Tag: Writing

Why Great Writers Write

“Books are never finished.They are merely abandoned.”
— Oscar Wilde

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Why do great writers write?

The question will never be answered only explored — in the context of culture, time, and ourselves. This is exactly what Meredith Maran probes in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. The powerful range of answers reveal quite a bit about the nature of drive, passion, and the creative process.

Maran starts by introducing us to what authors have historically said on the subject. One of the most well-known is from George Orwell, who eloquently answered the question in 1946 in an essay called Why I Write:

From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that i was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

Throughout the book, we encounter this idea that writing is so intrinsically a part of most writers that they couldn’t imagine being anything else. David Baldacci, the writer behind Absolute Power, claims, “If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.

Can you claim that about your own work?

Baldacci notes that even before he was a full time author, he was a storyteller in law, his other profession.

Some of the best fiction I ever came up with was as a lawyer.

You know who wins in court? The client whose lawyer tells better stories than the other lawyer does. When you’re making a legal case, you can’t change the facts. You can only rearrange the to make a story that better enhances your client’s position, emphasizing certain things, deemphasizing others. You make sure the facts that you want people to believe are the most compelling ones. The facts that hurt your case are the ones you either explain away or hide away. That’s telling a story.

Baldacci describes the intrinsic fears he feels as an author, where every new project starts with a blank slate and infinite possibilities. (Something Steven Pressfield calls the War of Art.)

Every time I start a project, I sit down scared to death that I won’t be able to bring the magic again.

You’d never want to be on the operating table with a right-handed surgeon who says, ‘Today I’m going to try operating with my left hand.’ But writing is like that. The way you get better is by pushing yourself to do things differently each time. As a writer you’re not constrained by mechanical devices or technology or anything else. You get to play. Which is terrifying.

mary-karr

It's interesting to note that most of the authors in Maran's book, despite being successful, had a huge fear of not being able to produce again. We assume that success brings a certain amount of confidence but also brings expectations. Nothing is more scary to a musician than a sophomore album or more scary to an author then starting the next book.

One way to solve the problem is to attempt to be ridiculously prolific, like Issac Asimov. But even prolific authors seem to suffer from trepidation. Sue Grafton, the author of A is for Alibi, has written a mystery novel for every letter of the alphabet up to X, and this is what she had to say:

Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind. I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead. Dang! All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.

For many this fear seems ubiquitous, a shadow that follows them through the process. This is evidenced in Isabel Allende’s description of her writing methodology. (Allende wrote The House of Spirits.)

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell.

Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eight I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and i am another person.

I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed – because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

Experience has shown these seasoned authors that this fear is to be embraced: If the muse isn’t here right now, she will come eventually, because she always does. That time between then and now is an experience that can be used in their writing.

So why write? Why punish yourself by putting yourself through such a difficult process? Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Club) had an almost poetic answer.

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest.

With all that said, Mr. Orwell might have summed it up best. In his essay, he listed what he believed to be the four great motives for writing:

Sheer egoism. To be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.

Aesthetic enthusiasm. To take pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.

Historical impulse. The desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Political purposes. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

While every author seemed to have a slightly different motive for writing, they all appear compelled to tell us stories, a burning desire to get something out and share it with the world. Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…”

Sometimes we can't learn without writing. Sometimes we can’t make sense of our feelings unless we talk about them, and for writers that conversation happens in their books.

Whether you are an avid reader or a writer Why We Write is an insightful work which allows you the chance to visit the minds of some of the most successful authors of our time. Complement this with Maran’s other book Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists On Why They Expose Themselves (and others) in the Name of Literature.

Also check out our post on the extremely prolific writer Isaac Asimov and maybe improve your professional writing by taking the advice of Steven Pinker.

The Knowledge Project: Morgan Housel on Reading, Writing, Filtering Information

On this episode, I’m happy to have Morgan Housel (@morganhousel)

Morgan works at Collaborative Fund. He’s a former columnist at the Motley Fool, and a former columnist of the Wall Street Journal. His work has also been published in Time, USA Today, World Affairs, and Business Insider.
You name it, he’s been there. Simply put, he’s one of the shining lights of the business press.

More than that, though, he’s one of the few people that I read all the time. As I’ve gotten to know him over the years, I can also tell you he’s an exceptional person. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

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Listen

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Transcript:
A complete transcript is available for members.

Carl Braun on Communicating Like a Grown-Up

“Man is a gregarious animal. We work in herds, in teams. The bear can do exactly as he pleases, for he works alone. We do not work alone. We depend throughout our lives on the goodwill of other men. If a man does not learn to bend, to be friendly and considerate, and to respect his brother’s ego—in things both big and little—he’ll find himself disliked and locked up in his own unhappiness.”
— C.F. Braun

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Carl Franklin (C.F.) Braun graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 1907 and within two years had opened his own engineering firm. Braun’s company would go on to manufacture and engineer products ranging from water filters to petroleum processing plants; large, complicated projects involving manpower and precision. He eventually employed 6,000 people and built over 250 petrochemical plants, well respected as the leader in his field for many years.

Braun had a unique corporate policy: If you were going to issue a directive, you had to tell the person Who, What, When, Where, and most importantly, Why someone was to do it. So strong was his belief in using why, it was said that Braun could fire you on the spot if he found you not issuing reasons. Many years later, Charlie Munger would come to sing Braun’s praises for this approach to Reason-Respecting Tendency.

One of Braun’s approaches to maintaining a productive corporate environment was by writing and issuing short books to all of his employees. They had barn-burning titles like Letter Writing in Action, Corporate Correspondence, and Presentation for Engineers and Industrialists. They’re all out of print, but you can find them if you look. And look we did.

One of my favorites is called Fair Thought and Speech; it’s a short primer on how to communicate in an organization in a way that gains and keeps respect and gets people to go along with good ideas and work together productively. It’s a simple idea, but Braun lays out the task:

Why don’t I get along better? I know my work. I know how to present things clearly and logically. I work hard. And yet, something holds me back. This is the quandary of many and many a capable man. The answer too often is that he lacks a generous and kindly way of thinking, a considerate and objective view, and a friendly way of writing and speaking.

There’s more here than meets the eye. Braun saw the way a man communicated as reflective of how he thought.

Get a man to write and speak more objectively, and you get him to think more objectively. Braun was focused, above all, on what worked. He needed to get complicated oil refineries built, and built well. He was also an astute student of human nature, and that comes across in his writing. It’s the simplest and most straightforward writing style imaginable; short, declarative statements one after another. (He studied his Strunk & White.) But he’s also witty and to the point, which is enjoyable to read.

Must Maintain The Illusion I know Evyerthing

These are really a guide to communicating and working with others like a mature grown-up. Like a man. Like a woman. Not like a petulant child, which we all do at times.

We won’t reprint the whole of the book here, but here are some of our favorite dictums from Braun. I try to look them over once in a while and see which ones I’m committing most frequently.

Assume Good Motives

No matter how clear and fair a case may seem to us, somebody is apt to disagree. And this is good, for we need the stimulation of disagreement. Let’s question his information, his reasoning, his conclusions — but never his motives. If we start assuming or imputing ill motives, we lose all chance of influencing our listener. But even worse, we degrade ourselves.

Remind, Not Tell

Even if we are sure somebody had overlooked a bet, or is overlooking it, let’s tender our advice as though we are reminding him of something that he had intended to do, but that something else has crowded out. Let’s lean over backwards in giving to others the credit for ideas. This is the generous thing. It’s the thing that wins respect, both for us and for our ideas.

Put Error to Work

But let’s never, never, cover up error with the misguided thought that we must protect someone — either our brother, or our department, or our own pet ego. The recognition of error and its examination, if openly talked of, is a sure way to avoid its being repeated, either by the same man or by others. Everyone errs at one time or another. The Company pays for it. Okay. But the Company should not have to pay twice. Nor should other men be denied the benefit of warning-signs.

Overt Respect

In all this matter of respect for others, of consideration, tolerance, interest, it is not enough that we feel these things. They cannot be effective if we carry them about locked up within us. We must plainly show them in word, in expression, in countenance, in bearing, in act. We cannot help others, encourage them, or be understood by them, or get willing help from them, if we leave them to guess at our thoughts and intentions.

Invite Acceptance

If we want our opinions or beliefs to be accepted, the worst thing that we can do is to press too hard for them, or to make a personal issue of them. Better not crowd for acceptance, but rather invite it. Better tender our advice with a softening It seems to me. Or an It appears. Or a Perhaps. Or with some similar concession to the ideas of our listener. True, there are times when we must speak as authorities in no uncertain terms. Even then, reasonable humility is seldom amiss.

Easy Does It

If we want to observe how others feel about being rushed, or crowded, or pushed into a corner, just look at a pet of any kind, or at a child. Try to make friends with one of these by being forceful, abrupt, intense. The child will run. The dog will bristle. The cat will jump up on a rafter. Better place yourself or your wares where they can be seen. Then lay off. Give interest, curiosity, and natural friendliness, a chance to work.

Grudging Assent

And when we do give assent (to others), let’s give it cheerfully. No moaning because we lost out. No suggesting that other people are unreasonable, or that they do not understand us. No intimating that we are merely out-argued. We had our fair chance to speak up like a man. No hinting, then, that we merely bow to higher authority. We must all bow to higher authority — to weightier considerations perhaps, or to expediency, or to public opinion, or to our client. If we are stiff-necked about it, we are on the road to ruin.

Writing for the Record

Some men have an irresistible desire to justify their every action. Some like to magnify themselves. Others like to provide an alibi ready for use if needed. Some, perhaps, just don’t think. In any event, they write a letter to some other department or to the boss. The letter first tells how much the writer or his group are doing. Then it puts the finger on others. Just write a few letters like this with plenty of copies sent around, and you’ll dig a grave you’ll never get out of.

Unwise Citing

We have all been approached at some time or other by the Unwise Citer. He asks us to take some action, or refrain from one, solely because certain other people have done so under supposedly like circumstances. The citer, lacking good arguments, has sought to substitute secondhand opinions. This is unfair. It is not helpful. And it directly assaults our ego. We are not given credit for having brains and judgment of our own. Bad stuff.

Air of Prejudice

We don’t have to use words, either, to be unfair. Did you have to sit in court and listen to a prejudiced witness? He’s too intense. He’s too vehement. Quite evidently, he’s not satisfied with stating the facts as he knows them. No, sir! He’s out to prove the other fellow wrong. Result — nobody pays attention to him. Well, let’s be sure when we sit around a conference-table, we’re not like him. Better state our facts clearly, or our views. But let’s not be too anxious. Let’s not try to push either judge or jury. It doesn’t work.

Negation

We all know the chap who is quick to tell us when we are wrong. He probably doesn’t know too much about the subject himself, and hasn’t the confidence to take a positive position. His ego prods him into a negative one. He corrects us with great assurance on the tuning of radios, on the eating of spinach, on other matters of opinion. Let’s feel sorry for his difficulty with his ego. But let’s be sure first, that we’re not perhaps a wee bit like him. We always are.

Refinement

A somewhat more subtle form of negation, is refinement of measurement. One man says that a tank weights ninety tons. And for that particular discussion, accuracy is of no consequence. Yet someone’s ego speaks up and says, Ninety-two tons. Maybe he’s right at that. But he’s wrong just the same. […] This is a favorite husband-and-wife game. Let’s be on guard against it.

Claim-Jumping

One irritating form of pretending is that of claiming priority. Someone suggests a desirable precaution, or action, or change. Up jumps our ego. We had thought of that, we say. We’d intended to do it tomorrow. Maybe we had. Maybe we hadn’t, though — for our imagination at times plays strange tricks on us. In any event, we didn’t come up with it first. We’d better keep quiet, or we’ll surely be suspected of bluffing.

Repetition

Here is an easy trap to fall into. Someone comes out with an idea. It sounds good to us. Our ego grabs hold of it, dresses it in slightly different language, and puts the idea out as our own. We act as though we’d independently arrived at the same conclusion. Maybe so, maybe not — for we cannot trust our memories as to when we first thought a thing, or what it was that started the train of thought. Let’s restrain our egos from grabbing credit. All we wind up with is discredit.

All-Knowing

The worst trick our ego can play on us, is to demand that we know everything. Let’s discipline ourselves until it’s easy to say, I don’t know. And let’s keep out of discussions when they’re on subjects outside of our recognized sphere. Our lack of real knowledge and experience is bound to display itself, and bring resentment from those who are really qualified to speak. Let’s slap our ego down whenever it starts laying claim to knowledge that’s too various.

Don’t Beg

Another thing. Don’t beg. People don’t like it. If then we speak up for some better job that’s open, let’s not till our talk with such words as hoping, thanking, eagerly, favor. If we are really worthy of the job, the Company will benefit by giving it to us every bit as much as we will profit by getting it. The thing works both ways. Why then use begging words that suggest we are thinking of ourselves, not of the Company? And why suggest that we’re not too confident in our ability?

He’s Partly Right at Least

With our eye on our brother’s ego, we’ll see that concession is the very cornerstone of good human relations. We cannot reach human agreements without mutual concession. The self-respect that every man feels impelled to maintain, demands that he appear at least partly right. Therefore, let’s not ever try to prove anyone wholly wrong. Let’s find something herein we can feel that he’s right. Then let’s say so. We simply must not build up our own ego at any unnecessary expense of our brother’s ego. Let’s keep an eye on concession.

What Can We Learn From the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life. 

Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.

— Isaac Asimov, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters

 

isaac-asimov
Fans estimate that the erudite polymath Isaac Asimov authored nearly 500 full-length books during his life. Even if some that “don't count” are removed from the list — anthologies he edited, short science books he wrote for young people and so on — Asimov's output still reaches into the many hundreds of titles.  Starting with a spate of science-fiction novels in the 1950s, including the now-classic Foundation series, Asimov's writing eventually ranged into non-fiction with works of popular science, Big History, and even annotated guides to classic novels like Paradise Lost and Gulliver's Travels.

Among his works were a 1,200 page Guide to the Bible; he also wrote books on Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East; he wrote a wonderful Guide to Shakespeare and a comprehensive Chronology of the World; he wrote books on Carbon, Nitrogen, Photosynthesis, The Moon, The Sun, and the Human Body, along with many more scientific topics. He coined the term “robotics” and his stories led to modern movies like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. He wrote one of the most popular stories of all time: The Last Question. He even wrote a few joke books and a book of limericks.

His Intelligent Man's Guide to Science, a 500,000 word epic written in a mad dash of eight months, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1961, losing only to William Shirer's bestselling history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

His science-fiction books continue to sell to this day and are considered foundational works of the genre. He won more than a dozen book awards. His science and history books were considered some of the best published for lay audiences — the only real complaint we can make is that a few of them are outdated now. (We'll give Asimov a pass for not updating them, since he's been dead for almost 25 years.)

In his free time, he was reputed to have written over 90,000 letters while keeping a monthly column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for 33 years between 1958 and 1991. Between the Magazine and numerous other outlets, Asimov compiled somewhere near 1,600 essays throughout his life.

In other words, the man was a writer through and through, leading to a question that begs to be asked:

What can we mortals learn from the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

Make the Time — No Excuses

Many people complain that they don't have time for their passions because of the unavoidable duties which suck up every free moment: Well, Asimov had duties too, but he got his writing career started anyway. From 1939 until 1958, Asimov doubled as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, during which he completed 28 novels and a list of short stories long enough to fill most writers' entire career. He simply made the time to write.

In a posthumously published memoir, Asimov reflects on the “candy store” schedule implanted on him by his father, who'd worked long hours running a convenience store in New York after emigrating from Russia. As Asimov became a professional writer, he kept the heroic schedule for himself:

I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don't take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I'm on vacation. (And even when I'm in the hospital.)

In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I'm not waiting on customers; I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

Know your Spots, and Stick to those Spots 

“I'm no genius, but I'm smart in spots, and I stay around those spots.”
—Thomas Watson, Sr., Founder of IBM

Even though he'd been writing in his spare time as a professor, Asimov was not doing any academic research, which did not go unnoticed by his superiors at Boston University. Asimov's success as an author combined with his dedication to his craft had forced him into a decision: Be an academic or be a popular writer. The decision needed no fretting — he was making so much money and such a large impact as a writer, he knew he'd be a fool to give it up. His rationalization to the school was wise and instructive:

I finally felt angry enough to say, “…as a science writer, I am extraordinary. I plan to be the best science writer in the world and I will shed luster on the medical school [at BU]. As a researcher, I am simply mediocre and…if there's one thing this school does not need, it is one more merely mediocre researcher.”

[One faculty member complimented him on his bravery in fighting for academic freedom.] I shrugged, “There's no bravery about it. I have academic freedom and I can give it to you in two words:

“What's that?” He said.

Outside income,” I said.

In other words, Asimov knew his circle of competence and knew himself. He made that again clear in a 1988 interview, when he was asked about a number of other projects and interests outside of writing. He demurred on all of them:

SW: Do you have any time left for other things besides writing?

IA: All I do is write. I do practically nothing else, except eat, sleep and talk to my wife.

[…]

SW: Have you ever written any screenplays for SF movies?

IA: No, I'm no talent for that and I don't want to get mixed up with Hollywood. If they are going to do something of mine, they will have to find someone else to write the screenplays.

[…]

SW: Do you like the covers of your books? Do you have any input in their design?

IA: No, I don't have any input into that. Publishers take care of that entirely. They never ask any questions and I never offer any advice, because my artistic talent is zero.

[…]

SW: Do you have a favorite SF painter?

IA: Well, there is a number of painters that I like very much. To name just a few: Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo are between my favorites. I'm impressed by them, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything – I don't know that I have any taste in art.

[…]

SW: Have you ever tried to paint something yourself?

IA: No, I can't even draw a straight line with a ruler.

[…]

SW: Do you have any favorite SF writers?

IA: My favorite is Arthur Clark. I also like people like Fred Pohl or Larry Niven and others who know their science. I like Harlan Ellison, too, although his stories are terribly emotional. But I don't consider myself a judge of good science-fiction – not even my own.

Asimov knew and recognized his own constitution at a fairly early age, smartly seizing opportunities to build his life around that self-awareness in the way Hunter S. Thompson would advise young people to do years later.

In a separate posthumously published autobiography, Asimov reflected on his highly independent nature:

I never found true peace till I turned my whole working life into self-employment. I was not made to be an employee.

For that matter, I strongly suspect I was not made to be an employer either. At least I have never had the urge to have a secretary or helper of any kind. My instinct tells me that there would surely be interactions that would slow me down. Better to be a one-man operation, which I eventually became and remained.

Find What you Love, and Work Like Hell

To be prolific, he warns, one must be a
“single-minded, 
driven, non-stop person.”
— Interview with Isaac Asimov, 1979

Although Asimov was working the “candy store” hours and producing more output than nearly anyone of his generation, it was clear that he did it out of love.  The only reason he was able to write so much, he said, was “pure hedonism.”  He simply couldn't not write. That would have been unfathomable.

One admission from his autobiography tells the tale best:

One of the few depressing lunches I have had with Austin Olney [Houghton Mifflen editor] came on July 7, 1959. I incautiously told him of the various books I had in progress, and he advised me strongly not to write so busily. He said my books would compete with each other, interfere with each other's sales, and do less well per book if there were many.

The one thing I had learned in my ill-fated class in economics in high school was “the law of diminishing returns,” whereby working ten times as hard or investing ten times as much or producing ten times the quantity does not yield ten times the return.

I was rather glum after that meal and gave the matter much thought afterward.

What I decided was that I wasn't writing ten times as many books in order to get ten times the monetary returns, but in order to have ten times the pleasure

One of Asimov's best methods to keep the work flowing was to have more than one project going at a time. If he got writers' block or got bored with one project, he simply switched to another project, a tactic which kept him from stopping work to agonize and procrastinate. By the time he came back to the first project, he found the writing flowed easily once again.

This sort of “switching” is a hugely useful method to improve your overall level of productivity and avoid major hair-pulling roadblocks. You can also use this tactic with books to improve your overall reading yield, switching between them as your mood and energy dictates.

Never Stop Learning

If anything besides sheer productivity defined Asimov, it was a thirst for knowledge. He simply never stopped learning, and with that attitude, he grew into a mental giant who was more than once accused of “knowing everything”:

Nothing goes to waste, if you're determined to learn. I had already learned, for instance, that although I was one of the most overeducated people I knew, I couldn't possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process. 

[…]

And, as I went on to discover, each time I wrote a book on some subject outside my immediate field it gave me courage and incentive to do another one that was perhaps even farther outside the narrow range of my training…I advanced from chemical writer to science writer, and, eventually, I took all of my learning for my subject (or at least all that I could cram into my head — which, alas, had a sharply limited capacity despite all I could do).

As I did so, of course, I found that I had to educate myself. I had to read books on physics to reverse my unhappy experiences in school on the subject and to learn at home what I had failed to learn in the classroom — at least up to the point where my limited knowledge of mathematics prevented me from going farther.

When the time came, I read biology, medicine, and geology. I collected commentaries on the Bible and on Shakespeare. I read history books. Everything led to something else. I became a generalist by encouraging myself to be generally interested in all matters.

[…]

As I look back on it, it seems quite possible that none of this would have happened if I had stayed at school and had continued to think of myself as, primarily, a biochemist…[so] I was forced along the path I ought to have taken of my own accord if I had had the necessary insight into my own character and abilities.

(Source: It's Been a Good Life)

Still interested? Check out Asimov's memoir I, Asimov, his collection of stories I, Robot, or his collection of letters, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters.

Steven Pinker Tells us Why our Professional Writing Sucks (And What to Do)

Harvard's cognitive psychology giant Steven Pinker has had no shortage of big, interesting topics to write about so far.

Starting in 1994 with his first book aimed at popular audiences, The Language Instinct, Pinker has discussed not only the origins of language, but the nature of human beings, the nature of our minds, the nature of human violence, and a host of related topics.

His most recent book The Sense of Style narrows in on how to write well, but continues to showcase his brilliant synthetical mind. It's a 21st century version of Strunk & White, a book aimed to help us understand why our writing often sucks, and how we might make it suck a little less.

His deep background in linguistics and cognitive psychology allows him to discuss language and writing more deeply than your average style guide; it's also funny as hell in parts, which can't be said of nearly any style guide.

senseofstyle

Please No More “Ese”

In the third chapter, Pinker addresses the familiar problem of academese, legalese, professionalese…all the eses that make one want to throw a book, paper, or article in the trash rather than finish it. What causes them? Is it because we seek to obfuscate, as is commonly thought? Sometimes yes — especially when the author is trying to sell the reader something, be it a product or an idea.

But Pinker's not convinced that concealment is driving most of our frustration with professional writing:

I have long been skeptical of the bamboozlement theory, because in my experience it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do groundbreaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas, and are honest, down-to-earth people, the kind you'd enjoy having a beer with. Still, their writing stinks.

So, if it's not that we're trying to mislead, what's the problem?

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Pinker first calls attention to the Curse of Knowledge — the inability to put ourselves in the shoes of a less informed reader.

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows — that they haven't mastered the patois of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

The first, simple, way this manifests itself is one we all encounter too frequently: Over-Abbreviation. It's when we're told to look up the date of the SALT conference for MLA sourcing on the HELMET system after our STEM meeting. (I only made one of those up.) Pinker's easy way out is to recommend we always spell out acronyms the first time we use them, unless we're absolutely sure readers will know what they mean. (And still maybe even then.)

The second obvious manifestation is our overuse of technical terms which the reader may or may not have encountered before. A simple fix is to add a few words of expository the first time you use the term, as in “Arabidopsis, a flowering mustard plant.” Don't assume the reader knows all of your jargon.

In addition, the use of examples is so powerful that we might call them a necessary component of persuasive writing. If I give you a long rhetorical argument in favor of some action or another without anchoring it on a concrete example, it's as if I haven't explained it at all. Something like: “Reading a source of information that contradicts your existing beliefs is a useful practice, as in the case of a Democrat spending time reading Op-Eds written by Republicans.” The example makes the point far stronger.

Another deeper part of the problem is a little less obvious but a lot more interesting than you might think. Pinker ascribes a big source of messy writing to a mental process called chunking, in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction in order to save space in our brain. Here's a great example of chunking:

As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a shiny piece of metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets get chunked into the economy. The economy can now be thought of as an entity which responds to action by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing.

As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name.

Chunking is an amazing and useful component of higher intelligence, but it gets us in trouble when we write because we assume our readers' chunks are just like our own. They're not.

A second issue is something he terms functional fixity. This compounds the problem induced by chunking:

Sometimes wording is maddeningly opaque without being composed of technical terminology from a private clique. Even among cognitive scientists, a “poststimulus event” is not a standard way to refer to a tap on the arm. A financial customer might be reasonably familiar with the world of investments and still have to puzzle over what a company brochure means by “capital charges and rights.” A computer-savvy user trying to maintain his Web site might be mystified by instructions on the maintenance page which refer to “nodes,” “content type” and “attachments.” And heaven help the sleepy traveler trying to set the alarm clock in his hotel room who must interpret “alarm function” and “second display mode.”

Why do writers invent such confusing terminology? I believe the answer lies in another way in which expertise can make our thoughts more idiosyncratic and thus harder to share: as we become familiar with something, we think about it more in terms of the use we put it to and less in terms of what it looks like and what it is made of. This transition, another staple of the cognitive psychology curriculum, is called functional fixity (sometimes functional fixedness).

The opposite of functional fixity would be familiar to those who have bought their dog or cat a toy only to be puzzled to see them playing with the packaging it came in. The animal hasn't fixated on the function of the objects, to him an object is just an object. The toy and the packaging are not categorized as toy and thing toy comes in the way they are for us. In this case, we have functional fixity and they do not.

And so Pinker continues:

Now, if you combine functional fixity with chunking, and stir in the curse that hides each one from our awareness, you get an explanation of why specialists use so much idiosyncratic terminology, together with abstractions, metaconcepts, and zombie nouns. They are not trying to bamboozle us, that's just the way they think.

[…]

In a similar way, writers stop thinking — and thus stop writing — about tangible objects and instead refer to them by the role those objects play in their daily travails. Recall the example from chapter 2 in which a psychologist showed people sentences, followed by the label TRUE or FALSE. He explained what he did as “the subsequent presentation of an assessment word,” referring to the [true/false] label as an “assessment word” because that's why he put it there — so that the participants in the experiment could assess whether it applied to the preceding sentence Unfortunately, he left it up to us to figure out what an “assessment word” is–while saving no characters, and being less rather than more scientifically precise.

In the same way, a tap on the wrist became a “stimulus” and a [subsequent] tap on the elbow become a “post-stimulus event,” because the writer cared about the fact that one event came after the other and no longer cared about the fact that the events were taps on the arm.

As we get deeper into our expertise, we substitute concrete, useful, everyday imagery for abstract, technical fluff that brings nothing to the mind's eye of a lay reader. We use metaconcepts like levels, issues, contexts, frameworks, and perspectives instead of describing the actual thing in plain language. (Thus does a book become a “tangible thinking framework.”)

Solutions

How do we solve the problem, then? Pinker partially defuses the obvious solution — remembering the reader over your shoulder while you write — because he feels it doesn't always work. Even when we're made aware that we need to simplify and clarify for our audience, we find it hard to regress our minds to a time when our professional knowledge was more primitive.

Pinker's prescription has a few parts:

  1. Get rid of abstractions and use concrete nouns and refer to concrete things. Who did what to whom? Read over your sentences and look for nouns that refer to meta-abstractions and ask yourself whether there's a way to put a tangible, everyday object or concept in its place. “The phrase ‘on the aspirational level' adds nothing to ‘aspire,' nor is a ‘prejudice reduction model' any more sophisticated than ‘reducing prejudice.'”
  2. When in doubt, assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you about your topic. Clarity is not condescension. You don't need to prove how smart you are — the reader won't be impressed. “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.” 
  3. Get someone intelligent and part of your intended audience to read over your work and see if they understand it. You shouldn't take every last suggestion, but do take seriously when they tell you certain sections are muddy or confusing. “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.”
  4. Put your first draft down for enough time that, when you come back to it, you no longer feel deep familiarity with it. In this way, you become your intended audience. Your own fresh eyes will see the text in a new way. Don't forget to read aloud, even if just under your breath.

Still interested? Check out Pinker's The Sense of Style for a lot more on good writing, and check out his thoughts on what a broad education should entail.

3 Famous Writers on the Relationship Between Reading and Writing

During the Q&A for How to Read a Book, someone asked whether reading a lot makes us better writers. The short answer is yes. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. As Anne Lamott points out, the converse is also true – writing makes you a better reader.

One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original.

Speaking with the wisdom of experience, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway and David Foster Wallace share their thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing.

Why to Read

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King explains why reading is so important for those who want to write.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

What to Read

Schopenhauer said “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.”

While that may be true as a general rule, King talks about the role badly-written books played in teaching him to write.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the DollsFlowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lectures thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of beautiful characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Who to Read

In an article Hemingway wrote for Esquire in 1935, he recounts the advice he gave an aspiring writer known as Maestro, Mice for short. This entertaining excerpt appears in Hemingway on Writing.

Mice: What books should a writer have to read?

Y.C. [Your Correspondent]: He should have read everything so that he knows what he has to beat.

Mice: He canʼt read everything.

Y.C.: I donʼt say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he canʼt.

Mice: Well what books are necessary?

Y.C.: He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy, Frank Mildamay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and LʼEducation Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, Joyceʼs DublinersPortrait of the Artist and UlyssesTom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et le Noire and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of TurgenevFar Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry Jamesʼ short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw, The Portrait of a Lady, The American-

Mice: I canʼt write them down that fast. How many more are there?

Y.C.: Iʼll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.

Mice: Should a writer have read all of those?

Y.C.: All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesnʼt know what he has to beat.

Mice: What do you mean “has to beat”?

Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasnʼt been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men. Most live writers do not exist. Their fame is created by critics who always need a genius of the season, someone they understand completely and feel safe in praising, but when these fabricated geniuses are dead they will not exist. The only people for a serious writer to compete with are the dead that he knows are good. It is like a miler running against the clock rather than simply trying to beat whoever is in the race with him. Unless he runs against time he will never know what he is capable of attaining.

Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.

If you've always wanted to read the classics but keep putting it off, try breaking the task into manageable chunks.

When & Where to Read

Stephen King suggests aspiring writers read wherever and whenever possible.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on – how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?

Whether you read in “small sips” or curled up by the fire with a glass of wine, the point is that you need to find the time to read if you want to be a writer.

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.  Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

How to Read

Should aspiring writers use a different technique when reading? David Foster Wallace suggests a variation on the Feynman technique to teach yourself to write better. Learning to write, he says, requires “learning to pay attention in different ways”.

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Still curious? Check out Stephen King’s long reading list or his top 10 list, Hemingway’s advice on writing and David Foster Wallace on argumentative writing and non-fiction.