10 pieces of writing advice
This post contains absolutely no information about sciatica
I don't pretend to be great at writing, but people take the time to read what I write and some of them even pay for it, so I can't be that bad. Today, I want to share 10 writing tips that I keep in mind when I'm working, in the hope that they will be useful to you too.
1. Write something that's of value to your reader.
It sounds obvious, I know. But the advice to write something that's of value to your reader is so important because we are all trained from a young age to do exactly the opposite: to write something that explains class material to a teacher.
When we write to explain class material to a teacher, we have to guess what our teacher wants us to say and then lay it out in the exact manner she expects us to say it. Consequently, our writing is stale: predictable introductions that dutifully give 'background' to the topic; a pronounless, fake-authoritative style; words like however, therefore and thus. We never stop to ask ourselves if we are writing something that’s of value. In fact, because our teacher already knows what we are trying to say, we have to assume it won't be. And we never stop and think about the reader and her reading experience. In fact, because our teacher is paid to read our writing, we have no obligation even to try to hold her attention.
To get over this miseducation, you have to consciously retrain your focus onto writing something that’s of value to your readers. To write something of value means to write something that's useful or entertaining or validating or illuminating. To write for your reader means to write for a real person: a clinician or a new grad or a student or a patient or... anyone except an imaginary teacher with a red pen in her hand.
2. You don't have to feel like writing to write
For whatever reason, writing is closely associated with inspiration. It's romanticised. The poet stands atop a mountain and is compelled by wonder to write!
But in reality, most of history's greatest writers have been creatures of routine. Maybe they woke up and sat at their desk and wrote for two hours, got up to have breakfast then sat down again to write for two more. Or maybe they sat down at their desk and didn't get up until they'd written 1,000 words. Maybe, like Charles Darwin, they walked the same route every morning before they put pen to paper. As the artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is just for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work”
Someone else once wrote that “Writing is a form of manual labour and should be approached in that spirit”. This is its own form of romanticism, but it holds in it the truth that if you want to get the job done, you really just have to turn up and get the job done.1
3. Leave it for as long as possible, then read it out loud.
The most boring but unavoidable writing advice.
We are terrible critics of our own writing because we know exactly what we are trying to write. If you put your writing in a drawer for a week or two, then come back to it and read it out loud, you are getting as close as you can to reading your writing as if it were written by someone else.
4. Shorten your sentences.
To be clear, this doesn't mean the same thing as 'shorter sentences are better'. Lots of gifted writers use long sentences that unfurl themselves over the course of half a page, and they're incredible. And, you should probably have some long sentences in your writing because too many short sentences in a row can become pretty intense.
Instead, 'shorten your sentences' is more like corrective advice for imperfect writers like you and me. It means something more like, 'if you're an amateur you're almost certainly using too many words and the most straightforward way to make your writing clearer and more elegant is to shorten everything as much as possible.'
5. It's okay to be informal. (One way to do this is to write quickly.)
Partly because we were trained to write for teachers instead of real readers, most people write too formally. When I decided to write a book about sciatica, I automatically assumed it would be in the style of a textbook, dense with reviews of research fields and lists of anatomical landmarks. It took months for my idea of the book to evolve to the more informal, agile and personal book that I wrote, and that people actually read and enjoy.
One good way to stop your writing from being too formal is to write quickly. If you keep typing at a fair clip, your brain won't have time to insert random 'therefores' and 'notwithstandings', and your writing will take on the cadence and style of actual speech.
Of course, if you write your first draft quickly, a lot of what you write will sound awkward. But the awkwardness can be ironed out later. After all, they do say that writing is re-writing.2
6. Don't feel the need to point out every instance of ambiguity, complexity and nuance.
Here's how it goes for me, at least. I want to write a nice simple sentence: 'The cat in the hat sat on the mat'. But then I imagine an uncharitable reader (likely on twitter) calling me out for using some word or phrase they don’t like3. The cat in the hat sat on the mat? Don't you know that cats aren't in hats, hats are on cats? Anyway mats don't exist, don't you mean rugs? And what about dogs, where are they sitting?
The temptation, which I have to resist, is to pre-empt their complaints by hedging ‘The cat sat on the mat’ to 'The domestic quadraped, which had placed upon it a hat, sat on the floor-bound rectangle of carpeting material. Of course, these issues are complex and involve a multitude of complex animal, headgear and interior design-related factors.' Not good.
To give some concrete examples, here's a few nice simple sentences I've written recently, and the reasons I’ve been tempted to spoil them:
"Hip joint pain is just as often lateral hip pain or buttock pain as groin pain. And, it frequently refers into the lower limb, too. So how can you tell if your patient's pain is coming from their hip or their spine - or both?" (An uncharitable reader could object that pain doesn’t really 'come from' a joint).
"The most common cause of lumbar radiculopathy is a disc herniation". (An uncharitable reader could object that a single event like a herniation can't be called 'a cause' of a complex experience like pain).
"Nerve pain is usually felt in the distribution of the nerve". (An uncharitable reader could object to the phrase 'nerve pain'. In fact, someone did once comment on something of mine to say "There's no such thing as nerve pain"... I wanted to tell him he was welcome to bang his funny bone to prove it).
Don’t feel the need to cover your arse by pointing out every instance of ambiguity, complexity and nuance. Instead, put things plainly and give your reader the benefit of the doubt: they are intelligent and they already know that the world is complex, you don't need to tell them every time!
7. Talk about what you're talking about.
Another obvious tip, right?
If you're really enthusiastic about your topic, you're probably doing a sort of higher-level thinking about it. You've built up all sorts of concepts, perspectives, approaches, factors, processes, frameworks and so on. That's great, but in their abstract forms this stuff can spoil our writing.
The linguist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker calls all these concepts, perspective, approaches, factors, processes, frameworks etc. 'packing material' for the actual subject matter. Most readers don't want to hear about this packaging material and even those that do will struggle to keep their eyelids from drooping as they try to read about one framework as compared to another framework.
Instead of writing about packaging material, Pinker says we should write about concrete objects doing things in the world. It's not that we should pretend there are no concepts, perspectives, approaches, processes or frameworks; but rather, that when we use them we should talk about them in terms of recognisable stuff. In other words, we should talk about what we're talking about, and not whatever mental packaging we've put it in.
To illustrate, here's a couple of examples from Pinker's terrific book A Sense of Style. The examples with the packaging material are on the left, with the offending words underlined; the better versions are on the right:
8. You don't have to be original, and you don’t have to be an expert.
This is the most common objection I hear when I encourage people to write online. ‘I don’t have anything original to say… and anyway I’m not an expert.’ People think it’s not their place to write for others.
I think what underlies this unfortunate mindset is that these people believe knowledge should be transferred from the top down. At the top, there are experts; they discover original knowledge and they write it out for people who know a bit less than them. True, those people can then write it out for people who know a bit less than them, and so on, but at the end of the day the experts at the top who are expected to write up all their discoveries for everyone below them.
This is wrong, of course, because the transfer of knowledge is not vertical, it's actually more like a network. Sure, there are mega-experts who have more original stuff to say than others. But in the network, almost everyone can find someone who doesn't know what they know. The internet makes this particularly easy.
Besides, it's not all about the transfer of knowledge, either. Surprisingly often, readers already pretty much know what they’re going to read but read it anyway in order to hear what they already know expressed differently, from a different perspective.
Originality and expertise are far less important than point 1 of this post: value for the reader.
9. Write as you learn.
Not only do you not have to be a leading expert in a topic to write about it, and not only do you not have to write something original, but your writing is often better if you're a total newbie. If you write something up immediately after you have learned it, it usually sounds clear and fresh. You can't fake that sense of discovery.
I think this is a good principle for lots of projects: working with the garage door open.
10. Don't major in the minors.
You might have noticed that all of the tips in this email were high-level advice, and none of it was about the nitty-gritty of grammar or syntax. There was nothing about avoiding passive verbs, avoiding nominalisations and gerunds, not starting sentences with 'but' or 'and', or not ending a sentence with a preposition.
Apart from anything else, these grammar rules are in fact not rules, but guidelines at best (passive verbs, for example, are often very useful). Some, like 'don't start a sentence with but', are nonsense; the linguistic equivalent of 'don't squat with your knees over your toes'.
In my opinion, if you remember the basic high level principles that make up items one to nine on this list, then you can break some of these micro level grammatical rules and no one will mind. For example, this email has passive verbs, nominalisations, gerunds, sentences starting with 'but' and ‘and’, and sentences ending in prepositions. (Sorry there are no prizes for spotting them all). I would be surprised if these so-called errors have made the email much worse.
It all comes back to providing value to the reader. Or, to put it another way, "Stop thinking about rules and start thinking about readers."
Til next time,
Similarly, while the perfect environment --the right seat at a coffee shop, or a clean desk, or the right lofi music-- might help you write, if you become too precious about the perfect conditions then you will never get anything done. Better to try to write in the worst conditions too, and just get used to it. Here's the Norwegian genius Karl Ove Knausgaard on making this shift in mindset after he became a father:
"When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that would be an obstruction for my writing, I thought. But it wasn't. It was the other way round. I've never written as much as I have after I got children, after I started to write at home [...] What happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary."
Re: writing is rewriting, here's John McPhee, a great writer who hated his speed-written first drafts:
The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. (via)
Or, in tweet form:
To be fair, people who object to plain language aren't always being uncharitable. Sometimes people are genuinely trying to be helpful when they add caveats, point out subtle distinctions or ask why you didn't account for their favoured perspective. Even so, my advice is not to muddy-up your writing to cater for them.