Tag Archives: writing

Writing advice from Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, on how to write sentences:

The best teacher I ever had used to say to me, “When you frame a sentence don’t do it as if you were loading a shotgun but as if you were loading a rifle. Don’t fire in such a way and with such a load that while you hit the thing you aim at, you will hit a lot of things in the neighborhood besides; but shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone.”

The studious and correct use of language is an act of precision; it is the process of eliminating suplusage and embodying only those things which are of the substance of the statement itself. It is an attempt always to fire for the one thing.

In the use of language, we ought to be like the Boer in South Africa, who when he goes out intending to bring back one piece of game carries only one bullet.

As printed in the Educator-Journal, Vol. VIII, February 1908.

Writing advice: Keep the bear, and just the bear

John McPhee has been writing for about 50 years now, which, even if you ignore his four Pulitzer finalist awards (and one win), is a good deal of writing experience. But getting past writer’s block hasn’t gotten any easier for him.

McPhee wrote about overcoming writer’s block in the Apr. 29, 2013 New Yorker: “Draft No. 4; Replacing the words in boxes”. The full article is behind a paywall, but the excerpted opening includes a great bit of advice for a former student named “Joel”:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day…

You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?

You write, “Dear Mother.” And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can.

And then you go back and delete the “Dear Mother” and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

The rest of the McPhee’s piece is a mine of writing wisdom. He goes on at length about how you must just write anything: “The way to do a piece of writing is three of four times over, never once,” McPhee advises another student. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…Until it exists, writing has not really begun”

And a truism worth mentioning, and something that I’ve found applies equally to photography and programming: “The difference between a common writer and an improvisor on a stage is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision.”

McPhee’s piece reminded me of writing advice from C.S. Lewis to a young fan. Each point in Lewis’s list is excellent advice, but this is my favorite:

In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

I’ve seen it with non-professional writers including myself: going on a thesaurus hunt for an adjective to fill space when nothing would do just fine. What makes this particularly pernicious is that you never realize how much time you’re wasting on synonyms and, to top it off, the synonym will end up polluting your writing.

I imagine McPhee agrees. In his “bear” example, he doesn’t use a single adjective to describe the bear. He just lists its concrete dimensions.

First drafts, not coincidentally, come a lot faster when you skip the adjectives.

The Google death and resurrection of Amy Wilentz

Author Amy Wilentz has a fun piece about how Google listed her as “dead” in the rich snippet search result for her name. Her untimely death apparently came from her Wikipedia entry, which was, to say the least, unconventionally created:

(is there a conventional way for Wikipedia entries to come about?)

Google picked up my facts from my Wikipedia entry. My Wikipedia entry, oddly, was put up by Cousin Joel, who has a genealogy obsession, and has assembled an astounding dossier on our family, finding members of it in places as far flung as Dvinsk, Latvia, Hollywood, California, and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

So it’s not too surprising that my original Wikipedia entry, as conceived by Joel, was — let’s be honest — more about my father (a famous New Jersey judge) than about me. Joel began the entry with my connection to my father, and immediately mentioned my father’s birthdate and the date of his death.

Google is not a subtle thief. If your name on Wikipedia is followed by a birth and death date, apparently those belong to you from that day forward, no matter whose dates they may be. Seen that way, I suppose I should just be glad that I’m not related (as far as Joel knows) to King Solomon, another judge.

The problem was probably not Google’s fault: natural language processing across the entire corpus of the web is a tricky thing. But Wilentz tackles the technical topic of search indexing from a layperson’s standpoint, which, in my opinion, makes it a particularly valuable read as she details the impregneable process of how to correct Google. I understand the technical theory (I think) of Google’s searchbots but I’m not sure that even I know how to get something fixed in the search results. More importantly, I don’t even know that if Google wanted to improve things, how they might do so that wouldn’t crimp the technical workflow. Anyway, Wilentz’s anecdote is well-worth reading, and as you’d expect from an author deserving of a Wikipedia entry, nicely written and entertaining.

At some point after Wilentz wrote her post, her search result correctly lists her as alive (for now). It’s likely a result of her Wikipedia entry’s first line listing her birth date – “Amy Wilentz (born September 1, 1954) is an American journalist and writer. – as opposed to: “Amy Wilentz is an American journalist and writer.”. Note/Update: this theory is wrong, as the corrected birthdate format didn’t happen until today. Matt Cutts responded to the post on Hacker News.

But who really knows the machinations behind Google’s search results? Wilentz’s fixed lifespan reminds me of this entertaining anecdote from (Steven Levy’s “In the Plex”) (non-affiliate link) on how Google engineers fixed a vexing problem of a garden gnome that wouldn’t go away:

But one problem was so glaring that the team wasn’t comfortable releasing Froogle: when the query “running shoes” was typed in, the top result was a garden gnome sculpture that happened to be wearing sneakers. Every day engineers would try to tweak the algorithm so that it would be able to distinguish between lawn art and footwear, but the gnome kept its top position.

One day, seemingly miraculously, the gnome disappeared from the results. At a meeting, no one on the team claimed credit. Then an engineer arrived late, holding an elf with running shoes. He had bought the one-of-a kind product from the vendor, and since it was no longer for sale, it was no longer in the index. “The algorithm was now returning the right results,” says a Google engineer. “We didn’t cheat, we didn’t change anything, and we launched.”

Someday, a Google engineer may find it easier to just ressurect someone than algorithmically fix a search snippet…

Update: Google search engineer Matt Cutts responded on Hacker News. He doesn’t say how it was eventually fixed, but says that the “Feedback / More info” link really does lead to a reporting tool that gets reviewed “and that’s the fastest way to report an issue”

Zombie Nouns: Or: Don’t add clarification to your writing. Clarify your writing.

Helen Sword’s NYT Opinionator essay on “Zombie Nouns” is one of the most profound short essays on writing that I’ve read since at least college. Maybe even high school. I don’t know if that says more about my writing ability or Sword’s:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

Read the rest of Sword’s essay here. It’s really one of the best practical essays on writing I’ve read in awhile.

Woody Allen: Every step is part of the writing process

Woody Allen (2006), photo by Colin Swan

One of the best books I’ve picked up recently is Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking, which is basically a 400+ page interview, spanning decades, between the author and Allen. I’m a fair-weather fan myself, I’ve only seen a few of his movies but I’ve always admired his relentless pursuit for his art, even when some of it seems to just be screwball comedy.

The book is divided into 8 parts for different facets of Allen’s work, including “Writing It”, “Shooting, Sets, Locations” and “Directing.” The following excerpt comes from the “Editing” part and in it, Allen talks about how he sees every step of filmmaking as part of the writing process (emphasis added):

[Eric Lax]: You’re involved with the details of every step of a film, and I’ve noticed that you do not delegate any part of its creation, even assembling a first cut from takes you’ve already selected.

[Woody Allen]: To me the movie is a handmade product. I was watching a documentary on editing on television the other day and many wonderful filmmakers were on and wonderful editors and everyone was talking briefly about how they edit. Years ago, they would turn it over to an editor. Or there are people I know who finish shooting and go away for a vacation and let the editor do a draft; then they come back and they check it out and do their changes.

I can’t do that. It would be unthinkable for me not to be in on every inch of movie – and this is not out of any sort of ego or sense of having to control; I just can’t imagine it any other way. How could I not be in on the editing, on the scoring, because I feel that the whole project is one big writing project?

You may not be writing with a typewriter once you get past the script phase, but when you’re picking locations and casting and on the set, you’re really writing. You’re writing with film, and you’re writing with film when you edit it together and you put some music in. This is all part of the writing process for me.

Lax, Eric (2009-08-12). Conversations with Woody Allen (p. 284). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I feel the exact same way about any kind of modern storytelling. Whether it’s done as a photo essay, movie, or news application/website, each step of the process can profoundly affect and be affected by your editorial vision. Back in the day of traditional journalism, it’s possible that you could have one person do just the interviewing and research and then one person to put it as story form. But the feedback in that process – an unexpectedly emotional interview that alters what you previously thought the story arc should be – would almost be entirely lost.