Summary

Writing is an aid to thinking. By forcing oneself to put things on paper, one forces oneself to think and reason clearly. Good writing is lots of editing. Writing is also a craft. Go to work everyday.

Notes

  • Clear writing is the logical arrangement of thought; a scientist who thinks clearly can write as well as the best writer. My book, in short, would be mainly an anthology—a guided tour of good writing in different crannies of the B.A. curriculum.
  • I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document—a letter, for instance—had clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.
  • Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all.
  • Writing is learned by imitation. “I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S. J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S. J. Perelman.”
  • Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: The idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into a sensible shape. Whatever we write—a memo, a letter, a note to the baby-sitter—all of us know this moment of finding out what we really want to say by trying in writing to say it.
  • Probably no subject is too hard if people take the trouble to think and write and read clearly. Maybe, in fact, it’s time to redefine the “three R’s”—they should be reading, ’riting and reasoning. Together they add up to learning. It’s by writing about a subject we’re trying to learn that we reason our way to what it means
  • “…one is that writing is linear and sequential. If sentence B logically follows sentence A, and if sentence C logically follows sentence B, I’ll eventually get to sentence Z. I also try to remember that the reader should be given only as much information as he needs and not one word more. Anything else is a self-indulgence.”
  • Prior knowledge of the subject, incidentally, isn’t a requirement; only the ability to arrange information in narrative order.
  • Readers must be given room to bring their own emotions to a piece so crammed with emotional content; the writer must tenaciously resist explaining why the material is so moving.
  • “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written—in having finally made an arrangement that has a certain inevitability, like the solution to a mathematical problem. Perhaps in no other line of work is delayed gratification so delayed.”
  • Only by repeated applications of process—writing and rewriting and pruning and shaping—can we hammer out a clear and simple product.
  • Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It’s a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism—pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor—for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and to organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, “Am I saying what I want to say?” Very often the answer is “No.” It’s a useful piece of information.
  • My advice to Type A writers begins with one word: Think! Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” Then try to say it. Then ask yourself, “Have I said it?” Put yourself in the reader’s mind: Is your sentence absolutely clear to someone who knows nothing about the subject? If not, think about how to make it clear. Then rewrite it. Then think: “What do I need to say next? Will it lead logically out of what I’ve just written? Will it also lead logically toward where I want to go?” If it will, write the sentence. Then ask yourself, “Did it do the job I wanted it to do, with no ambiguity?” If it did, think: “Now what does the reader need to know?” Keep thinking and writing and rewriting. If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. It’s as simple as that. The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.
  • Type B writing—exploratory writing—requires no such cogitation, no prior decisions about which road to take; the road will reveal itself.
  • Ambiguity is noise. Redundancy is noise. Misuse of words is noise. Vagueness is noise. Jargon is noise. Pomposity is noise. Clutter is noise: all those unnecessary adjectives (“ongoing progress”), all those unnecessary adverbs (“successfully avoided”), all those unnecessary prepositions draped onto verbs (“order up”), all those unnecessary phrases (“in a very real sense”). Information is your sacred product, and noise is its pollutant. Guard the message with your life.
  • Writing is a craft, and a writer is someone who goes to work every day with his tools, like the carpenter or the television repairman, no matter how he feels, and if one of the things he wants to produce by 6 P.M. is a sense of enjoyment in his writing, he must generate it by an act of will. Nobody else is going to do it for him.
  • “…that chance favors the prepared mind, and certainly it’s true that writers, in some corner of their conscious or subconscious brain, are always working. A writer should always be ready to be lucky.”
  • Writers who think they are being criticized when only their writing is being criticized are beyond a teacher’s reach. Writing can only be learned when a writer coldly separates himself from what he has written and looks at it with the objectivity of a plumber examining a newly piped bathroom to see if he got all the joints tight.