Over the last umpteen years, I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people (and techies in particular) have three main fears:
- Picking up the phone
In the past, I have talked about all three activities, but two recent events conspired to make me write this post. The first was an opportunity to co-write an article with my friend and collaborator Lex Friedman. The piece ended being killed for reasons beyond anyone’s control, but the process of actually sitting down with someone and writing in the same document at the same time brought into sharp relief the fact that many others who write for a living use an approach to putting thoughts to paper that is very similar to mine.
What pushed me over the edge, however, was the fact my son was assigned a paper on black history, which he has been enthusiastically working on for the last week or so. Being only seven, however, means that writing doesn’t yet come natural to him—just like, I’ve realized, it doesn’t come natural to a lot of other people.
Part of the problem is that schools don’t seem to teach proper composition1. Curricula are obsessed with the rules of grammar and the history of literature; the former is undoubtedly important and useful (which I’m not so sure could be said about the latter), but is secondary to being able to express your thoughts and ideas properly—which is the real goal of writing.
Writing as a process
Let’s start by abandoning the term “writing” and replace it with the term “composing.” The sound of a pen scrawling or of fingers typing is but a relatively small and unimportant part of a much larger process that, in one way or another, takes place in the mind of everyone who writes for a living. Yet, the first thing that so many do when assigned a writing process is to open their word processor or notepad and start composing.
Instead, the first activity that the seasoned writer does once assigned a writing project is… something else. I usually entertain myself with something completely unrelated while my brain processes and sorts out information and organizes my thoughts. I know of writers who go have a drink (usually by themselves—writing is a very lonely job), take a walk, make phone calls, play with their children… anything but actually sitting down and writing.
You see, before you can write, you need to figure out what you want to write. Many writing courses suggest that anything on paper is better than nothing, but I disagree. Putting words together is a complex process that requires a lot of brainpower—brainpower that cannot otherwise be used to make sure what you want to say makes any sense. It’s much better to get things organized first, and this could well be a process that takes the form of you writing down an idea or two, particularly for longer projects—and then worry about the letter side of things.
In general, I find that the complexity of this set-up process is proportional to what you have to write. For an e-mail, it might take a few seconds of thought; a newspiece might require fifteen minutes or so, and an opinion piece—well, let’s just say those are hard, which is probably why so many of the ones you find are so bad. For books, the process can go on for days or weeks.
The goal of this initial process is, essentially, to design your story. You need to decide what your conclusion is going to be, and work your way backwards to make sure that everything you want to say fits cohesively together. I don’t mind telling you that I have, more than once, started composing a piece convinced that I wanted to make a particular point, only to find out that a logical train of thought led me to a completely different conclusion. Good luck figuring that out while you’re trying to find the right words to use, worrying about syntax and orthography, and typing all at the same time.
Telling a story
When you finally do decide that you’ve thought things through and you know exactly what you want to write and what conclusions you want to reach, you can start writing. Here, there are two mistakes that I see people make; the first is that they write sentences but do not tell a story.
Every single piece you write is an adventure, with a beginning, a development, and an end. It doesn’t matter whether you are composing an e-mail to your clients or writing the next Great American Novel—you still need to take the reader by the hand and walk with them through every nook and cranny of your story. Your writing needs to be engaging, or you will never move beyond your grade-school reports.
Alas, most people write in short, halting sentences—I’m not sure if that’s because they were taught this way at school, or if it’s just a clever ploy to avoid having to properly punctuate. To a reader, that’s like driving down a flat, featureless highway in the passenger seat of a car whose mad driver constantly accelerates to maximum speed and then stomps on the brake pedal: it’s not just boring, it’s nauseating. When you read, years of habit have trained your brain to give a certain weight to the punctuation you encounter on a page; abusing it is like continuously punching the reader’s mind with brass knuckles.
Despite its small size, the period is an important signal for your mind: it tells Mr. Brain that it needs to stop reading and spend some time absorbing what it has just seen; therefore, short sentences have a jarring effect on the flow of a story and soon tire the reader. The same, of course, is true of long, winding, rambling sentences with no end.
The second problem that most people seem to have is that they think that writing is about words. It isn’t. Writing is, first and foremost, about communicating. When you write a story, the first goal should be to explain clearly and properly whatever it is that you want to say.
Remember, the focus now is on writing—getting things on paper. Don’t waste your time thinking about whether each sentence flows properly, or whether there are dissonances or repetitions in your text—and please, for the love of everything that is Good and Just, throw away that thesaurus. It’s a waste of time, and the word alternates you’ve found are, most likely, the wrong ones anyway.
To be clear, “avoiding short sentences” doesn’t mean that you must throw words at the problem; don’t use five words when three will do. You may be getting paid by the word, but your editor is not daft. He knows when you’re padding, and he knows that padding adds nothing to the meat of a story. Even if you just write for your blog, be concise and clear. It makes everyone’s life easier.
Now that you’ve got things on paper, so to speak, it’s time to clean them up. Go over the stream-of-consciousness text that came out of your mind during the first draft, and fix anything that’s out of place. This is where you pay attention to flow, consistency, coherence and linguistic considerations like repetitions and punctuation.
The clean-up phase is both critical and amazingly boring. Getting an idea on paper is hard work and, by the time you’re done with the first draft, you’ll want to just move on to something more fun, like, say, getting sloshed or overdosing on sesame pretzels. Alas, making sure that your text doesn’t sound like it was vomited by a five-year-old is very important—trust me when I tell you that the only thing more humiliating than seeing your story being mutilated by an editor is recognizing that the editor has done a better job with it than you did.
Therefore, it pays to spend a little time making sure that your text is as good as possible. Think of it as optimizing a piece of code—something you’re supposed to do only once you know the code works and you’ve identified its weak spots.
Tricks of the trade
There are four essential tools that every author needs to master; they are called comma, semicolon, colon and period.
Am I being funny? Not at all, because the vast majority of people has absolutely no idea how to use any of them individually—let alone all together.
Punctuation is the single most important aspect of your writing; it helps resolve ambiguities and it provides a rhythm for the flow of your discourse. Maybe it’s the fact that I have an almost fetishistic attachment to proper punctuation, but I’m convinced that a good use of the gamut of marks available to you will make up for a lot of other mistakes. Some of the best articles I’ve ever seen come out of the php|architect pipeline have been written by authors who had, at best, a basic knowledge of English, but who could write engagingly and coherently by using all the tools at their disposal, transcending their language handicap with ease.
Remember that punctuation is not just a typesetting concern. It is a tool of incredible power that helps you mark the hills and valleys in your story; in a way, it is to writing what proper inflection and timing is to speaking: get it wrong, and readers will not understand what you’re saying (or, worse, misunderstand it). If you have to choose between good grammar and good punctuation, focus on the latter, because editors can fix your grammar, but bad punctuation will actually skew the meaning of your work.
You might be wondering why I haven’t talked about style. The reason is simple: style is always unique. You can try and imitate someone else’s, but you will always end up subtly modifying it to make it your own—it’s just inevitable. The only way you form a style is by reading—as much as possible and from as many different sources as you can—and by writing until you’re comfortable with whatever experience your text projects.
Dealing with feedback
Writing even the simplest of things is an exercising in baring your soul. Especially when you’re writing anything other than a factual report, you’re basically showing your readers the colours of your ideas and personality—and giving them carte blanche to judge and critique them.
And they will. Everybody who ever reads your text, from your editors to your blog’s readers, will pass judgment on your ideas and, by reflection, on you as a person. Whether it’s a note from your ed telling you that you’ve messed everything up and he had to rewrite half your article, or a comment on your blog, feedback is often hard to take.
It is, however, also an important tool for learning to do a better job, which makes being able to tell the good apart from the rest very important. If you’re fortunate enough to work with a good editor, he or she can be a veritable treasure trove of learning opportunities. My editors at Macworld and our own editorial team—both subject to incessant drivel from yours truly—give me important pointers on learning to write better every time they lay hand on one of my stories2.
Good feedback, like the gooey, chocolatey filling of a French pastry, is in the middle. You’ve got to let go of the haters—people who criticize instead of critiquing. Nothing can be learned from these leeches on the goodwill of a society that allows them to access the Internet, when they should instead be relegated to a dungeon and left to fend against wild beasts on a 24/7 basis. These are the folks who judge and comment based not on what you have to say or the logic behind your reasoning, but on the exterior appearance of your writing. They’re the kind of people who get up in the middle of Schindler’s List and jeer because Liam Neeson has a piece of lettuce stuck in his teeth. Even though they like to cover their stupidity with a veneer of cultural self-importance, they are absolutely meaningless.
By the same token, you’ve got to let go of the gushers. Knowing that people admire your work is great, and something to be always grateful for, but you can’t learn anything from people who think you’re already doing the best that can be done.
It’s those folks in the middle that you have to listen to. They will, usually politely (and sometimes tactfully), point out that they disagree with your conclusions and explain what they believe the flaws in your line of reasoning are.
Ultimately, your worst critic is likely to be yourself. In fifteen years of writing anything from e-mails to books, I can think of maybe two or three pieces I’m really proud of. Plus, of course, I’m acutely aware of the fact that, although I have spent nearly as much time in Canada as I have in Italy, I will never be as fluent or articulate as many of the people whose work I admire. Still, I’ve managed to stick around for a while without getting fired from any writing job for gross incompetence—and have no plans to make myself scarce any time soon.
[Update 2001/02/08: tightened up some language I wasn't happy with. I will not, however, change the expression “to come natural” with the more grammatically correct “to come naturally.” As far as I'm concerned, it's a perfectly acceptable colloquial expression—this is a blog post, not Anal Annie's Manual of English Obnoxiousness. To those who thought that was the only thing worth commenting on, thanks for making my point about feedback. Now go back to watching Schindler's List—you've done good3.]