Notes on Writing

I had ideas, and I started writing them down. My only advice is to work in that order. What is “writing”? I don’t think there’s much to be gained by starting with some sentimental interest in “writing.” If you have a good or moving idea, it will provoke people whether your word choice is perfect or not. If you don’t have an idea like that…your word choice won’t make up for it.

Think about photography. The thing people value is not a particular camera but the way some photographers see and can capture the world from a perspective we don’t usually notice. If a photo is fundamentally unintriguing, no editing in post will change that. So put ideas first.

Beyond that, I just try to use as few words as possible. Op-ed writing helped me in that respect, and now anything more than 900 words sounds like a manifesto. I usually avoid making jokes and talking about the very latest news. Those things don’t age well and make you seem trite.

Finally, because (ideally) ideas drive my articles, I have to think about them for a very long time. I probably average five pages a day in my journal, and without several months contemplating a topic, I usually can’t say much about it which isn’t oversimplistic. That’s also why I don’t blog that much.

The books, articles, and quotes below have helped me a lot over the last few years:

Helpful Books

Helpful Articles

Helpful Quotes

On the work: 

  • People often say they want to write, but then I realize “You don’t want to write, you just want to get published.” Eugene Peterson
  • If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do. Kurt Vonnegut
  • Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new. William Zinsser
  • Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet. Anonymous
  • Writers get paid for what other people get scolded for: daydreaming. We’re supposed to wander. Richard Walter
  • Let me write the songs of a nation, and I don’t care who writes its laws. Andrew Fletcher
  • I get very impatient about plays and books with induced political themes. They last at the most five or ten years. Emily Dickinson poems are about solitude and the corridors of the mind. They last forever because [they describe] a state of the soul. Edna O’Brien
  • There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. W. Somerset Maugham
  • The way to write edifying fiction is to write what is. The way to write bad fiction is to write what is edifying. Joel J. Miller
  • Though fame is a help in selling books, it is of small use in writing them. Ben Hect
  • In the digital age, the enemy is not piracy; it’s obscurity. Tim O’Reilly
  • Artists don’t talk about art. They talk about work. My advice to young writers is: stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work. P. Chayefsky
  • Write without pay until somebody offers to pay. Mark Twain

On editing:

  • If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Elmore Leonard
  • Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  • Tip: If you find yourself writing, “But that’s a topic for another time,” just delete that whole paragraph. Copy Curmudgeon
  • I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it. Gustave Flaubert
  • Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Instead of adjectives, great writers often use verbs. Their characters do, and they are always doing. In Angela’s Ashes, “a Mother and Father have recently lost a child to crib death, and the doctor has pronounced the child dead.” Don Miller
  • Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts–including my own–where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information can be conveyed through small detail. Sarah Waters
  • The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms. George Orwell

On perseverance: 

  • There’s a word for a writer who never gives up: “published.” J. Konrath
  • You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Ray Bradbury
  • For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed. Ernest Hemingway
  • The hardest part of book publishing is getting the first 10,000 copies of a book read. After that, the book either resonates or it doesn’t. It’s talked about, handed from person to person, used as an example in a book group–or it’s not. Sure, you can add more hype, but at that point, you’re pushing water uphill. I’ve always focused on how my books do their second month on sale, not the first month. The first month is a testament to the author’s ability to self promote, which is far less interesting. Seth Godin
  • Never talk about what you’re going to do until after you’ve written it. Mario Puzo
  • Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book. Cicero