Notes on Improving Writing Quality
Recently, I started trying to loosely organise by topic the tangled array of notes I collect in both my physical notebooks, in Google Docs, and different notes apps. I gather these from books, blog posts, songs, tweets, Wikipedia pages, news articles, forum posts, things people say, and ideas that drift into my brain.
So I’m sharing a few posts compiling notes on different topics. I’ll aim to update each post every so often as I collect more on the same theme.
Here are some of my favourite notes on editing and other ways of improving your writing quality. (Parts marked with Thoughts: are my own ideas written as reminders or summaries.)
Come up with a soundbite for your writing
‘The ability to sell a good idea is almost as important as having one. Capturing the essence of your work in one succinct sound bite is crucial to encouraging the person buying it and to helping the public understand it.’ — John Hegarty, Hegarty on Creativity
Thoughts: Writing a meta description or short summary to go at the start of your writing is an amazing exercise for keeping your writing focused and succinct. It forces you to compress your thinking down to the most essential point. When possible, I try to do this before I write the actual piece — even if it ends up changing a little by the end.
Physically move around the structure of your writing
‘Start by creating a box for each concept, each piece of content, each process. Arrange the boxes based on how they relate to each other. Play with them. See what reveals itself as you move them around. Try a few different arrangements before you add the arrows.’ — Abby Covert, How To Make Sense of Any Mess
Thoughts: How To Make Sense of Any Mess is an insightful, versatile guide to organising information. Moving around pieces of information to identify how they relate to each other and how to order them is a helpful way to decide how to organise your writing. It’s something I don’t do often enough, but which always seems to result in something well-organised, while also making it easier to start something if I don’t know where to begin.
Obfuscation in writing is always bad
‘When in doubt, people will assume your poor communication is intentional.’
Thoughts: As a rule, you want as many of the people your writing is aimed at to be able to understand it as possible. If you don’t communicate meaning well, people may assume you are hiding it from them on purpose.
Leave out the boring parts of your writing
From The Age of The Essay
‘…The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.’
Thoughts: This seems so simple. But it’s easy to think parts of what you write are more necessary to the overall picture than they are. Cutting out anything boring is paramount when writing to communicate with people, such as in emails.
Two priorities for better writing: simplicity and a strong opening
‘Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.
…Your first sentence needs to grab the reader.
…Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.’
Thoughts: Sentence length doesn’t matter as much as the amount of content in a sentence.
Two types of precision in writing
‘To become a better writer, you have to read people with a much better ear for language itself.
…Great fiction, poetry and some very precise kinds of philosophical writing are what you need to consume. Screenplays and plays are great too. The key here is that all these types of writing impose severe constraints on form, so it makes sense that to work with these types, you have to improve your formal precision with language.
There are two main sub-skills: semantic precision and grammatical precision.
Semantic precision is easiest to see at the word level. When I read a DFW passage, it is like looking at a pinprick-sharp photograph, compared to my own blurry photographs. He unerringly picks words to use that simply work 100x better than my choices. It’s like he has a 15 megapixel camera and a tripod, while I am using a 3 megapixel point-and-shoot. A bigger vocabulary isn’t enough. The skill lies in matching words to needs.
In fact his language is so precise that it makes his writing almost too rich to read. I’ve never finished any of his novels because they are too rich for me. My brain can’t handle it.
And this isn’t just at the word level. His sentences, paragraphs and chapters are massively precise as well.
…Grammatical precision isn’t about knowing the rules. It is about knowing what to do where there are no rules. It is an instinctive sense of evolutionary direction in your chosen language and being ahead of the curve with respect to the Grammar Nazis. They codify, legitimize and enforce the rules you make up. Great writers don’t just push the boundaries of language and get away with it. They actually move the language itself and create and destroy jobs in the Grammar Nazi labor market.’
Thoughts: Semantic precision likely comes from reading good writing that uses diverse language in different ways. Being exposed to new words and seeing old ones in new contexts expands what you can convey in writing. My guess is that grammatical precision requires knowing the rules well enough to think about them on the meta-level.
Difficult vs. good
Thoughts: I sometimes fall into a trap of thinking if something is difficult, it must be leading to a worthwhile outcome. Good writing is difficult, difficult writing is not always good. Excitement makes everything easier.
Success vs. achievements
Thoughts: You can measure how your writing progresses by looking at markers for success or achievement. To my mind, success means external validation through the approval of other people. Achievement means internal validation through reaching some kind of higher level or completing a goal you’ve set yourself. It seems important to me to draw satisfaction more from achievements on the personal level (e.g. writing up book notes), compared to success if you’re writing as part of a wider aim outside yourself (e.g. writing a sales page).
Delete whatever doesn’t add to the main point
‘It helps, after writing every sentence, to ask “Would the reader still get my point if I deleted that line?” Not “Does that sentence make sense?”’
Don’t lose focus on the central motif in your writing
Found via A Working Library
“A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it.
…No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.
…When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it.” — Theodor Adorno
Thoughts: Notice when you find yourself rephrasing the same point. What are you actually trying to say?
Identify the good parts
“Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important, and the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good or better than anything being written anywhere.”
Thoughts: I think this is a good rule for editing. Even if 90% is a bit extreme, I get the impression that the best way to draft is to get as many words down as possible, then ferret out the good parts.
Divide up your writing
“In general, you’ll want to use more headings than you’d think and put more time into writing them.” — Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think
Thoughts: From a book on designing for web usability. As a general principle, I think dividing writing up makes it easier to read and easier for people to remember.
Here’s a similar notes post:
Notes on Writing as Thinking in Public
Assorted quotes I’ve collected lately on the value of publishing
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