As part of my reading for my Personal MBA, I am documenting the key lessons I learnt from On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. It is not intended to be a summary or review, rather a reflection of how the book has influenced my writing.
I feel like a fool, I should have read this before I started writing.
No, then it would not have had the same impact.
When should someone wanting to improve the quality of their writing read this? – perhaps that doesn’t matter. As long as they do. I certainly recommend it for anyone who has to convey a message in the written medium.
As I pursue my Personal MBA, I am surprised at how many fundamental skills we take for granted as a given, with a fixed mindset. There are assumptions about how we read and learn. A key aspect of my development this year is targeted at challenging those assumptions, improving “basic” skills utilised daily. Writing is one of those.
With persistence, I can be a better writer
At times writing is easy, it flows. On other occasions, it is hard work, agonising over every word, sentence and paragraph. And of course, the flow.
“Can such principles be taught? Maybe not. But most of them can be learned.”
This quote from the book reminded me of something a friend once said, he was reflecting on a writer who produced nothing of acclaim, after 20 years of persistent writing. Then in his 40s, a masterpiece. Most would see that as a problem, Andrew found it encouraging, that competency in writing can be learnt, with persistence, innate inability can be overcome.
Just like taking a 1,000 swings with a golf club or hitting 10,000 tennis balls, chances are, you will be better at the end of it. Writing, like any skill, recognises that there is some natural ability, but with practice, you can become better.
On Writing Well
I read this book at a slow pace. It was well crafted, as any book about writing well, would need to be. I also wanted to give the ideas a chance to sink in. This was not one to speed read. I read a chapter at a time for Part I and Part II, which are quite general. Part III and Part IV cover specific circumstances, I skimmed some of these and have not included them in this post.
Part I – Principles
Over time principles don’t change. I read the 30th edition of the book. On reflection, my view is that any adult with a requirement to write more than 3 sentences at a time should read the first two parts of this book. With technology, good writers have become better, grappling with every sentence. At the same time, bad writers have become prolific.
The ambition of a writer should be to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Removing every unnecessary word. I had a manager who was brilliant at this, Roza would delete words, I would re-read the sentence and notice how the message would be the same, only cleaner, clearer. I am naturally verbose. It is not wrong, but with awareness, I can be better.
This does not mean that there are not different styles. Two of my core Digital Mentors are at different ends of the spectrum. Take a look at a couple of my favourite posts, one by Derek Sivers and the other by Ryan Holiday. It is better to be authentic and not “perfect” than attempt to twist your style to some conformity. Like any relationships, lack of authenticity will quickly reveal itself. To the reader, it just won’t feel right.
Writing is often the easy part, it can come quickly, rewriting is where it becomes difficult. My book had 6 official edits and about double that in proof-reads. Once the writing is complete, the hard work beings. This is why I am cultivating a love for re-writing, loving the process, not just the outcome. I am learning to take joy in improving the flow, deleting words, enhancing the outcome.
A blog post used to take me a couple of hours. Now I usually invest at least 3 times that, just in the writing, excluding, research, notes and reflection.
Useful principles that I am looking to integrate better:
- A powerful rewrite tool is to read it out loud before sharing it.
- Reduce the clutter words – some obvious ones are personal and present (time). Almost every sentence with them, can do without them. De-cluttering also involves finding alternatives that can simplify the sentence.
- Be authentic in my style.If I wouldn’t say it
in a sentence(an example of deicluttering), then I won’t write it.
- I write for myself, crafting and honing my skills to be better.
- I need to care about the words I use, their meaning, the rhythm of a sentence. People read with their eyes, but hear the words in their minds.
- To the Literati, grammar seems more important, than word usage. New words are generally accepted, mis-using new words or old words is frowned upon. For example, “input” refers to a computer, not your ideas being shared.
- Avoid using clichés. Being sceptical of a sentence or phrases that come to easily.
Part II – Methods
There is a clear need to convince the reader early on that a piece is worthy of their time, that it will be of interest and valuable to them. A powerful start is key.
With non-fiction, this may mean giving away the conclusion/outcome in the first or second paragraph. Readers need to know if it’s relevant for them and whats in it for them, with so many competing alternatives, their attention is at premium. This is why we get so many annoying and misleading click-bait titles.
The consistency, flow and quality of the are what will turn readers into fans. One of my editors continually reminded me, to only keep socks in the sock drawer. If I have labelled it a sock draw, it is confusing and uncomfortable for the reader when they find something else in there. I realise that I have included many great, but completely irrelevant points in my posts. Derek Sivers has a one idea, one post approach. This does not generally work for me, although I have experimented with it before. I like to synthesise ideas, but focus on not taking the reader down a blind alley (what was that about clichés?), ideas that don’t go anywhere should be avoided.
The advice in the book is to not over-explain an idea, to treat the reader with some respect. I think my usual shortcoming is the opposite to this. I expect the reader to have to do too much work. I have a habit of thinking that stating a fact explains an idea, expecting everyone to get to the same “obvious” conclusion as me, it is a balancing act.
Let humour be subtle. A joke that needs explaining is never funny.
The book also tackles the tricky dilemma of lack of gender neutrality in the English language. It hasn’t evolved to allow for it. There are workarounds such as using the plural, the sacrifice then comes in the form of losing specificity (relatedness). Other workarounds become cumbersome. I regularly grapple with this.
Learning when to stop is as important.
The Takeaway – If you think, you should work on your writing
Writing is about thinking clearly, many times I have thought that I was clear on an argument or view point, until I tried to write about it. This has caused me to be more reflective and open to new points of view. Or, become clearer in my established thinking. This is why writing, and specifically journaling, is such a powerful personal development tool.
I am beginning to find myself noticing more the quality of a piece of writing, be it my own or someone else’s. I see what the are trying to do. Not just the idea or argument, but how it has been constructed. I have a greater awareness.
In the end, I don’t want to over analyse the output of my writing, remembering that it is for me and needs to be authentic. Knowing that I can be better is a result I am happy with. Targeting better, not perfect.