On Writing

On another thread here, a commenter named J.P.R. asked me to take a look at his interesting post about the “AntiFa” movement. These are the fascists who rioted in Berkeley. I wrote the following in answer, but it got so long I thought folks might enjoy it as a head post. Here goes …

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Thanks, J.P.R. I read your post. It was interesting, and you have some ideas worth exploring.

If you would allow me some constructive criticism based on my experience gained while writing over six hundred posts for the web, please take the following in the sense of improving something that is already good.

My main comment is that your piece is too complex. Let me take your final question as an example of the whole. You close your entire piece by asking:

<blockquote>HOW MUCH TIME MUST PASS AND HOW MUCH DESTRUCTION MUST BE WROUGHT UNTIL COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ENDS UP DESTROYING THEM FROM WITHIN, OR WILL THEY CONTINUE ONWARDS IN DEFIANCE OF ALL LOGIC AND REASON UNTIL THEY EMERGE FROM THEIR IMMORAL CHRYSALIS AS A FASCIST PARTY IN THE PRESENT DAY?</blockquote>

This is what you are leaving your readers with? Most of them will get cognitive dissonance as soon as you mention cognitive dissonance. Nobody will walk away pondering a complex two-part question.

It seems, although I’m not sure, that you are asking “When will the AntiFa movement die, or will it become a permanent fascist party?”. In addition to being a clumsy construction balancing “if” versus “when”, I don’t understand why that is the most important question. Seems to me a more important question might be “What can we do to expose the true nature of the AntiFa party?”, or any one of a dozen other important questions about fascism and the AntiFa party.

Let me recommend to you a few practical exercises to give your writing more power. First is the “elevator speech”. Imagine you get on an elevator with President Trump, and you have the length of the elevator ride up Trump Tower to convince him of your argument about AntiFa. What would you say? What are your most essential concepts? How would you boil your long and complex post into a minute or so?

Next is the “matchbook speech”. This is a statement of your basic ideas such that you can write them on the inside of a matchbook cover … the bare essence, the skeleton of your argument.writing-i

Once you have boiled your basic ideas down to their essence, then you want to build it back up again. Throw away your first draft if necessary, and flesh out the elegant, clean, spare argument of your elevator speech.

Another exercise I will do, and that I currently need to do on a draft I have in process, is the “one sentence per paragraph” exercise. I take some convoluted piece of my writing that has been re-edited and changed and bloated out of all recognition. I start a new piece, and for each paragraph in the first document I write one sentence or even a few words that captures the central idea of the paragraph.

Then I take that list of my ideas in the order of their unfolding in the original paper, and I consider the path that they take the reader on. Is that where I want to go? Is that how I want to get there? Is that the proper order? I reorder them, prune some, add some others, gather them into groups and the groups into a natural progression. It’s the same idea as the elevator speech, but starting from the other end.

I also do not ever force myself to write. I only write when I cannot bear to not write about some idea, when I have to write to bring some clarity and permanence to the concepts tumbling about in my head before I forget them because … oooh, look, shiny!

Next, clarify your intended audience. Are you trying to convince the unconvinced? Are you trying to explain nuances to the already convinced? Are you talking to the people in the middle? Are you hoping to get the ear of those in power? What is their educational level? What are their interests?

For example, I write for someone that I describe as the “educated layman”. This is a man or a woman who is educated or self-educated, interested in and curious about the world, in a position of power and authority appropriate to their experience and knowledge whatever that might be, and who enjoys word play and the well turned phrase. And as I have said many times, I write for the “lurkers”, people who watch and read but may never once comment. Having that clear image of my target audience gives coherency to my writing.

Next, I like to eliminate what I call “toe-holds” from my writing. These are small things peripheral to the issue that people can use to completely reject your main argument. Remember, you want them to agree with all of it. If they disagree with one part, if they balk at one logical step up the ladder, you may well lose them.

For instance, you speak of the “constant rumors and lies” spread against Trump. Fair enough … but then you toss out one example after another. Here’s the thing—if a person thinks that even one of those examples is not a “lie” but an honest mistake or a difference of opinion, they may be gone. So first consider if the claims of “constant rumors and lies” about Trump are central and necessary to your argument. You may decide to toss the whole issue entirely.

And if you keep the claims, you are likely best to just use one lie, the poster child of lies whatever that is, the one example that is so polished and smooth and obvious and undeniable that there is no toehold anywhere to allow someone to reject your argument.

As a result, I’m pretty ruthless about paring down the number of subjects in any given post. If I introduce a new idea in a post, you can be sure I’ve thought about whether adding that idea is fortifying my argument, or just adding some toehold that my opponent can use to discredit my entire argument. I’ll often write an entire paragraph, look at it, and say nope, that’s just something for people to disagree with and not worth adding … so I’ll just cut the whole paragraph out. (Usually I cut it and temporarily paste it at the bottom after some blank lines … might need it later.)

What else … oh, yeah, numbers. I figure as a rule of thumb that every numeral that I put into a post loses me one reader. Not a complaint, just an observation that many people are quite math-shy. So I choose my numbers carefully, omit them if I can, and spell them out whenever possible. So I will say “five cents” rather than “5 cents” or “$0.05”, and then only after consideration of whether “a few cents” will do the job as well …

Finally, and perhaps most important, remember that you are in some sense an entertainer in a very crowded marketplace filled with other interesting ideas and entertaining individuals. So … entertain. You are focused on your ideas, which is good, keep that up, but not to the exclusion of life. So make jokes. Add asides. Quote poems. Add graphics. Tell stories.

And most of all, talk from the perspective of your own experience and your own life and how you see and live it. My life has been full of madness and music and failures and weather and relatives and poems and fish and adventures and successes and inlaws and outlaws and the ocean, and I work to infuse all of my writings with that sense of the lightness and the joy and the sadness and the darkness and the infinite adventure of it all.

People say that they can recognize my writing, that nobody writes quite like I do. I would like to believe that is true.

Be assured, however, that nobody writes quite like you either, when you write from your own life and experience and perspective … well, plus after you have written your first couple hundred posts or so, sadly, no way to skip that step …

I hope that you play with some of these ideas, and I wish you the best in seeing how much power and passion you can infuse into your words.

My best to you,

w.

… it’s like the old joke about the young tourist wandering around New York City looking at the street signs, obviously lost. He finally asks an old man “How do I get to Madison Square Garden?”

The old man looks at him sadly and says “Practice, my boy, practice, practice, practice …”

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14 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. Hi Willis,

    Thank you sincerely for this post. I find writing the most time consuming part of my work as I will edit and reedit, reorder, prune and despair over each single paragraph for far, far longer than my not-as-of-yet gorgeous ex-fiancée thinks is reasonable.

    Your writing over the years has been an absolute inspiration. Your refined style and ease with words has kept me both lolling and intrigued and so, as a long time ‘lurker’, I thought this was a very apt time to say thank you 🙂

    I met Anthony when he visited Bristol for the Cook & Mann talks a few years back. I was a student then. Now I make videos – animated ones – over on YouTube (youtube.com/piffleTV). Life in 2016 slowed production, but I dare say I think some of the videos scheduled for this year may be up your ally.

    I had been keen to try and meet you on your holiday tour of the U.K., but figured as I was a nobody student and you already seemed quite busy it was best not to pester you. Still, maybe another time – if only to prove to myself no one man can be this interesting 😛

    Keep doing what you do!
    Matt

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    • Matt, my pleasure. I do hope it makes your writing less of a chore.

      I regret not meeting you in the UK. I hope to get there again.

      As to whether one man can be this interesting, two things. First, there are both men and women on this planet who are far more interesting than I. It’s been my pleasure to know a few of them.

      Second, you sell yourself short. Every man and woman I meet has something they can teach me … or to be more accurate, at least I have a chance to learn something from each person if I can get past my foolish self-importance …

      In hopes of seeing you in green Albion,

      w.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Willis, this is probably some of the most useful writing advice I’ve ever recieved; I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to keep coming back to this post for a while in order to improve my work.
    I think the elevator speech and the matchbook speech are probably some of the most useful writing tips I’ve ever been told and I’m surprised that this is the first I’ve heard of them. Well maybe not so surprised, my writing thus far in life has mainly been poetry and fiction, it’s only recently that I’ve decided to venture out into the world of essays and articles.
    Again, this is great advice. I cannot begin to stress how grateful I am that you’ve provided it to me.
    Here’s wishing you the best in your continued works,
    J.P.R. Campbell

    Like

  3. Dos Equis should have used you for their commercials. 🙂

    Couldn’t agree more about laser focus on the point you want to make. Way to many comment threads on my facebook page devolve into goalpost shifting simply because I cast my net too wide.

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  4. Before I retired, I worked for IBM in the UK. One of our directors went to the US on an executive development programme part of which had him spend a day in Washington with a US Senator. Back in the UK, the director shared some of his experiences with us. The one that clings on in my memory is a quote from the Senator.

    “I have never supported a political cause which could not be expressed on a bumper sticker”

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  5. Willis, what is your experience as a writer to the 3-30-3 theory. One as 3 seconds to capture the reader with a headline, then 30 seconds to capture the reader with the first paragraph then the reader will give your writings 3 minutes.
    Or something like that.

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    • Tom, I hadn’t heard of the 3-30-3. I’d say it is in the ballpark, in that as I said in the head post, it is a crowded marketplace with lots of good ideas and interesting people.

      Having said that, I’d expand the three minutes at the end. If a story is interesting, truly interesting, somebody will stay up all night reading it just to find out how it all turns out … a novel that does that is called a “page-turner”, and that is the level of interest I strive to engender in my readers.

      w.

      Like

  6. I think the question in your New York joke is supposed to be “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” not Madison Square Garden.

    Enjoyed your piece on writing. I’m an old engineer who’s always trying to avoid writing like an engineer — probably unsuccessfully. I worked a number of years for a VP who, like Churchill, didn’t want to read anything more than one page long. That did help me focus.

    I attended the University of Michigan in the 1950s when you could buy a tee shirt that said “Four years ago I couldn’t spell engineer. Now I are one.”

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    • Bob, you say:

      I think the question in your New York joke is supposed to be “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” not Madison Square Garden.

      True, but since the Beatles played the Garden I’ve updated it.

      Thanks,

      w.

      Like

  7. A true elevator speech story, from when I was ‘chief strategy officer’ at Motorola back in the day (late 1990’s). The senior executives all insisted on VERY brief elevator speeches (HQ was a towering 12 stories high in Schaumberg), since in large corporations interminable meetings with massive junior briefings were the norm. So here is a real experience.
    Sat down in the HQ cafeteria for a quick lunch with the CEO (nobody else dared, he was sitting alone). Chris, you launched this ‘War on Power’, right? (That was a three pronged technical effort to extend cell phone talk time that affected 3 large sectors with ~$25 billion in annual revenue, and which had about 1800 active R&D participants). Yes. So, how come nobody is doing anything about prong two, memory? I thought they were. Nope, just came back from a three day ‘war’ meeting; memory not mentioned once. Thats not good; any ideas? Yup, there is this little startup in Minneapolis developing ultra low power MRAM to replace DRAM for rad hardened military applications. They are focused on rad hardened rather than the inherent low power (works like dram but no power unless writing or reading, where dram needs constant capacitor leak refresh power. MRAM relies on quantum tunneling differential ‘resistance’ depending on magnetic spin states of the two opposed magnetic layers, and magnets are ‘permanent’). I think we can get a license for all non-military. Why are you wasting more time eating lunch with me? Get going. So I did. We ended up buying the whole company cause we had military business too.
    And to finish the story truthfully, we produced a good chip after about 3 years and a major further innovation, but did not anticipate NAND flash at 18 nanometers which is what is in your smartphone today. You cannot pin a magnetic field in such small dimensions; with quantum tunneling, quantum weirdness takes over as dimensions shrink. Nice try, no cookies. End of story.

    Liked by 1 person

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