FF Life: How to write better

January 15, 2022: Start with reading better

Founding Fuel

[From Unsplash]

Good morning,

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut,” Stephen King articulates in no uncertain terms in his magnificent book, On Writing. And we find it most intriguing and amusing at once that those who aspire to write much read very little. That is why, we sincerely believe that anyone who aspires to write well, must learn to read well. This is a skill and if there be a book that teaches how to read the right way, it is Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book.

There are various kinds of reading. 

  1. Elementary reading: This is basic reading and how most people read. Textbooks and elementary news reports are consumed this way and it doesn’t require much thought. Unfortunately, this is how most people read. 
  2. Inspectional and superficial reading: Smarter readers who intend to engage with an idea or a book first inspect it. To do that, they quickly look at the preface of a book that places the writer’s intent in context; the table of contents helps understand the structure; and the index allows one to scrutinize the breadth and depth of an author’s research. A sparse index, or one skewed towards any line of thought is a red flag.
  3. Analytical reading: Once convinced a book has merit and it is purchased, it must be engaged with. This is where analytical reading must be deployed. It isn’t passive because there is a downside to reading. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.”  So, the reader must be engaged. To do that, highlight passages that stand out; question the author; argue in the head if need be; look up other pieces of evidence. 

But few people know how to read like this. Instead, most people place a premium on the number of books read as opposed to wrestling with the ideas in a book. How to go about this is what Adler discusses in much detail.

How to write   

On Writing by Stephen King, How to Write Short and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark are among our favourites. Most people know of King as someone who creates horror fiction. Few know about his love for writing and what a wonderful teacher he was. Between King and Clark, yet another accomplished writing coach, their slim volumes contain many tools we like to deploy. Here are some from the margins of our notebooks.   

Write a mission statement

Before starting to write, make a mission statement. It helps stay focused as the research progresses and writing emerges. And as you keep writing, it is inevitable the mind will wander as new pieces of information reveal themselves. A mission statement allows you to stay the course, get a handle on where you need to articulate more, understand the audience better, and make the writing more transparent—both to yourself and the reader. 

An example of a mission statement we had saved up for reference is one that award-winning journalist Mark Bowden had written for his bestselling Black Hawk Down that was made into a film later. On the overarching mission, he told Roy Peter Clark, “I wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative with the emotion of the memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true.”

The thumb rules

Once this is clear, good writers follow certain thumb rules and write the answers to some questions.  

  • Who are you writing for?
  • What are you writing about?
  • When will this piece of work be relevant?
  • Where will this piece of writing be relevant?
  • Why should the subject read this piece?
  • How will this piece of writing influence their decision?

Keep it simple

The Gettysburg Address delivered by Abraham Lincoln is still thought of as one of the greatest political speeches ever delivered. With just 272 words, it is one of the shortest ever written. Delivered in just about two minutes, it changed the course of America’s political history. That is why it remains one of the most studied speeches of all time. The history books have it that Lincoln took a long time to think it through and each word was chosen deliberately. 

Five lessons emerge from it.

  • Brevity matters
  • Simplicity over all else
  • Open powerfully
  • The structure that follows must be easy to follow
  • The closing must be memorable 

Destroy redundant elements

“Adverbs are a favourite target, especially those that reinforce rather than modify the meaning.”

Some examples of bad adverbs.

  • active consideration 
  • basic essentials 
  • completely finish 
  • consensus of opinion 
  • descend down 

Think about these for a moment: If something is being considered, it is active. Anything essential is basic. When something is finished, it is complete. Else, it is unfinished; or incomplete. A consensus implies that of an opinion. You can only descend down. Not up.

Go easy on the -ings

When we look at sentences, we notice how often words end with -ing. Consider what follows. 

“Suffering under the strain of months of withering attacks, reservists stationed in Iraq are complaining to family members about the length of their tours of duty, and lobbying their congressional representatives about bringing more troops home.”

Technically, it’s all right. But when the words that end with -ings are looked at once again and the sentence is re-framed, things change.

“Reservists stationed in Iraq have suffered months of withering attacks. They have complained to family members about the lengths of their tours of duty and lobbied Congress to bring more troops home.”

Reads better, doesn’t it?

Vary sentence length

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The rule of 4

This is something we picked up from Roy Peter Clark. Look at the descriptors that follow.

  • That girl is smart
  • That girl is smart and sweet
  • That girl is smart, sweet and determined
  • That girl is smart, sweet, determined and neurotic

How do we decode that?

There’s something about the fourth descriptor, isn’t it? But each descriptor ought to be deployed at just the right time.

  • Use one for power.
  • Use two for comparison, contrast.
  • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
  • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand. Four or more details in a passage can offer a flowing, literary effect that the best writers have created.

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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