On Writing Well: Part I

Despite it being the medium of choice, writing has never been easy for me. Doubt, criticism, mulling self-consciousness, useless distractions and unproductive idleness are the bane of my existence. Writing in diaries as a kid was the only way I knew how to share my feelings, escape my world, and fantasize about boys. Writing paper after paper on Flaubert and Rembrandt (double majored in lit and art history) adjusted my vocabulary to that of academic art jargon. And now with all the blogging, freelance writing, press releasing, and journaling I attempt to do I’ve somehow somewhere fallen behind and am experiencing an empty rut. Art writing is intimidating and requires exhausting levels of focus and determination and encouragement. Food writing is formulaic and predictable, much easier but not as gratifying as finishing an review. Documenting everything else between this blog and a private journal is difficult, not well recorded, seemingly frivolous and not very interesting.

I am clearly overwhelmed, call it monkey thoughts, ADD, mindless clutter, what have you. Whatever it may be I need to step out of it STAT. I got shit to do, places to go, things to get done.

With that in mind I gratefully received this book as a gift. It’s a classic, a bit outdated (author marvels at the typewriter, then eventually the internet and email), but very useful. Having read the first section I learned the importance of taking on writing as a job, as a daily task that needs to be done, a skill and craft that can be improved upon with relentless practice.

On Writing Well is a bit graceless; blunt and patronizing at times and as I mentioned, outdated. He preaches at times, rambling on about Nixon and Vietnam, and how “clutter is the ponderous euphemism that turns a slum into a depressed socioeconomic area, garbage collectors into waste-disposal personnel and the town dump into the volume reduction unit”. There are moments of self-helpy advice and warnings but overall it’s finely structured and clearly written. One thing I realized is that I MUST approach writing as a survival tactic. I need it everything as much as I need food, sleep, and sex. OK maybe not sex, but, I mean, why not right?

I’d be curious to know what his thoughts and reactions would be with the oncoming of blogs and social media. I was thinking the other day how academics, intellectuals, and linguists the world around must be APPALLED at how consumers, the public, the individual, the writer just straight up BUTCHERS language and grammar with every writing tool we are provided. When you write an email on your iphone you excuse yourself for abbreviations and brevity, no? When you post something on twitter it’s usually coded with shortened phrases and vocabulary, there’s symbolic blabber everywhere and it’s the English language at its most grotesque, no? And blogging must be inexcusable with its relentless self-publishing mechanisms, putting out ugly unwanted clutter out into the world. I mean, what does it mean to read and write now? With the ipad and the kindle and everyone suffering for info overload and ADD and having up 200 tabs up on firefox and subscribing to a gazillion blogs and such, how do we cope with the changes in readership and readability in such a way that history, structure, culture, and significance is not lost?? So that the basics of good writing and meaningful reading experience is not lost??

Anyway, the first section of the book is broken down by seven factors to consider when writing. Here’s a summary and some quotes of each:

– Transaction: Rewriting is the essence of writing, which obviously is not done enough in this blogging over-published world of ours. Consider why and how you write, establish a daily schedule, and accept the fact that “professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers”.

– Simplicity: “Clutter is the disease of American writing”, with our “national tendency to inflate”. He then starts rambling about political correctness and junk. Useful self-helpy part is when he declares “the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components” and “clear our head of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing.” I can certainly use some brain clearing.

– Clutter: Be super conscious of every word put on paper and get rid of all jargon, cliche, and clutter. Great quote: “ every profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to throw dust in the eyes of the populace.” This book is full of pretentious euphemisms like these. It’s great.

– Style: Be yourself, strip down then build up. Relax and have confidence, breathe and go. “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.”

– The Audience: You write to please yourself, so enjoy it and naturally others will follow. “Simplify, prune and strive for order.”

– Words: “Develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.” Make the thesaurus your new best friend. I don’t think I’ve ever opened one.

– Usage: Separate usage from jargon. “Laws of usage are relative, bending with the taste of the lawmaker.” So basically be conscious of who your audience is and write accordingly. Verbalize the interpersonal.

We’ll return to this book after I finish the remaining section. Is any of this helpful to you?

3 Comments

Filed under Literature

3 responses to “On Writing Well: Part I

  1. Tom

    Thanks for this. It’s a great book I haven’t returned to in a long time.

  2. Took me ages to find this post, this time Ill bookmark it.

  3. Great read, I simply passed this on to a friend who was carrying out a tiny study on that. And he really bought me lunch mainly because I came across it for him! So let me rephrase that: Thanks for meal!

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