Image Credit: Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing” (ca. 1665), National Gallery of Art
By Jason Zweig | Nov. 18, 2018 8:00 pm ET
People often ask me to tell them, or teach them, how to write well.
Not in my craziest dreams — or, to be more precise, in my worst nightmares — would I ever say I know how to write well. I rarely look at anything I’ve ever written without seeing a blighted mess of mushy language and shoddy thinking. I write at least 50 columns a year at The Wall Street Journal, along with plenty of other articles there and a few posts that I publish only here (like this one!). Once, twice, maybe three times a year, I write something I’m proud of. I want to take almost everything else I’ve ever written out behind the barn and bury it. So the idea that I can tell or teach you how to write well strikes me as ridiculous.
But maybe I can help you write better. Be forewarned: That will take some time, so this isn’t a short post. It’s the first of a series of long posts.
I’ll call this one…
On Writing Better: Getting Started
Let me tell you at the outset that I’m not going to give you a comprehensive list of tips on style and usage. Even the best writers have fallen into the trap of laying out arbitrary, pedantic, schoolmarmish rules that would petrify the language of anyone who relied on them. Ambrose Bierce, who wrote some of the most brightly sparkling prose of any American author, perpetrated a style guide called Write It Right, an amusing but testy attack on anyone who dared to use slang or believed that language should grow or change. Nor am I a fan of style bullies like Strunk and White, with their finger-wagging rants about exactly how which word must be used where and when. If all you think about is do’s and don’ts, you won’t be able to write at all.
Good sentences, like good people, come in all shapes and sizes and types.
They can be short:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
— George Orwell, 1984
They can be long and fragmentary:
…and then I walked and walked in the rain that turned half into snow and I was drenched and frozen; and walked upon a park that seemed like the very pasture of Hell where there were couples whispering in the shadows, all in some plot to warm the world tonight, and I went into a public place and saw annunciations drawn and written on the walls.
— William Goyen, The House of Breath
They can make us see the soul beneath the skin:
It looked like somebody had found a walnut a little larger than a football and with a machinist’s hammer had shaped features into it and then painted it, mostly red; not Indian red but a fine bright ruddy color which whiskey might have had something to do with but which was mostly just happy and violent out-of-doors, the wrinkles in it not the residue of the forty years it had survived but from squinting into the sun or into the gloom of cane-brakes where game had run, baked into it by the camp fires before which he had lain trying to sleep on the cold November or December ground while waiting for daylight so he could rise and hunt again, as though time were merely something he walked through as he did through air, aging him no more than air did.
— William Faulkner, The Bear
They can play on all our senses:
He felt it all anew, letting it extend panoramically in his consciousness — the moan of a liner edging out towards the sunset bar, or the trains which flowed like a torrent of diamonds towards the interior, their wheels chattering among the shingle ravines and the powder of temples long since abandoned and silted up.
— Lawrence Durrell, Mountolive
They can have the rhythm of a formal dance:
In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Good writing flashes between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the general; it uses specific details and images to ignite our feelings and open our minds to the wider world. It treats words as if they have just come into the world for the first time: Look at how Gibbon uses “comprehended” instead of “ruled” or “covered” or “encompassed”; how Goyen’s agonized narrator perceives love as “some plot to warm the world tonight”; how Faulkner specifies not just any hammer, but a “machinist’s hammer,” with its sharp edge on one side, and “mostly red” paint, leaving the other stray colors to our imagination; how Durrell connects “train,” “torrent,” and “diamonds” in a shower of sound and light and motion; how Orwell bodyslams us from springtime to dystopia with the shocking clang of that word “thirteen.”
Good writing is full of wonder; it marvels at the glory and stupidity and frustration and pain and beauty of being alive. You can’t write anything if you don’t feel something. You have to want to tell people what you feel, what you care about, what you believe, what you know; if you don’t have something you’re on fire to tell us about, you shouldn’t be writing.
So let’s assume you already know what you want to write about. You just want to be able to write about it better. Here are a few suggestions from my decades of struggling, and mostly failing, to become a better writer myself.
Writer’s Block: Getting Unstuck
With soft smugness, I used to tell people, “I never get writer’s block,” until one day I looked at all the writing I had done for the exclusive purpose of not doing the writing I was supposed to be doing. Only then did I realize how much and how badly I had been lying to myself. The truth is I get writer’s block every time I write; I’ve always ended up defeating it (so far, anyway), but that doesn’t entitle me to pretend I’ve never had it. I’ve even written a little of this post in snatches of time stolen from working on my column for The Wall Street Journal!
So it’s okay to drop a piece of writing when you can’t seem to make headway on it. Use the extra time you’ve just created to write something else instead, so you can still work on polishing your craft even when you aren’t working on the piece of writing you most want to do. Writer’s block doesn’t mean you can’t write anything; it just means you can’t write the one thing you’ve been working on. If you switch to something easier, you will probably write better; that should help you get unstuck, enabling you to turn back to the harder writing with more freedom and openness.
If that doesn’t work, and you find yourself staring at a skim-milk-colored empty screen wondering how you will ever gather the words to say what’s on your mind, try a couple of tricks.
First, ask yourself: What is the single most basic fact about my topic? By “basic,” I mean the simplest possible observation or evidence you can think of. It might be the name of someone you want to mention in what you write; which day of the week something happened; where you were when you learned the lesson you don’t yet have the words to describe; a saying you love; a color or sound or smell or taste or touch that reminds you of what you wish you could tell us about. Now look at that blank screen, that empty Word file or Google doc, or that virginal piece of paper, and type or write whatever that first simplest possible thing is, like this:
if you’re standing on your head, don’t complain that the rest of the world is upside-down
smelled like poo
it tasted vinegary
felt like velvet
Of course, your most basic possible thing will be different from these. What it is doesn’t matter; all that matters is that it should be the simplest possible aspect of what you’re trying to write about and that it should spring to your mind without a moment’s effort. If you have to think at all to come up with it, you’re thinking too hard. So type it or write it. Now.
Notice what you’ve just done. Your screen or page isn’t blank anymore. Now, it says “June 13, 2016.” Or “Lucy Aldobelli.” Or “green.” Or whatever.
You’ve just written something!
Now keep going. What happened on June 13, 2016? (What time of day was it? Where were you? Why were you there? Who else was around? Why does any of this matter to you?) Who is Lucy? (What did she say and do? How did you learn about her? Where? Why are you telling us about her?) What was green? (How green was it? Why does the greenness of it stand out for you?) Just talk it out onto the page, without overthinking. Once you pop the cork out of the bottle, keep pouring as fast and as long as you can. Do not — I repeat, do not — revise or edit the sentences you’ve already written. Keep rolling forward, and don’t look back at what you’ve done, or you will lose your momentum. Keep asking yourself the questions you would want to know if someone else were telling you the same story: What happened? And then what? Why does it matter? What did you see and hear? How does it make you feel? And then what? How did you learn from it? What puzzles you about it, and why? How did it change you? How should it change us? And then what?
If you lose your momentum and get stuck again, step away and come back. Go to the bathroom; go to the gym; go for a walk; go get lunch. Try again — where you left off, not where you started.
Next, if you get stuck again, say these words out loud…
“I want you to know about all this because”
…and then finish speaking the rest of that sentence as fast as possible. Immediately write down what you just said. Now delete the words “I want you to know about all this because” and keep developing what you just wrote down immediately after them. Now answer the natural corollary questions: Exactly why does this matter to anybody else? How can I best show people why it’s important?
Mind you, I don’t often get crippled by writer’s block; it’s an unaffordable luxury for a weekly columnist at The Wall Street Journal. But if I ever look at my own blank screen and feel a grey fog of futility coming between me and my work, I say to myself: Name three people you interviewed for this column. I then type their names, and my screen is no longer blank. Then I look up my notes and add their job titles. Now my screen looks like this:
says Thurston Unger, an analyst at Smedley, Standish & Snodgrass, a research firm in Old Lyme, Conn.
according to Randy Numbers, a portfolio manager at Veigh Izmir LLP, an investment adviser in Monsey, N.Y.
says Doug Graves, a senior partner at 24/7/365 Consulting, a firm in Kokomo, Ind., that advises on management strategy.
I’ve just written down three of the easiest facts germane to what I’m writing about. I’m unstuck. Then I look again in my notes for the most relevant comments these people gave me in our interviews, add them in, and lo and behold! My column is already 150 to 200 words long, or nearly one-quarter finished. Off to the races!
One more trick: If you’re writing something long and making good progress, but you won’t have time to finish it until tomorrow, stop in midstream. You can even stop in the middle of a sentence. Go do any old thing that gets your mind off your writing. Pick it up the next day; it will be easier to resume where you left off if you stopped right in the middle of a great idea that you know how to see through to completion. Otherwise, you may find yourself, the next day, with no way to pick up the thread.
The First Person: Being You without Losing Us
All writers want to find their voice, to sound like themselves and like no one else.
All too often, they think that means they have to write in the first person: “I think” this, “I know” that, “I say,” “I’m telling you,” “believe me,” “trust me,” “me,” “myself,” and “I,” me me me and more me.
You can get away with writing in the first person under two conditions:
(1) You are a vastly experienced and successful writer with profound expertise in your subject, or
(2) You poke fun at yourself.
The scientist Carl Sagan could get away with (1), as he did with the opening words of his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
I was a child in a time of hope. I wanted to be a scientist from my earliest school days. The crystallizing moment came when I first caught on that the stars are mighty suns, when it first dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear as mere points of light in the sky. I’m not sure I even knew the meaning of the word “science” then, but I wanted somehow to immerse myself in all that grandeur….
That passage is 82 words, of which 9 are either “I,” “I’m,” “me,” “my,” or “myself.” But we barely notice how much Sagan is talking about himself — not only because we know he was the world’s most renowned astronomer, but because he roots his sense of self in his smallness within a giant universe.
Michel de Montaigne is the unrivaled master of (2): The theme of his brilliant Essays is the immensity of his own ignorance. By saturating every sentence in the conviction that he knows nothing, Montaigne compels us as readers to permit him to keep talking about himself. The spectacle of such an intelligent person exposing just how little he knows teaches us how little anyone can know. By the end, we harvest great wisdom from his insistence that he has none to share.
To get away with talking about yourself, you must either be extraordinarily brilliant or willing to ridicule yourself — or both. Otherwise leave yourself out of it as much as possible.
Which brings us to…
Taking Your Topics Seriously without Taking Yourself Seriously
Because you care so passionately about your topic, you want everyone to know it’s The Most Important Thing in the World. So you make whatever you write about it sound as somber and deep and consequential as a dirge played on a church organ. That will have two results: People will know it’s important to you, and they will stop reading. To keep them engaged, mix in some humor and self-mockery. Look how the great G.K. Chesterton does that in his introduction to All Things Considered:
I cannot understand the people who take literature seriously; but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this book. It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.
I took a similar approach in one of the most deadly-serious columns I’ve ever written. In 1999, I was desperately trying to discourage investors from turning into speculators in the reckless market for dot-com stocks. The column was (I still think today) rooted in logic, statistical evidence, and centuries of financial history. But I knew no one would read it unless I acknowledged how absurd I sounded preaching prudence even as the inmates were taking over the asylum. So I began with this sentence:
For the next few months, perhaps even for a year or two, this may seem like one of the stupidest investing columns ever written.
I think that might have compelled people to keep reading. (It also turned out to be true: For the next 10 or 11 months, my inbox brimmed with emails calling me a moron, an idiot, or various obscenities and anatomical structures. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and the critics dwindled into silence.)
I believe in a powerful paradox: By stepping far enough outside yourself to take a stance of ironic distance, you can draw readers closer to what you’re saying.
Finding Your Voice
Instead of trying to sound distinctive, just sound like you. Your style is yourself; how you write is who you are. Appealing to someone who’s never read you before is exactly like going out on a first date: The worst thing you can possibly do is to pretend to be someone other than yourself. Don’t try to be serious if you’re funny, funny if you’re serious, a mathematician if you’re a poet, or a poet if you’re a mathematician. Don’t show off a vocabulary you don’t have; don’t hide a sophistication that you do have. My dad used to say, “If you try to make an impression, that’s the impression you’ll make.” Straining to sound unique can end up making you sound just like every other wannabe — and nothing like yourself.
the essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules — that it is a living and breathing thing, with something of the demoniacal in it — that it fits its proprietor tightly and yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as securely an integral part of him as that skin is…. In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a [writer], and it cannot be anything else. To attempt to teach it is as silly as to set up courses in making love.
I, for example, am bookish, uncool, and old-fashioned — if not downright moralistic, preachy, and puritanical. So I don’t salt my writing with references to hot TV shows or hip-hop performers or athletes. I know a decent amount about Caravaggio and nothing about Cardi B. I double-space between sentences, I love the byways of medieval theology and financial history and behavioral finance, and I use the Oxford comma. I know who I am, so my readers will always know, too.
I also know why I write: to learn. For me, writing is like peeling the onion of my own ignorance. The clearer and simpler I try to make my thoughts as I set them down, the more I realize how little I know and how much more I need to read, how much longer I need to study, how many more people I need to talk with, before I can finally write without feeling like a complete imposter or intellectual fraud. In my columns, that often means coming back to the same topic again and again until I finally figure it out. With a post like this, it means months of stolen moments and cumulative effort and (so far!) 94 revisions.
…which brings us to the end of this first installment:
If you want to become a better writer, the two biggest things you can do are to write more and read more.
By “writing more,” I mean always writing mindfully — developing good mental hygiene by never being sloppy or lazy, whether you’re tossing off an email, putting together an office memo, or writing a note inside a birthday card. If you want to become a better writer, there’s no such thing as being off-duty. Treat every opportunity to write anything as a chance to improve. Challenge yourself to avoid lazy language and phrases that feel effortless. Every blank screen or empty piece of paper, no matter what its purpose, offers a new possibility to try being fresh and original.
I like Twitter for this exact reason: the opportunity to practice distilling my thoughts into no more than 140 characters. Every tweet, email, and text is another chance to hone your craft.
By “reading more,” I mean reading as closely and deeply as you can. It doesn’t matter what you read, so long as it is good — and your definition of good doesn’t have to match mine. It only has to match yours. When you find writers you love, read everything they’ve written.
I read with a red pen in my hand, and — I told you I’m bookish, uncool, and old-fashioned — I read on paper, not on my phone or any other device. I write on good writing: I underline, scribble notes in the margins, pepper the pages with exclamation points and question marks, paraphrase and restate key phrases or sentences, and even write down verbatim (often longhand, in a thing called a notebook!) my favorite passages as keepsakes. I’ve scrawled in some of my favorite books so often, over the course of so many years, that they are tattooed inside with pencil and at least three different colors of ink.
As I read, I continually ask myself: How did he do that? Why did she make this choice here? What makes this work so well?
You can do the same on your phone or a tablet or however you read, treating any writing you like as a masterclass in how to write better. Only by picking sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters apart can you learn how the writer put them together.
Only by reading and rereading your favorite writers can you internalize what makes them great.
Your goal is not to parrot their style, but to learn from their craft. Every great writer is great in a different way, and you can learn from all of them. I’ve read dozens of my favorite books (and articles) dozens of times apiece; I’ve read hundreds of books and articles several times each. You don’t have to be as obsessed as I am, but if you want to become a much better writer you will have to become a much more diligent reader.
[I have some other suggestions for getting better, which I’ll post in Part Two next week.]
For further reading:
Ten Tips for Writing a Book without Making Your Head Explode