Lesson 3: Writing the Darn Thing
At its core, writing brilliantly is an art, the gift of which one is born with. Although I cannot teach you how to be born with such a gift, I can offer you some good methods that will help you to write well or, at the very least, prevent the writing process from becoming an obstacle in your way.
There is no “right” way
Before we get to the golden rules of writing like a storyteller, I want to emphasize one meta-principle that, in and of itself, is worth you having read all of this series up until this point. If you tattoo it onto your brain, sure you’re risking infection, but you’ll save hundreds of hours of your time and a huge amount of frustration in the process.
Are you with me?
Take a deep breath.
Here it goes: Don’t wait. Write.
Many people are afraid to write. Perhaps they fear that if they fail once, they’ll be like a failure forever. So to protect themselves from this they sit and wait for a heavenly sign, a certain feeling, or an inspiration, which will pull them in the right direction towards writing beautifully.
But waiting is never the solution. As one poet once wrote: a good poem is the inevitable result of 99 failed poems. Writing, just like any other art or craft, is about practice, and you don’t get to write well without honing your craft.
In other words, the moment is always now. So to help you on your way, let’s move to the good stuff: The Six Golden Rules of writing:
1. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to write
This may sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but this is a rule that you should always have in the back of your mind. All the things you’ve heard about there being a right way to write are baloney. You should avoid following anyone’s example and instead find your own path.
2. Writing is always storytelling
No matter whether you’re writing a paper, a novel, or a memo, if you wish that those who hold your paper will also read it, you should tell them a story. By “story”, I mean that each paragraph has to contain, or provide a substantive contribution to, a narrative. And your text should always follow the basic tenet of storytelling, which is the next golden rule…
3. Stories are mysteries and their solution
Every paper and every part of a paper should introduce a mystery — something the reader does not know, but would like to find out.
For example, if you start a paragraph by stating “For many years, researchers bickered with each other regarding the question of whether or not the Platypus is a mammal…” and end the same paragraph with “ RH Wünderbar’s Polymammal Tester supplied the definite answer,” you’re both introducing, and then solving, a mystery.
The reader is in fact confronted with two mysteries here: Firstly, is the platypus a mammal? Secondly, has this debate been solved? Eventually, the reader gets an answer: RH Wünderbar solved the problem. But this is not a complete answer, of course. We still don’t know if the platypus is a mammal or not. And actually, we are introduced to two additional mysteries: who was RH Wünderbar? And, further, what was the Polymamal Tester? This partial answer moves us nicely to Golden Rule 4.
4. Always leave them wanting more
A good story always raises a new question the minute it solves the old one.
Just think about soap operas and their basic story mechanism: at any given time, there are two or three story lines. One of them may reach a conclusion, but as soon as it does, another mystery takes its place. No one gets a happily ever after ending.
Soap operas go on for decades using this basic storytelling method. And as long as your paper goes on, you should use this method too. When all of the mysteries in the narrative are answered for — and they lived happily ever after — it’s time to stop reading.
A good way to think about this would be to imagine that all of your paragraphs, sections, and chapters are connected to each other in a hidden chain of mysteries and solutions. To give readers some satisfaction, you solve a mystery. But to keep them reading on, you create another one.
5. Never make your structure obvious
This emphasis on a mystery-solution or question-answer structure might lead some to believe that they should use explicit questions when writing, and then declare that they will be directly answering them.
You should avoid this, because being explicit means being boring. For example, take a look at this opening sentence: “Is the platypus a mammal or not? For many years, researchers bickered over this very question”. This basically conveys the same information as “For many years researchers bickered over whether or not the platypus is a mammal…”.
However — However, the first sentence makes your storytelling very explicit and tears apart the thin veil of mystery. This repels readers instinctively, and defogs the natural mystery that you wish to keep. It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid question marks, and avoid writing statements like “the answer is…”.
6. Keep them surprised
A good paper always tries to question accepted facts or ideas. The format is almost always this: Most people think A, but it is really B. This is because everybody is interested in learning something new, that they were not aware of before. No-one is interested in reading about a repeated, conventionally well-known piece of information. Bear in mind, though, that most people are only interested in learning about something new in so far as it confirms their existing biases — but that’s another story for another series of articles.
If you follow these Golden Rules, I promise you that your paper (or anything else you write, for that matter) will be readable and enjoyable. Even if you write a bad paper, which was poorly researched, using the rules above will ensure that you keep afloat, ahead of the pack, perhaps a little exhausted from all that hard work, but always above a C grade.
It’s a start, right?
n addition to these Six Golden Rules, there are several good, additional writing behaviors which should be adopted. This will make your writing easier, more successful, and a greater pleasure to read.
• Keep it clear. As simple as that.
• Keep it short. Start by limiting yourself to paragraphs of no more than 80 words. If you go past the 150-words mark, split up the paragraph or re-write it.
• Don’t fall in love with what you’ve written. You’re not that good. In particular,, resist the temptation to excuse linguistic excesses ,structural irregularities or fancy phrasing, as your own special quirks. Remember, you want to keep your writing short. If you feel the urge to write something which is lengthy and overly complex, then create a separate document, name it “Rubbish,” copy and paste your magnificently complex paragraph there, and then close the document. Now that your rubbish is safe and saved, edit the rest of your paragraph and keep it short and clear.
• Don’t fall in love with your phrases and phrasing. If you feel the urge to write long and complex, surrender to the urge. Then create a new document, name it “Rubbish,” and copy and paste your magnificently complex paragraph there and close the document. Now that you’re rubbish is safe and saved, edit the paragraph to keep it short and clear.
• Avoid complex metaphors. You’re not up to it. Neither are your readers.
• Never Faulkner, always Hemingway. Not only should your written piece be short, but the sentences themselves should be too.
• Avoid Weasel words. Always be clear in your writing about who did, or said, something. Even if mysteries are worthy additions to a piece of written text, questions of authorship and general accountability of action should be clear.
• Never cite Wikipedia. It’s bad form and a worse source.
• Create a refuse-to-use-word list. Create a list of words to avoid (such as weasel words, unclear terms etc.) and write your papers without ever using them. This will ensure that you are clear and precise.
• Find a friend and form a reading club. They’ll read your papers and you’ll read theirs. Their remarks should be mainly about a text’s readability (“I did not understand this”, “this is interesting/boring”, “I want to hear more about x”). Be honest but graceful with them, and make sure that they act in the same way towards you.
• Be honest with yourself. If criticism from your reading club friends always offends you, it means either that they’re mean, or that you’re not able to accept a fair, critical opinion about your work. Be honest with yourself about that.
And I’ll end where I began.
Many students, authors, journalists and scholars waste months of their life sitting in front of their computer, doing everything except writing what they need to be writing. They expect inspiration to come from news sites, their email, Facebook or their Twitter feed.
They search for a silver bullet that doesn’t exist. The inconvenient truth is that there is no “Inspiration Fairy” that’ll fly over, come and kiss your forehead, and provide you with instant inspiration and all the knowledge you need to write a killer essay.
The only way to write, is to just sit down and write. That’s how Bach wrote his music. That’s how T.S. Eliot wrote his poems. That’s how Stephen King writes his novels. They all received a commission or a deadline, and they all just sat down and wrote.
So you do the same. Sit down, launch Mellel (or a not-so-good word processor that you’re forced to use) and start typing.
Just write it.