Highlights from “On Writing Well”

Highlights

  1. Most nonfiction writers have definitiveness complex. They feel that they are under some obligation — to the subject, to their honor, to the gods of writing — to make their article the last word. It’s a commendable impulse, but there is no last word.
  2. Every writing project must be reduced before you start to write.
  3. As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five — just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind. It will not only give you a better idea of what route you should follow and what destination you hope to reach; it will affect your decision about tone and attitude.
  4. Scissors and paste — or their equivalent on a computer — are honorable writers’ tools.
  5. … you should always collect more material than you will use. Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best — if you don’t go on gathering facts forever.
  6. At some point you must stop researching and start writing.
  7. Another moral is to look for your material everywhere, not just by reading the obvious sources and interviewing that obvious people.
  8. Yet there can be no firm rules for how to write a lead. Withing the broad rule of not letting the reader get away, all writers must approach their subject in a manner that most naturally suites what they are writing about and who they are.
  9. Knowing when to end an article is afar more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much.
  10. When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.
  11. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
  12. The large point is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.
  13. Credibility is just as fragile for a writer as for a president. Don’t inflate an incident to make it more outlandish than it actually was. If the reader catches you in just one bogus statement that you are trying to pass off as true, everything you write thereafter will be suspect. It’s too great a risk, and not worth taking.
  14. Surprisingly often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it. Unfortunately, this solution is usually the last one that occurs to writers in a jam.
  15. Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.
  16. A tenet of journalism is that “the reader knows nothing.”
  17. Describing how a process works is valuable for two reasons. It forces you to make sure you know how it works.
  18. … I’ve learned that scientific and technical material can be made accessible to the layman. It’s just a matter of putting one sentence after. The “after,’ however, is crucial. Nowhere else must you work so hard to write sentences that form a linear sequence. This is no place for fanciful leaps or implied truths. Fact and deduction are the ruling family.
  19. Imagine science writing as an upside-down pyramid. Start at the bottom with the one fact a reader must know before he can learn any more. The second sentence broadens what was stated first, making the pyramid wider, and the third sentence broadens that second, so that you can gradually move beyond fact into significance and speculation — how a new discovery alters what was known, what new avenues of research it might open, where the research might be applied. There’s no limit to how wide the pyramid can become, but your readers will understand the broad implications only if they start with one narrow fact.
  20. Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary.
  21. Anxiety is a big part of the problem and humanity and clear thinking are a big part of the solution.
  22. If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write.
  23. What is crucial for you as a writer is to express your opinion firmly. Don’t cancel its strength with last-minute evasions and escapes. The most boring sentence in the daily newspaper is the last sentence of the editorial, which says “It is too early to tell whether the new policy will work” or “The effectiveness of the decision remains to be seen.” If it’s too early to tell, don’t bother us with it, and as for what remains to be seen, everything remains to be seen. Take your stand with conviction.
  24. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone: breeziness and condescension and cliches.
  25. For writers and other creative artists, knowing what not to do a major component of taste.
  26. “Dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.” — Red Smith
  27. Push the boundaries of your subject and see where it takes you. Bring some part of your own life to it; it’s not your version of the story until you write it.
  28. As an editor and a teacher I’ve found that that most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.
  29. What do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.

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Venkatesh-Prasad Ranganath

Venkatesh-Prasad Ranganath

Software Engineer / Researcher interested in software engineering, programming languages/tools, systems, and data.