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Some things I've learnt about writing

The big theme of my working life (so far) has been programming, and yesterday I published a short list of things I've learnt about programming. The second (smaller) theme has been writing. Since 1996, when my first piece of writing was published in The Guardian, I've written quite a number of articles for newspapers and magazines (including a recent 3,000 word special on Alan Turing for New Scientist) and a book.

Almost everything I've written is non-fiction (except my parody startup CEO Brad Bradstone), so my thoughts are about that sort of writing. I have nothing useful to say about writing fiction.

Here are a few things I've learnt about writing. I hope you'll find them useful, as I think writing is a vital skill for almost everyone because good writing is simply good communicating and good communicating matters enormously in any job.
0. Practice
Some time ago I wrote a blog post about blogging and in it I said "write, write, write":
When I began this blog I didn't know what to write, and I thought I only had a few ideas. I ended up writing short, boring blog posts and saving my ideas up because I was afraid that I would run out of things to say. It turns out that the opposite is true. The more you write, the better you get at it. And the more you write the more ideas seem to appear from the ether. I don't set myself a goal of a blog post per day, but I do try to prevent my blog from going stale. Some of my posts are winners, some are not. But I would not have written successful posts without having written the duds.
Looking back at that I think the final sentence is very important. You'll write a lot of duds, but it doesn't matter because it's practicing writing that's important.
1. Read
There are three books about writing they've I've read that I think are helpful.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This book is an example of its own title. It's a delightfully well written book about writing that reads with the slippery ease of a Malcolm Gladwell. It's both enjoyable and informative.
The AP Manual of Style. Although the AP book is about writing for newspapers it is full of useful advice about clarity. The fight for clarity is at the heart of non-fiction. Your goal is not to delight the reader with the breadth of your vocabulary, but to inform them about a subject in which you are claiming to be knowledgeable. News writing has to aim to be succinct, accessible and accurate; those are all good attributes for any non-fiction writing.
The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. The surprising thing about Strunk and White is that I can pick it up after years and years of owning it and rediscover its lessons. If you only buy one book from my list buy this one.
And, at one time, I read the entire Chicago Manual of Style. It's incredibly long and detailed, but worth having been through once in your life.
And read other books that are not about writing, but while reading them think about how they are written.
2. Listen to editors
Back in 1996 I was lucky that The Guardian newspaper in the UK asked me to write an article about the monitoring of Internet connections. I duly wrote an article and the then editor told me over the phone that it was 'utter rubbish' that 'read like a press release' and to go back and rewrite it for someone.
I touch on who you are writing for below. But the most important thing is not what he said, but that he said it. Editors often have excellent advice.
After having submitted the long Alan Turing special to New Scientist and feeling that it was quite readable the editor came back with a list of questions. Reading his questions I could see areas where I failed to be clear, or had come up with convoluted sentences. With his questions in mind I was able to rewrite parts to make the entire piece interesting, succinct and accessible.
3. Think about writing
At least for me writing didn't come naturally. I started when my doctoral supervisor told me that writing was an essential skill and that my thesis would be poor if it wasn't both original and well written. He started me thinking about writing.
I think about writing by being aware of each sentence I've written and by being aware of the sentences of others. Just reading a book like "On Writing Well" and examining each sentence and paragraph is enlightening.
The hard part, of course, is emulating the skills of other writers.
When you are writing you need to go back and read what you've written with fresh eyes. Sometimes I walk away from a text so that I can see it anew. And sometimes rereading leads to total rewriting.
4. Think about the reader
I've often heard people say "write for yourself" and it's certainly true that when I wrote The Geek Atlas it was the book I wanted to buy but couldn't. But I didn't write the actual text for me; that would have been a grave error: the sections on mathematics would have assumed a doctorate and the sections on biology would have assumed no knowledge at all.
It's important to keep your actual reader in mind as you write. If you're writing a corporate whitepaper then you will imagine a certain type of reader and their knowledge level. If you're writing for a newspaper then the reader may be more 'average'. And if you're writing a technical blog post you can probably assume that your reader knows something about the subject.
One risk with technical writing is what I call the fog of knowledge. You know so much about a subject that it's hard to write for someone who isn't as knowledgeable. The words you write assume a level of understanding that only you have. Fight that or be left with a reader saying "I didn't understand a word of that".
And don't be clever. Use long, sophisticated words at your peril. If you do you'll end up sounding like a modern French philosopher and the goal of a modern French philosopher is to pass on only one sort of understanding: the understanding that they are smart. Don't be that person; write to be read.
Throughout the writing of a non-fiction piece it's vital to go back and read each paragraph as if you were your reader. Are the sentences themselves clear? Is the level of knowledge assumed correct? Do the paragraphs tell a story that leads the reader through the piece?
I read and reread everything I've written.
5. Plan
Yes, plan. Plan what you want to say; sketch out the major themes and threads through the piece. Make notes so you don't forget a point.
And plan when you are going to write and stick to it. While writing The Geek Atlas I kept very regular hours and it helped enormously. If you know that you are going to write from 0900 to 1200 and then eat lunch it makes you focus on writing.
6. Dream
Walk away from what you are writing and do something else. Let you mind go and then return to what you are writing. But return to it only in your mind. I've often found that ideas, paragraphs, and sentences will come to me when I'm far from the page or screen.
In fact, turning on the screen can be a positive turn off. Once you get to the screen you're forced to do actual writing. Yet some of the time what you need is actual thinking. That's best done away from the demanding computer with its word counts and empty page snarling at you that you haven't written anything yet.


Anonymous said…
Minor typo: “turing on the screen”. Muscle memory? ;)
Unknown said…
I enjoy all of your posts, technical and non-technical alike. They are written with wit and intelligence and are always greatly anticipated.

Anonymous said…
The best book about writing that I've read is "Style: Toward Clarity and Grace" by Joseph Williams. It did wonders for my writing, and I recommend this book highly for folks who wants to improve their writing.
Learnt? twice? on an article about writing? Is that a word? I believe learned is more appropriate.
Learnt? twice? on an article about writing? Is that a word? I believe learned is more appropriate.
Anonymous said…
For myself, I read Pío Baroja for style. Actually, Baroja was, and is, the single greatest influence on my writing style.
Hemingway visited him on his death bed, and delivered some great speech of praise, and all Baroja ever said, was "caramba".
Can you imagine that? That was typical of his writing style. It's got a sting in the tail, like a whip. Very simple writing style, not very Spanish, but of course he was Basque.

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