On Writing More Better
I’ve been trying to get better at writing. I’ve read some classic books and listened to some audio books on the topic. Here are my notes listing the writing tips I've adopted.
What to Write?
“Writing is thinking on paper”, wrote William Zinsser in his best seller “On Writing Well”. This begs the question, what should I be thinking/writing about?:
Write about what amuses or interests me.
Who’s my audience?
You are. Write for yourself.
Developing a Writing Style
Try and be yourself in your writing. Writing like writing should be avoided at all costs.
Writing is talking to somebody on paper.
If writing is talking, then never write something that you wouldn’t say to another person.
What does writing like writing look like? Find any letter you recently received from an official body and it will likely contain text along the lines of:
One might find the included information a little complicated upon first investigation.
Or, it could have been:
The information can be complicated at first.
Record yourself reading a paragraph from your writing and then (painfully!) listen to it. Does it sound like you conversing or reading writing? Re-record yourself summarising the same paragraph in your own words. Disparity between the two versions could be a sign that how it was summarised was how it should be written.
##Brevity for Busy People
Blaise Pascal wrote:
I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
Writing tips to shorten paragraphs are:
- Eliminate words with four or more syllables. Examples are anything ending in -ion, instruction, implementation.
- Cut a recent entry you wrote by 50%.
- Watch out for adverbs.
- Watch out for strings of -ings.
Adverbs usually end in “ly”. Such as:
Roger completely broke the build.
With adverb removed:
Roger broke the build.
The meaning is conveyed without the adverb so scrutinise its presence.
There are use-cases for adverbs when adding spice to a sentence:
John was dementedly happy that his team were using Visual SourceSafe for version control.
Watch out for -ings
Strings of “-ings” can bloat a sentence.
Claire likes coding and testing and building things.
Claire likes to code, test and build things.
Active Verbs vs. Passive Verbs
George Orwell wrote:
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Subject and verb combinations fall into the following categories:
- If the subject preforms the action of the verb, the verb is active.
- If the subject receives the action of the verb, the verb is passive.
- A verb that is neither, is a linking verb, a form of the verb to be.
Example 1 : Active
It was her observation that…
The latter is the passive verb. Eliminating passive verbs is a great first step to shortening a paragraph.
Passive verbs can be avoided by establishing the subject and verb early in the sentence. The first example of the active verb demonstrated this:
The tense of the verb doesn’t make it active, the subject performing the action does e..g. she observing.
Example 2 : Passive
Jon stabbed Tom.
Tom was stabbed by Jon.
Active verbs add momentum to a paragraph but sometimes it’s appropriate to use the passive verb to place emphasis on the receiver of an action. The last example of the passive demonstrates this by placing the emphasis on Tom as being the victim (receiver) of this action.
Example 3 : Linking
A verb that neither performs or receives an action is a linking verb.
Alice is busy.
Order words for emphasis. Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
What are strong words?
This could be an interesting quote or an opinion. Such paragraphs follow the principle:
Make meaning early, then let the weaker elements branch to the right.
This concept is open ended, so here’s an example:
“TDD is dead,” said David Heinemeier Hansson during his Opening Keynote at RailsConf 2014. “I do not write software test-first.”
This is a simplistic example, but it follows the structure to begin with a good quote, hide the attribution in the middle and end with a good quote.
For a revision exercise: read back through this post and catch me not applying all of the suggested writing tips. This stuff is hard!
In the words of Robert Benchley:
It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.