Notes on Writing

I stay up late and get up early thinking about new ideas, and I only write because of my excitement about those ideas. In fact, I think most people read simply to have something to talk about at their next meal. That is itself an interesting thesis: ideas, and not some sentimental “love for words,” should drive our writing. As in 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 above all else.

Beyond that, I simply try to use the fewest number of words possible. Op-ed writing helped me in that respect, and now anything more than 900 words sounds like a manifesto.

I generally avoid humor and comments about present day events. Those things don’t age well and can make a piece seem trite. Finally, because 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 the four-six months of pre-reflections I usually give to a topic, I would not be able to write with any depth or insight.

The books, articles, and quotes below have been helpful to me 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: