Elements of Style
William Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

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