Writing Well, Pt. I

The world needs more writers. As naive as it sounds, I have a strong conviction that if more people were to pause to consider the weight of their words – the effortless grace of a sentence, the sanctity of a written letter  – we may be on our way to curing several of our modern ailments. Not least our dwindling attention spans and the craving for surface level ‘content.’

In our quest to become more productive we have neglected the art of writing. The writing we do today comes in the form of 140 characters or less: a text, a tweet, an Instagram caption. Maybe, on the odd occasion, we’ll proudly pen an angry email to Apple (that will never be read). We forget that writing, as much as reading, for better or worse shapes the grooves of our character, displaces and humbles our perspective. It provides a window of introspection in a world of distraction. 

I heard some fantastic advice on writing a few days ago that distills almost perfectly the tidbits of wisdom I’ve accrued over the years from books or writerly friends. I’ve had a life-long fascination with the craftsman-like process of writing; literature on the art of writing is some of my favourite to read. After all, not only is the subject of writing – and writing well – a rich one, but also writing on writing is some of the most fulfilling writing to write. Right?

First, a little background.

For as long as I can remember I have asked myself the question, how do I become a better writer? The reality is, writing well is hard. As Thomas Man famously said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” But I relish the struggle when it comes to writing because it is one of the few skills in which the progress is material – it’s there on the page and although you cannot quantify the improvement to the numerical precision of the runner or the rower, the gains are still palpable. If the lucidity of expression becomes a pattern of my writing rather than the exception then I know I’ve progressed.

I am happiest when grappling over some feeling or idea that I’m struggling to articulate with words because all of a sudden there is a purpose: ultimate clarity, reaching the essence of an idea and arousing associations in the mind of the reader. The more I try to express the frustrating, ineffable feeling, the closer I come to its articulation. Writing, then, elucidates our own thought process, and often we forget this power. An old philosophy professor of mine used to say that it is only when we write something down that we really understand it.

So here’s some short, snappy and (I’d argue) invaluable advice on writing, courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Maria Popova and countless other mentors I’ve read throughout the years. Work these into your approach and you’ll see an improvement almost immediately.

1. Write for yourself

If you want to make something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people, the counterintuitive but really necessary thing is that you must not write for people. The second you write for or to an audience, you’ve lost the long game. As Maria Popova, founder of Brainpickings.org and prolific writer, has said, creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run requires keeping yourself excited about it. ‘Write to please just one person,’ wrote Kurt Vonnegut. That person is you.

2. The key to being interesting is to be interested

And more than that, make sure you’re enthusiastic about those interests. As Oscar Wilde noted, curiosity has a funny habit of breeding interesting people. Passion is contagious. If you want people to read and come back to your work you have to exude a natural curiosity through your writing. When you resent your writing it shows in the work, and no one wants to read self-loathing prose. Stay naturally curious and in time you’ll find yourself wanting to write about those curiosities. You’ll find that the best writing comes out when you’re writing about something you are genuinely excited about.

3. Writing, not ‘content’

Never refer to or think about what you are doing as content. There’s nothing more toxic to the creation of meaningful cultural material than the term content. If Montaigne or Eliot or Whitman were alive today they would curl at the term. Why? Because it implies an external motive. Content is something you produce for other people. No one does content for the joy of their soul, Popova says. The greatest writing is not done for the purpose of gaining an audience or making money. The second you start thinking of your work as content, you’re no longer writing for yourself.

4. Write how you would speak

This one piece of advice significantly improved my writing from the moment I heard it. It’s often painful to read prose that is written with the clear aim of showcasing the author’s vast vocabulary. The irony is, if you make yourself interesting by satisfying your natural curiosity then you won’t have to spend time embellishing your sentences. By simply writing the way you speak you avoid the danger of sounding forced or pretentious (unless you’re a member of the British aristocracy). Clear thoughts make for clear writing, so be wary of flowering up your writing with superfluous adjectives, or even adverbs (c.f. the stupid overuse of the word ‘very’). The way to get people to enjoy your writing is to sound like you’re having a conversation – not like you’re delivering a PhD lecture to them. To test this, read your work aloud to yourself after you’ve finished writing. If it sounds stuffy and unnatural, rewrite it. Remember, the very best writers are those who make you forget you are reading at all.

5. And finally…

Perhaps the best advice on writing in one sentence:

‘Love words, agonise over sentences, and pay attention to the world.’ – Susan Sontag.


Further reading:

Here are two brilliant pieces on writing well – one old, one new, both timeless – that I always encourage people to read:

  1. Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell
  2. The Day You Became A Better Writer, by Scott Adams

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