Why Most People Can’t Write
Frankly: Nobody ever told them how to. If you’re struggling with writing, here are some rules that can help.
I write a lot: about 22,000 words in the last month, and probably double or triple that in notes, early drafts, and passages I don’t use.
I edit my words even more. In my editing business I sometimes turn down clients — not because they’re unworthy of my help, but because their problem is much deeper than anything I can assist with. I can correct the sentences, fix the typos, or make the text read more pleasantly — but if there’s nothing solid in the raw draft to work with, nothing I do will make a difference. I could take their money and put lipstick on their pigs, but at the end of the day, their texts remain pigs. It won’t do.
If they instead send me a rough, dirty, and uncut gem, I can turn it into a shiny diamond.
What’s the difference?
Most people think the problem with their text lay in the details of word choice, sentence structure, or punctuation. That what separates them from the successful authors they admire are the latter’s vocabulary and command of the English language. It’s not.
They’re right that poor use of those things can ruin even the best of texts, but if the text doesn’t have any humph in the first place, no amount of proofing or editorial finesse can save it. Just like a perfectly made pizza can be ruined by poor delivery — it arrives cold, the toppings shuffled around, cheese leaking out from poor packaging — even the best of stories become nothing but fodder for the trash can.
I think of it in terms of content and scaffolding:
Content: the ideas you advance, the stories you tell, the evidence you bear on an important question.
Scaffolding: the way in which these ideas are delivered.
The content is the stuff you know — the things you wish to convey to the reader. Scaffolding, like the physical structures this metaphor is based on, lets you do that by reaching heights unavailable from the ground. Think of it this way:
Editors and proofreaders can help you bring your draft from the “Poor Usage” row to the “Perfect Usage” row. Only you can bring it from “No Content” to “Lots of Content.”
As a writer you wish you convey an idea, an argument, a perspective, to the reader. To do that you must grapple with a problem, a question. Something has to propel the reader from the first sentence to the second; even in topics I know nothing about, I can help a writer’s sentences fit together like puzzle pieces, advancing the story step by step. But if there is no story and nothing resonates with the reader, we have much bigger problems.
I often hear that excellent writers become great by reading a lot. That’s not quite true. Reading doesn’t harm — especially if you’re reading somebody whose prose and style you wish to adopt. But for you to really learn, reading without structure is groping in the dark: you don’t know what you’re looking for, and you won’t know if you’ve found it.
A better way to think about it is learning a new language as an adult. If you’re just passively exposed to language, you will learn a few isolated things — words, sounds, expressions perhaps. What works much better is having somebody explain to you the underlying structure (what we call “grammar”), pay attention when you see others wield it, and then try it on your own. Learning a language means to fail countless times; the master has failed more than the beginner has even tried.
To my mind, writing well is just another aspect of a language that native speakers of English already think they master. Sure, they master the spoken language or the words and phrases they use every day, but that rarely translates into mastery over the written word (or else every native-speaker of English would be award-winning writers, which they’re not). That’s good news for those of us learning English as a second language: your skill as a writer does not depend on that.
Rule 1: When You’re Writing, Write — Don’t Edit.
Writing is separate from editing. Writing is the content; editing is the scaffolding. Writing means to bring out the ideas you wish to convey. Sometimes you don’t quite know them yourself and it’s only in the process of formulating your words that you come to understand them.
This rule means that if you get hung up on a word, can’t find the name of an author you’re discussing, or the exact title of his or her book — don’t look it up. Keep writing. At this stage almost nothing should interrupt you.
(Which is why I recommend against offices or having your phone handy or “working” together with friends or colleagues).
Writers have various strategies for achieving this: some just note the section and move on. I use the cute and non-descript “lala” to stand in for whatever I can’t think of at the moment (sometimes accompanied by parentheses that include some key words connected to whatever I’m looking for). If I were to write about the ills of inequality, but somehow blank on the title of Thomas Piketty’s book, I would write:
In 2014, the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book lala took the world by storm. The chattering classes were all over it, and everyone seemed to read it — or at least pretend to… (average reader, 27 pages in).
The quite literal flow, from the vague and unformulated ideas in your mind to the words before you, should be interrupted as little as possible. Don’t Google things, don’t check Facebook, don’t answer your phone, don’t look up your notes from something you read six months ago.
Let everything out until you’ve finished jotting down all the things you meant to jot down on the topic. The best work I ever did, I didn’t notice anything around me — not the cars outside, not the people moving about in the house, not even the questions they asked me about some mundane things. If you easily get distracted, noise-cancelling headphones are a bless for getting into the zone (yes, I literally have a playlist called “Zone,” filled with melodic house and psytrance).
Many successful authors make this a routine; they shut themselves off from any influence — noise, distractions, other people — for a set amount of time, or until they’re finished. Try it.
Rule 2: Accept the Unbearable Suffering of Being
If there’s one advice that captures the core of all these rules, it’s to just write. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or if you even spelled this or that word right. At this stage of the process, all you want is for the writing to actually happen.
Two dark shadows cloud all writers’ minds:
- This isn’t new; Everybody already knows this
While we can vary language in infinite ways, few things are truly new under the sun. That’s OK. Even if your content has been said before, much more eloquently than what you could ever aspire to, doesn’t mean your reader has read that — or is about to! In our times of informational overload, it’s quite unlikely that your reader has detailed knowledge of what you’re about to tell them anyway — or the time and effort to track it down. By writing it for them, you’re making them a service.
While this sounds like a license for plagiarism, it’s more like a defense of the intellectual middleman. Adam Smith, the “Father of economics,” wrote a lot of things that we still quote today, 250 years later, but his great strength was condensing into readable form what many others had argued before. There’s nothing wrong about being a middleman or condenser of ideas. The more information we have around us, the more important that role becomes.
So what if you’re Adam Smith and barely say anything new; you’re still amazing.
- Lower your expectations: your text doesn’t have to earn you a Pulitzer
This does not mean to put yourself down, expect the worst, downplay ambition, or don’t believe in yourself. All it is is a useful deception to make you write anything at all.
If you tell me I’m about to climb Mount Everest, I’ll give up right away; if you tell me to take one step, then another, then yet another, even insurmountable tasks dwindle before me. If I don’t reach the summit, so what? Perhaps I got further than I could ever have dreamt — and a hell of a lot further than the nothing I would have achieved by dreamily staring at the summit.
When you sit down to write, you don’t have to produce the best that could possibly be written. If that’s your goal, you won’t write anything. Getting your ideas down on paper doesn’t even have to be the best writing you ever do.
The thing is, even an article that you’re not quite happy with might not seem that way to the reader. You might see the flaws, remembering how you struggled with the passage or how the words you actually say fall short of what you intended to say — but the reader may not.
Your text will suck. Your words will be less-than-perfect. That’s OK — we can fix that later. For now, just write.
I gravitate between thinking that all I write is nonsense and that every word is golden, perfect formed and perfectly made; It came out of my head, after all, so it must be wonderful. Usually, it’s neither. That’s why we edit.
Rule 3: Edit and Distil the Message
When I finish writing, I have a mumbling mess of half-baked sentences: some of them have “lala” or other keywords scattered throughout; some just end half-way through a sentence; some are a list of topics I meant to cover. Only now do you start correcting some of what previously came out. Track down the author you were thinking about (Piketty’s book is titled “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” and the average Kindle reader stopped at page 26, not 27), replace the lala’s with what you meant to say. Sometimes you realise that the impulse that made you write them in the first place doesn’t fit with the overall theme — that’s fine, set them aside.
I don’t delete anything I’ve jotted down: If I find that some paragraph doesn’t fit, or the text developed in a different direction, I collect all that non-essential stuff into searchable folders called “Leftovers.” That’s what they are, and you may return to them later for a different text.
Just like writing stuff is hard when you’re envisioning glory, deleting stuff you’ve written is painful. Journalists used to say “kill your darlings,” which doesn’t just capture their need for writing succinctly, but highlights that you’re killing things you created. That hurts. Again, the leftover folder helps: if I instead of deleting my precious words just move them to another document, I’m not really deleting them. This way it doesn’t feel like I’m slitting the throats of my darlings.
This practice also makes it easier to counter the obvious objection to Rule 1 and Rule 2: “Why would I write a bunch of stuff just to delete them later?!”
You’re not. You’re just putting it somewhere else for different use. While it seems borderline mad to write a bunch of things only to delete them, the point is to have many different ways of saying the same thing — many alternative words, sentences, and passages forming your text. By having options you can pick the best version later when the editing hat comes on.
I often find that in the process of writing those first ideas, my mind develops them — often into forms and arguments that are much better than when I first wrote them. Think of these early words not as lambs to needlessly sacrifice but of prototypes to deliberately improve.
It’s much easier to delete stuff that isn’t working than it is to re-create a line of thought you had all but forgot. You can edit poorly formulated passages, but you can’t edit those passages into existence if you haven’t first written them.
The devil is in the details. In the editing part of your writing, your challenge is to make sure that every word has its place, that every sentence it forms part of is doing its job, that every paragraph advances the major argument. It’s layer-on-layer, stringed together by grammar and punctuation.
You want to make sure that every word is doing work. William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing, On Writing Well, taught me that your text improves in direct proportion to the number of useless words you get rid of (“discard”? “throw away”?). Scrap the “In fact,” the “Furthermore,” the indirect and ambiguous speech that confuses the reader instead of advancing the argument.
Instead of “it facilitates the process of understanding,” write “it helps us understand.” Instead of, like the guy who drove Zinsser crazy, say “at this point in time,” say — “now.” Basically, open the Annual Report of any corporation you (dis)like, and see how quickly you fall asleep or your attention fades. Nobody wants to read
“We aim to achieve and maintain industry-leading safety and sustainability performance, operational excellence, capital discipline and the financial strength to invest throughout the cycle.”
Fantastically boring. Notice how the Chairman of this company spent a full sentence saying absolutely nothing — and that these 24 words could apply to any company. Don’t be him.
Get rid of (“Remove”?) words like “experiencing” or “my personal opinion” (Can you have an unpersonal opinion? Or someone else’s opinion…?).
Pick up — no; “find,” “buy,” or “get” — a style guide for more gems in how to misuse the English language.
Rule 4: Assistance Works
Having someone read your work helps; even reading it out loud to yourself helps you catch phrases that don’t sit well.
More fundamentally, use the technologies that work for you. Some writers promptly insist on taking notes or writing first drafts with pen and paper, or even typewriters (I’m sure it feels more authentic). I use a ton of different softwares: I organise topics in Trello, where I gather quotes, passages, readings, and things I encounter on relevant topics — the “leftovers” go here too; while reading books I take notes and scan important paragraphs in Evernote; I collect lecture notes and presentations in OneNote; I gather quotes or clarifications in Google Keep.
Once I write a final draft, I open Word or write directly on Medium, copy-pasting paragraph by paragraph from the raw drafts I already have in Trello or Evernote.
That’s just me. You have to find a way that works for you.
Rule 5: Realise When You’re Done
Some authors meticulously weigh every word and every sentence, writing-rewriting-editing-deleting-writing again. This often means that the words, sentences, and paragraphs get incrementally better.
When that’s the case, this strategy is useful. More often than not, it sends the writer into a never-ending tailspin of replacing words, shifting structures, or re-writing workable sentences. That’s not useful. For every sentence there is a point at which your relentless attention to detail is making the sentence worse, not better. When that’s the case, leave it; It’s done. If you can’t tell — leave the text for a few hours or days before you come back to it with fresh eyes. (Coming back to this piece, I found a handful of typos to correct and poor phrasing in need of correction — that’s the process).
Writing is hard and writing is a craft. It’s also a process and something that you get better at by trying. So… try!
My best practical advice is to read a style guide (pretty much any style guide will do), and then read an author you appreciate, writing in a field to which you want to contribute. Focus on the scaffolding. Notice how their sentences bind together. Notice how there’s a flow, a constant movement forward. Notice how the author takes you on a journey: (s)he begins by posing a problem that you — the reader — is at least nominally interested in, a puzzle you wish to solve. The author then moves, through evidence or stories, graphs or narratives, that help us understand that problem — or perhaps even advance an attempt at solving it.
Good writing needs stories and questions. Good writing also needs good delivery. It’s hard and takes a lot of work: with time and dedication you can get there too.