Excerpt from On Writing Well

I can’t thank this book enough for its insights on writing. My excerpts:

  1. “Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. I often find myself reading with interest about a topic I never thought would interest me—some scientific quest, perhaps. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field. How was he drawn into it? What emotional baggage did he bring along? How did it change his life?”

  2. “Nobody becomes Tom Wolfe overnight, not even Tom Wolfe.”

  3. “This is the problem of the writer who sets out deliberately to garnish his prose. You lose whatever it is that makes you unique. The reader will notice if you are putting on airs. Readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore a fundamental rule is: be yourself. No rule, however, is harder to follow. It requires writers to do two things that by their metabolism are impossible. They must relax, and they must have confidence.”

  4. “Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being examined for a hernia, and as for confidence, see how stiffly he sits, glaring at the screen that awaits his words. See how often he gets up to look for something to eat or drink. A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing. I can testify from my newspaper days that the number of trips to the water cooler per reporter-hour far exceeds the body’s need for fluids.”

  5. “Nevertheless, getting writers to use “I” is seldom easy. They think they must earn the right to reveal their emotions or their thoughts.”

  6. “Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.”

  7. “You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.”

  8. “Ask yourself some basic questions before you start: “In what capacity am I going to address the reader?” (Reporter? Provider of information? Average man or woman?) “What pronoun and tense am I going to use?” “What style?” (Impersonal reportorial? Personal but formal? Personal and casual?) “What attitude am I going to take toward the material?” (Involved? Detached? Judgmental? Ironic? Amused?) “How much do I want to cover?” “What one point do I want to make?””

  9. “Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it. As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before.”

  10. “Don’t become the prisoner of a preconceived plan. Writing is no respecter of blueprints.”

  11. “Every paragraph should amplify the one that preceded it. Give more thought to adding solid detail and less to entertaining the reader. But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.”

  12. “Article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure.”

  13. “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”

  14. “The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

  15. “Inexperienced students are chilled to find themselves in the same class with students whose byline has appeared in the college newspaper. But writing for the college paper is no great credential; I’ve often found that the hares who write for the paper are overtaken by the tortoises who move studiously toward the goal of mastering the craft. The same fear hobbles freelance writers, who see the work of other writers appearing in magazines while their own keeps returning in the mail. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your only contest is with yourself.”

  16. “Study good nonfiction writers to see how they do it. You’ll find that almost all of them think in paragraph units, not in sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and structure.”

  17. “No area of life is stupid to someone who takes it seriously. If you follow your affections you will write well and will engage your readers.”

  18. “Make a list of likely questions—it will save you the vast embarrassment of going dry in mid-interview.”

  19. “Many beginning interviewers are inhibited by the fear that they are imposing on other people and have no right to invade their privacy. This fear is almost wholly unfounded. The so-called man in the street is delighted that somebody wants to interview him. Most men and women lead lives, if not of quiet desperation, at least of desperate quietness, and they jump at a chance to talk about their work to an outsider who seems eager to listen.”

  20. “Finally, don’t strain to find synonyms for “he said.” Don’t make your man assert, aver and expostulate just to avoid repeating “he said,” and please—please!—don’t write “he smiled” or “he grinned.” I’ve never heard anybody smile. The reader’s eye skips over “he said” anyway, so it’s not worth a lot of fuss. If you crave variety, choose synonyms that catch the shifting nature of the conversation. “He pointed out,” “he explained,” “he replied,” “he added”—these all carry a particular meaning. But don’t use “he added” if the man is merely averring and not putting a postscript.”

  21. “The mere agglomeration of detail is no free pass to the reader’s interest. The detail must be significant.”

  22. “If travel is broadening, it should broaden more than just our knowledge of how a Gothic cathedral looks or how the French make wine. It should generate a whole constellation of ideas about how men and women work and play, raise their children, worship their gods, live and die.”

  23. “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.”

  24. “Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens the second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation—how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.”

  25. “Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”

  26. “What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinion firmly. Don’t cancel its strength with last-minute evasions and escapes. The most boring sentence in the daily newspaper is the last sentence of the editorial, which says “It is too early to tell whether the new policy will work” or “The effectiveness of the decision remains to be seen.” If it’s too early to tell, don’t bother us with it, and as for what remains to be seen, everything remains to be seen. Take your stand with conviction.”

  27. ” “You must learn by imitation,” he said. “I could have been arrested for imitating Lardner in my pieces in the late 1920s—not the content, but the manner. These influences gradually fall away.” “

  28. “Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft. Bach and Picasso didn’t spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso; they needed models. This is especially true of writing. Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.”

  29. “Red Smith, delivering the eulogy at the funeral of a fellow sports-writer, said, “Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.””

  30. “Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”

  31. “Less glamorous gains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.”

  32. “Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article. Then you’ll have something to sell.”

  33. “As a nonfiction writer you must get on the plane. If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county or the next state or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you. Decide what you want to do. Then decide to do it. Then do it.”

  34. “Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.”

  35. “Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.”

  36. “Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir”—the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about—and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s unusual, what’s funny, what’s worth pursuing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.”

  37. “was liberated from having to fulfill somebody else’s expectations, which were not the right ones for me. I was free to succeed or fail on my own terms.” – The author on being freed from obligation to run the family business

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