There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.
Originally I planned this post to be about my writing pet peeves, things I don’t like in other people’s writings. But it would be inappropriate to criticize other people’s work as I’m not a good writer myself, so instead, I decided to write this post introspectively as to talk about my own writing and what sins I commit in it, and what we can learn from them.
This blog contains plenty of examples of my writing. Some posts are written better than others, some worse. The better ones are usually the ones that I spent the most time on, and the worse ones the least. This is because the first draft of any writing, more often than not, will suck. It is a fundamental law of writing. An interviewer once asked Ernest Hemingway about revision, and the great writer replied that he rewrote the last page of A Fairwell to Arms thirty-nine times. What took so long? Hemingway’s response: “Getting the words right.”
But why does “getting the words right” take so much time? Because there are so many factors to consider for each paragraph, for each sentence, for each word. We need to consider tone, word choice, sentence length, flow, and logic. Writing is like putting together a puzzle: you can set most of the pieces in place, and a passerby will usually figure out what the picture is, and be satisfied. Satisfaction is, however, not enough—we want the the passerby to come and take a look at the puzzle, to muse and study it like a painting; and for this to occur, all the pieces must compellingly fit together.
A writing sin is a part of the puzzle that is incomplete.
Sometimes science and cold logic take the better of me. When writing about technical ideas, such as velocity and acceleration, we must be cautious with our terms. We cannot replace “velocity” with “speed,” even if they are synonymous in everyday speech (actually one is a vector, the other a scalar, which could be very important). So, to be correct we end up writing the word “velocity” or “speed” many times without regard to artistic effect.
While mandatory for technical writing, this habit can dull a normal piece of writing. I find I use repetition frequently, even when another word might both sound better and have a more accurate meaning (this shall be the topic of the next sin). The lesson is therefore to avoid unnecessary repetition.
That said, you should not just use a thesaurus and look up synonyms to replace repeated words. If you know precisely what the synonyms mean, and are sure you are using them correctly, then it may be acceptable, but it is in general not advisable. This is because a thesaurus doesn’t give words that mean exactly the same thing. They give words that have similar definitions. For example, if you look up “odor” on thesaurus.com, you will find that one synonym for it is “fragrance.” Surely you can’t use them interchangeably! “An odor swept across the room” conveys a much different meaning than “A fragrance swept across the room.”
This is perhaps my most committed sin. Looking at the comments on an essay handed back to me for my English class, I observe that roughly half are on words or phrases that don’t quite mean what I was trying to say. For instance, I used the word “notice” instead of “observe,” “tease” instead of “taunt,” and even “rather than” instead of “instead of.” (Yes, there is a difference in the last two. “Instead of” involves replacement whereas “rather than” involves preference.)
As this essay was essentially a first draft, this led me to wonder, why is my first draft so filled with imprecision? And furthermore, I wondered, since most of my blog posts are first drafts, how much imprecision lurks in them? It turns out to be a substantial amount for some of them. On the science- and logic-oriented ones, this sin is committed less, while on more free style posts, the sin is committed more. Lesson: when trying to produce good-quality, precise writing, don’t turn in a first draft. This will apply to my blogging. Starting this post I shall put focus on the writing itself instead of just on the content.
I tend to liberally use the phrases “seem to” and “appear to.” Even in that sentence, I used the phrase “tend to,” as opposed to “I liberally use…” I also use the words “normally,” “usually,” and “generally” a lot. Sometimes I try to be so careful in creating a supported argument that I over-qualify it with these phrases, so I cannot be pointed out to be wrong. If someone finds a counterexample, I can just make the excuse that I said “usually,” and the counterexample is just an unusual case. Because of this, I often don’t make strong, emphatic points.
Of course, we shouldn’t go to the other end of the spectrum with absolute words (“all,” “every,” “never”), as that would create false statements. There needs to be a balance: enough qualification so that the argument is supported and can be defended, but not so much as to make the argument worthless. Lesson: Revise.
Dropping Arguments/Not Following Through with an Argument
My instructor for the same English essay also pointed out a few of my good arguments that I left off without explaining or capitalizing on them. For dramatic effect, I’ll leave this section at that. (Edit: Yep, I dropped the puzzle analogy.)
Lack of Flow
Regarding the same essay still, my instructor pointed out several sentences and passages that simply didn’t flow from the previous one or to the next. In one case, I introduced a quotation, blabbered for one sentence, and then made an argument using the quotation!
For flow, we should have each sentence follow the one before it. A passage should not jump from topic to topic. A well-written argument should convince, not confuse, the reader. Lesson: Revise.
I actually felt bad for seeing this comment on a couple places in my paper. I had read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and its central message is to “omit needless words,” i.e., to be clear and concise, and have tried to apply this to my writing. It appears to be effective, but there are still some parts I write that are excessively wordy. Lesson: Re-read The Elements of Style, and revise.
If the word “Conclusion” in bold confuses you, because it might either suggest that this passage is the conclusion of this post or that this is one of my writing sins, do not panic: it is actually both. I am horrible at writing conclusions. Writing so many “formulaic” essays in high school killed whatever I had that ability.
I’m certainly trying to improve this aspect of my writing. Meanwhile, enjoy either the lack of conclusions or the really cheesy conclusions in my posts.