Category Archives: writing

How to Write Clearly

“Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask ‘Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?’”

—Evelyn Waugh

(Via Terry Teachout.)

Colorful

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“Honestly: scholars bore me. I don’t have the spine to withstand colorless writing for very long, and furthermore I suspect that colorless writing is indicative of colorless thought.”

Luc Sante

 (Image via the New York TimesPreviously on SFYP.)

Writing Disappears

Slavoj Žižek in Žižek! (dir. Astra Taylor, 2005):

I have a very complicated ritual about writing. It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down, so I have to trick myself. I operate a very simple strategy which, at least, with me, works. I put down ideas, but I put them down usually already in a relatively elaborate way, like the line of thought already written, full sentences, and so on. So up to a certain point I’m telling myself, no, I’m not yet writing, I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself, everything is already there, now I just have to edit it. So that’s the idea, to split it into two: I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears.

Dual Profession

“What the young writer of today should contemplate is a dual profession – and incidentally it would be the best thing in the world for his tortured creativeness to be forced to touch some non-literary world, forced to remember what saner folk are daily up to. Let the young Balzac or Byron not only wear his elbows shiny at his desk, but let him with equal assiduity learn another and slightly more lucrative calling. But I would like him to keep out of advertising, journalism, and the teaching of literature, if possible, because they are too much akin to his writing. No, let him become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator, and with the two professions together, he make make a living … provided any of us will be ‘making a living,’ a couple of decades from now.”

—Sinclair Lewis, Yale Literary Magazine, 1936

(Hat tip: @GenerationMeh.)

Sitting Down to Write

“I sit down to write, praying that I can sustain attention long enough to complete a paragraph. I compose half a sentence, type in a word or two that might push the thing to the finish, crave a break from the exhausting demands of syntax, click-click, and I’m at my home page, and I click my way to my e-mail. Maybe the editor says yes or there’s an invitation from someone to contribute or lecture or just some person who loves my book and is writing to say so or maybe a friend asking for lunch, anything to tweak my ego, desperate-needy, or give me something to think about other than the next phrase or clause, and as usual, nothing, not one goddamn thing. ‘Is my college’s server down?’ I wonder; ‘it’s been thirty minutes since I’ve gotten an email, for fuck’s sake; surely the silence shouldn’t be so long,’ and I soar, cursor-wise, up to bookmarks, go to sportsillustrated.com, must get the latest on LeBron James, same info as last time, ten minutes ago, and so click to Facebook, no message or friend request, so check out what George from my high school is doing, oh, having a second cup of coffee, and now there’s Valerie from the neighborhood posting another article on the mistreatment of otters (I just checked my e-mail right now, this minute, tenth time in the past five minutes), and I’ve got to get back to the writing, but one more—click-click—over the New York Times page.”

—Eric G. Wilson, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life

Work All the Jobs

“Worked in slaughterhouse, dog biscuit factory, Di Pinna’s of Miami beach, copy boy on the New Orleans’ Item, blood bank in Frisco, hung posters in New York subways 40 feet below the sky drunk hopping beautiful golden third rails, cotton in Berdo, tomatoes; shipping clerk, truck driver, horseplayer ordinary, holder down of barstools throughout a dull alarmclock nation, supported by shackjob whores; foreman for American newsco., New York, Sears-Roebuck stock boy, gas station attendant, mailman…”

—Charles Bukowski, from the forthcoming On Writing

(Via Lit Hub.)

Research Techniques

“Write early in the morning, cultivate memory, reread core books, take detailed reading notes, work on several projects at once, maintain a thick archive, rotate crops, take a weekly Sabbath, go to bed at the same time, exercise so hard you can’t think during it, talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields, love the basic, keep your antennae tuned, and seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt).”

—John Durham Peters, in a wide-ranging interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books about his new book The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media

Unplug the Clock

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, ‘I’m going to give it a couple of years.’ You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul. There’s no shame in being a starving artist. Get a day job, but don’t get too good at it. It will take you away from your writing.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner

A Very Sophisticated Act

“Quoting writers and citing the places where their words are to be found are by now such common practices that it is pardonable to look upon the habit as natural, not to say instinctive. It is of course nothing of the kind, but a very sophisticated act, peculiar to a civilization that uses printed books, believes in evidence, and makes a point of assigning credit or blame in a detailed, verifiable way.”

—Jacques Brazun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 5th ed. (1992)

(Via.)

Lateral Thinking

“The few pages of this chapter have taken you a few minutes to read; they have taken me, I’m sorry to say, days and days to write. No, I haven’t been sitting at my computer the whole time. First I carried the germ around for a while, mulling over how to best approach it, then I sat down and knocked a few items onto the screen, then I began fleshing out the argument. Then I got stuck, so I made lunch or baked some bread or helped my kid work on his car, but I carried the problem of this chapter around with me the whole time. I sat down at the keyboard again and started in again but got distracted and worked on something else. Eventually I got where we are now. Even assuming equal knowledge about the subject, who probably has had the most ideas – you in five minutes of reading or me in five days of stumbling around? All I’m really saying is that we readers sometimes forget how long literary composition can take and how very much lateral thinking can go on in that amount of time.”

Thomas C. Foster