On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Another classic. But what makes it so? The principles are timeless; most of what you’ll find in On Writing Well is sound advice. Nothing that will have you leaping out of your chair. But you’ll be nodding your head in agreement for most of the book.

Zinsser’s equation:

Consistent practice + time + simplicity = good writing

Here’s what I learnt:

Rewriting is critical

The first step in writing is to get your thoughts down on paper. The trouble that many people face is they try to get it right the first time around. Instead, vomit it all out. Don’t be pedantic about structure, flow and word choice when writing your first draft. Think of it as building a new road. Your first focus: lay the raw materials. It’s OK if it’s a little lumpy.

Now that it’s down on paper, rewrite.  Smooth things out. Get rid of any excess, fill in the holes and paint the lines.

Forget about style

Every piece of writing has a distinct style. One article comes across as light and bouncy while another is deep and serious. The style is not something you add to your writing, Zinsser says. It comes naturally. It’s apart of the words you choose and how you piece together an article. It depends on what you’re writing about and the message you want to convey.

Don’t put a line through a sentence because readers might think you’re a little odd. Let your unique style flow.

Clear thoughts equals clear writing

Write about things you know well. Familiarity leads to clarity, Zinsser says.

That doesn’t mean you’re restricted to write about your interests only. Get to know a foreign subject matter, before writing about it. Do your research and understand it. Only when you can talk about it to others with ease are you ready to write about it.

You are your target audience

Here, Zinsser goes against the dogmatic principle to ‘write for your target audience’. He makes the argument that writing for a target audience is impossible. You’re not in their shoes and besides, each person is an individual. You’ll miss your mark by generalising.

Doing something to please or appeal to others doesn’t work in real life, why would it work in writing? Instead, Zinsser says, write to please yourself. You’ll entertain your readers this way.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

There’s a lot to say about any subject. The book, How to Poo on a Date, is an example. The trouble as a writer is, where do you stop?

Bite off a small chunk of the subject, Zinsser says. Write about this segment well. Don’t try to write the definitive guide (and steer clear of books and articles with this in their title). There’s no such thing.

End well

We’re taught the classic essay structure in school. The concluding paragraph should summarise all the main points we’ve made so far. The purpose: to remind the reader of what they’ve read.

Boulderdash, Zinsser says.

The reader can read the essay again if they need reminding. A piece of writing doesn’t explode after reading; this isn’t Mission Impossible. Instead, write about it well the first time. Make it clear and sticky so the reader remembers.

Then, once you’ve made all the points you wanted to make, look for an exit. Don’t be that guy at the party who’s still there fifteen minutes after he’s said goodbye. Make your exit memorable and unique too. Take the reader by surprise.

To write well,
Write often.
This is the best way,
To become a writing boffin.

Advertisements

A Day in the Life of a Minimalist by Joshua Fields Milburn

Minimalism is getting rid of the unnecessary and focusing on things of meaning. It’s intuitive but not common practice.
 
The author, Joshua Fields Milburn, is one-half of The Minimalists. The book reiterates and restates their blog content in a smooth and cohesive way.
 
So, what are the keys to leading a meaningful life? Here’s what I learnt:

Will this add value?

Ask yourself this before buying anything. Fields Millburn points out that money is freedom. Thus, when we buy something, we’re giving away some freedom. Buying a car out of desire (not out of necessity) is an example. It means sacrifices, like:

  • Less travel and adventure
  • Fewer chances to enjoy a meal out with friends
  • Investing less money into the things we believe in

We overestimate the emotional effect a material thing will have. We think: once we have that dream car, we’ll be happy. And there will be a sense of joy as we admire the car sitting in our driveway. But that feeling is fleeting. Sure enough, the joy fades and the car becomes a means to an end.

There are two ingredients to greatness: time and action

This is a sentiment popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote about the 10,000-hour rule. That, 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to a craft will mean achieving mastery. Some argue that it takes more time to master a skill. But the premise is the same.
 
Yet, we live in an age of instant gratification. We get rewarded with ‘likes’ for a clever Facebook post. We can buy new weapons as we pour hours into a video game. We have trouble looking long-term and putting in the daily effort to achieve something of significance
 
The media coverage of the overnight success also poses a problem. The stories don’t elaborate on the years of toil before breaking through. We’re left to believe that we too can achieve prosperity with the right idea and a little effort. This motivation is fleeting, though. We grow dejected as we find out that it takes consistency over time to build anything of meaning.

Be direction-focused, not goal-focused

Thinking too much about the desired result means we fail to put in the quality work now. What is a direction-focused approach?

  1. Decide on the outcome. Think long and hard about how we want things to turn out. Make sure we know why we want it. We must have absolute conviction.
  2. What actions do I need to take to get there? Draw up a blueprint; what’s it going to take? Will it mean working weekends and spending less time with family and friends?
  3. Act.
  4. Evaluate and pivot. Accept that things won’t go to plan. We need to be ready to change direction when something unexpected happens. A stubborn approach won’t work; we need to flex.

The more you have, the more you’ve got to lose

We find security in things. We’re grounded with a roof over our head, even with a mortgage.

But this isn’t security. Real security is personal growth. Because when the proverbial (or literal) storm hits and we lose the house, we still have our skills. With this knowledge, we can rebuild.

Learning is earning. Never hesitate to invest in yourself. As Warren Buffett said, ‘The most important investment you can make is in yourself’.

Minimalism

The principles of minimalism apply to all aspects of life. There is the obvious: making conscious decisions when buying things. But there is the discrete too. The way we think and process thoughts, for example. More often, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this thought serving me or is it bringing me down?’.
 
Relationships too. Not all relationships add value. In fact, some are damaging. It’s like offloading a burden when we jettison these.
 
What are your thoughts on minimalism? Does it have downsides? Leave a comment below.

 

How to Speak How to Listen By Mortimer J. Adler

I picked this book wanting to improve my speaking and listening in everyday situations. From conversations with family and friends to work colleagues around the water cooler. Also, it would be good to be slicker in random social situations rather than awkward and weird.

I want to improve my listening, in particular. Sometimes I find my mind wandering when it’s the other person’s time to talk. I butt in. I make suggestions when all the speaker wants to do it voice their frustrations.

But, to my disappointment, this book was centred on speaking and listening in formal situations. Lectures and seminars, for example. The author also makes it clear that the decline in people’s literacy, in America at least, can be attributed to a failure of the education system. The skills that were once prioritised find themselves outgunned by less functional skills, according to Adler.

So, despite this book not being what I hoped, I did learn a thing or seven.

1. A good writer doesn’t mean a good speaker

A writer has the benefit of time. You can review and re-write sections. But you’re not afforded this time as a speaker, in most cases. However, don’t be afraid to pause and collect your thoughts. Take your time when speaking – get the right message across.

Seek clarity too. Don’t be offended when the listener or audience asks questions. Encourage it. This will mean better understanding between the two parties.

2. Learn to listen quietly

Listening isn’t a time to collect your thoughts about what you want to say. It’s about digesting what the speaker is saying. So pay attention and don’t interrupt. Also, keep your advice and opinion to yourself, unless they ask for it.

3. You have to establish yourself as a person of good character before you can persuade others

Who’s view are you going to be swayed by – someone who is likeable and trustworthy or a person of questionable character? The speaker has to gain the goodwill of the audience by being sensitive to their wants and needs.

Display the emotion you want to evoke in your target audience too.

Also, make your option look better than the alternative (Hilary Clinton must have pissed off the wrong people).

4. Err on the side of talking above your audience rather than patronising them

This concept surprised me. Doesn’t this approach risk losing the audience’s attention? But I think the key is in the word ‘err’. Adler doesn’t suggest you talk rocket science to a kindy class. Stretch their minds – a little.

5. Use repetition

Readers have the chance to re-read content but listeners can’t re-listen. Not in live situations anyway. Make sure you repeat key points to ingrain it in the minds’ of listeners.

6. Watch the audience as you speak

Check for interest. Are people fiddling with their phones or are they engrossed? You might find different levels of engagement at different points. This gives an indication of areas of your speech that you need to tweak.

7. Practice active listening

When listening, ask yourself:

  • What is the overarching theme?
  • What are the main ideas?
  • What significance does it hold for me?

Adler’s book was weighted towards speaking and this is understandable. It’s hard to write in-depth about listening. Good listening is simple in principle – stay attentive and active but keep quiet. A lot of it comes down to respect. Let the speaker make their point, digest what they’re saying and understand your role. Often, to be heard is enough.

What are your thoughts on speaking and listening? Leave a comment below.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

I read this book to improve my writing. The Elements of Style was often referenced by writing articles and blogs. I chose to read it for this reason and its Goodreads rating.
 
Struck wrote the book way back in 1918 and so the way it’s written is a bit old-school. But it’s not a difficult read as is often the case for classics. Sorry, Moby-Dick.
 
Strunk’s writing principles still apply. Even as the book reaches its one hundred year milestone. This shows that if you can get a good grasp of the fundamentals you’re on your way to becoming a proficient writer. Here’s what I learnt:

There’s no such thing as writing well with poor grammar

Strunk explains grammatical principles. Words like ‘possessives’, ‘parentheticals’ and ‘conjunction’ are commonplace throughout the book. Two things unfold without a good grasp of grammar:
 
  1. You open yourself up to being misunderstood. Poor grammar is like speaking with a mouth full of yoghurt. It’s messy, people don’t want to hear you out and they’ll miss your message.
  2. It frustrates the reader. I write this piece on tenterhooks knowing that a grammatical blunder is exactly what I don’t need. It’s hard to read with any momentum when grammar errors are strewn throughout a text. The reader stumbles through the text as they correct mistakes in their head.

Don’t let how others write dictate what the norm

Writers of all sorts have resorted to a change in approach in this age of shortening attention spans. The pyramid structure is an example. The most important information is at the front of the piece. Then, if the reader chooses to read on, they can find out more about the details of the topic, if it interests them.
 
But this classic news writing principle has devolved. The spread of the one-sentence paragraph shows this. Strunk points out that this type of paragraph is for transitions only. Like between two different speakers, for instance. It can be used for emphasis too. And to emphasise, use it sparingly.

Write in an ‘active voice’

Here’s a comparison of the active voice and the passive voice from the Grammar Girl:
 
Active: I heard it through the grapevine.
Passive: It was heard by me through the grapevine.
 
That’s an extreme example but you can see how clunky the passive voice can be. Not only is an active voice more crisp and concise but it gives your writing force and impetus too.
 
There are times when it’s OK to use the passive voice. To break up a series of active sentences, for example. Or if the fictional character you’re writing about is a submissive type.

Don’t hedge

Commit to each sentence and be definitive with your assertions. It shows confidence and builds trust with your readers.
 
Avoid words like ‘perhaps‘ and ‘maybe‘. Unless you want to portray uncertainty.
 
Make every word tell
 
Each word, sentence and paragraph should move the point, argument or story forward. Get rid of anything that fails to do this. Make your writing lean so your readers can get to the point.
 
Also, watch for sentences that say the same thing in two different ways. Pick the best of the two and delete the other. Don’t waste your readers’ time.

Be a conscious writer

This applies to everything including text messages and emails. A considerate approach means a clear message. And that is a valuable part of building and maintaining relationships. Think back to a misunderstanding with a friend, colleague or family member. I’ll bet the root cause was a miscommunication.
 
Also, being conscious shows you’ve taken the care to think about what you’re writing. A poorly written email isn’t only hard to decipher, it also shows a lack of respect of the recipient.
 
What do you think of the above writing principles? What do you disagree with? Would you add anything? Leave a comment below.

To Be Frank – Conclusion

That brings to an end ‘To Be Frank’. What did you think?

I found that drawing from personal experiences is inevitable when writing a story. What I’m familiar comes out naturally. That’s the value of research and learning. The more you know the more you can apply your learnings in daily life.

If you’d like a copy of the short story for yourself or a friend or family member, let me know.