On writing well

On writing well

I've long been obsessed with the relationship that writers have with writing. This first came to bare reading Henry Miller, finding it curious that his memoirs were chock-full of stories and yet would rarely mention a practice of writing, surely an activity that consumed him during his twenties.

Writing is a such a struggle – hardly anything ever comes out correctly the first time, requiring rewrites and rewrites and more rewrites. Aside from some angsty poetry in high-school, I think my first efforts in considered writing came in university, with undergrad papers.

I'd work so hard to deeply understand the material, and then regurgitate it back in a paper, with my own unique insight, and I just could not break a B+. It was immensely frustrating, with no insight into what I was doing wrong, or how to improve.

Luckily a friend in a study group eventually shared with me the magic formula in the second year. It was really nothing more than using the most basic outline, and only writing exactly what the prof is looking for, using short sentences and simple words. It felt soul crushing to remove myself completely in the production of these papers, but from then on my papers would be coming back with an A, and they'd only cost me half the effort, too.

The practice of writing simply, clearly, and staying on the point also helped me immeasurably in business. First, when I was working as a local music event booker and promoter in Montreal, and later, once I moved into contract web development and software consulting.

Recently I came across "On Writing Well", by William Zinsser (1922-2015) – The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I wish I had read this much earlier. Aside from being a delightful read that effortlessly moves between being interesting, touching, and hilarious, it validates lessons that I've learned on my own, while also providing much more for me to consider as I continue to grow.

Zinsser dispels any magic associated with genius authorship, giving away the essentials to good writing in the first couple of pages. He continues throughout the book demonstrating the principles and methods at work in a variety of common styles and themes. Each section is illuminating, and I'll be recommending this book to friends and colleagues for the rest of my life. It's just that good.