On Writing


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #1


Writing entails having a conversation without sound.


You are conveying information to others using words that are written rather than spoken.  Indeed, some good writers move their lips when they are writing.  Others make believe they are writing for their favorite aunt or a good friend in an effort to remind them they are writing for an audience rather than for themselves.


The advantage of the written word over the spoken word is that you have time to correct mistakes or explain something more clearly.  How many times have you said to yourself, “O, I wish I hadn’t said that.”  Or how many times has someone said to you, “I don’t know what you mean.”


Writing is a luxury.  It gives you time to correct your “conversation” or to be better understood.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #2


Good writing is good thinking.


Words, sentences and paragraphs are a reflection of what’s on your mind.  Well-known writers understand this, so they write as fast as they can, not concerning themselves with spelling, punctuation or even sentence structure, because the mind works faster than they can write or type. They can go back and fix things up later.  The famous 19th Century poet and essayist Walt Whitman once said, “I just let her come till the fountain runs dry.”


In the process of emptying the mind a writer sometimes uncovers a surprise in the sub-conscious.  It’s like cleaning the attic.  You often find things you forgot were there.  This element of surprise or discovery is part of the magic of writing.


So as Whitman suggests, just let it flow.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #3


Writers start with a blank sheet but not a blank mind.  With all those millions of thoughts running around in your head, how do you know what to write.


The solution:  Focus.


Just as you need to adjust the lens of your camera to get a clear photograph, so too do you need to get your thoughts in focus. 


Three techniques are recommended.


Novelist William Faulkner is said to have written down on a card the three or four words that best summed up the point or theme or focus of the book he was writing.  He propped it up over his typewriter and kept it always in front of him as he wrote.  So that’s Technique No. 1:  write down in a few words what the focus is.  In fact try writing it a dozen ways until you have precisely the focus you want.


Technique No. 2 is to bear in mind that, with few exceptions, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. 


Technique No. 3 is to write an outline.  It doesn’t necessarily have to have Roman numerals, capital letters and all that goes with a formal outline.  But it is worth jotting down the order of points you want to make in the beginning, middle and end.  Then start going through your notes to figure out where they fit within the outline you’ve designed.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #4


Tom Wolfe, author of the best seller The Bonfire of the Vanities, once told the story of a Buddhist monk who sat at lunch with executives of a major magazine in their private dining room.  After they had each described their role, the monk asked, “But why do you do it?”


Motivation makes a difference in writing.  What moves you?


It can be the subject itself.  You may have a strong position on a particular issue and feel compelled to explain why and maybe convince others of your ideas, positions or opinions.


It can be a desire to pass on what you have learned, to educate others by conveying the results of your research.


It can be a hope to bring a smile to the reader, to entertain, to provide a diversion.


It can be a fulfillment of a wish to serve others, providing information that the reader has the right or need to know.


In reaching out to our audience through writing we often succeed best when we reach inside ourselves.  So ask yourself, “Why do you do it?”



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #5


Words draw a picture in the mind of the reader.  Some words add color and life; others draw a blank.


Analyze the following sentence:  “New York City is interesting, but it is very hot in July.”  What does “interesting” mean?  What is the difference between “hot” and “very hot.”


“Interesting” and “very” are weak words that should be avoided. 


Another frequently useless and misused word is “different”.  If you write, “We visited New York City on two different occasions,” the sentence would benefit by dropping the word “different”. 


However, if you wrote, “New York City and Calcutta are different”,  the word “different” would provide a useful function, providing you then explained what the differences are.


Be sure that every word in every sentence has a function.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #6

The more you write the more you learn to write.

You learn that clarity often results from revision of what you first wrote.  You learn that rhythm or flow is as important to writing as it is to music.  You learn that writing is like a puff of smoke unless it is based on facts (even opinion writing is more compelling if it is based on factual information rather than on random thoughts spouted by the writer). You learn that writing is like cooking, because too much or too little of certain ingredients can ruin it.  You learn the importance of word choice.  When you are re-reading what you have written, the change of a word here and there can add clarity, it can enhance rhythm, it can lend authority, it can spice to the ingredients.

Mark Twain, author of Tom Sawyer,  once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.”



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #7


How can you be confident that what you write is smooth yet tightly written, clear yet vivid?


Three easy techniques seem to work well. 


One is to read what you have written aloud.  If it sounds even the slightest bit awkward, you probably need to do some revising.


The second is to have it read critically by a friend or family member or interested person (teacher, editor, etc.). 


The third requires some time.  Put aside what you have written for at least an hour but preferably overnight.  Then re-read it.  You’ll be surprised what new perspectives you will bring to what you have written.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #8


Think of adjectives as being describers.  They describe a noun (“The floppy rim of her hat.” ) or a pronoun (“He is red-headed.”).


Author Thomas Wolfe was a master of description, who could write page after page about what he saw looking out the window of a train.  Here’s a sentence about a truck from his book, You Can’t Go Home Again:


“The heavy motor warmed up with a full-throated roar, then there was a grinding clash of gears, and George felt the old house tremble under him as the truck swung out into the street and thundered off.”


His use of adjectives helps you see, hear and feel the truck.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #9


Think of adverbs as being assistants to adjectives and verbs.  Often but not always they end in “ly”.


Adverbs add meaning to adjectives and verbs.  Avoid adverbs that fail to add meeting.


Good use:  “When the bell rang, she left her classroom immediately.”


Weak use:  “When the bell rang, she immediately remembered she needed to meet her friend.”


Only use adverbs that play a useful role.  Words such as  “generally”, “usually” or “occasionally” serve to qualify (for example:  It’s usually hot in New York City in July.) 

Words such as “frequently” or “forever” answer the question “When?”. 



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #10


You’ve done the research.  You’ve organized your notes, sketched out an outline and written a sentence or phrase that reflects the focus.  Now what?  How do you begin?


If you’re not too sure, write a topic sentence and keep going from there.  You can always go back and change the opening.  Another approach some writers use when a good beginning fails to pop into their minds is to begin with the second paragraph and wait till they’ve finished before writing the first paragraph.  Some write a quick draft, just to get thoughts on paper.  Others put their notes aside, rather than becoming bogged down by looking back and forth.  They then fill in the gaps with specifics such as dates, first names and middle initials, exact quotes and the like.


Probably the best way to start is to dash off twenty or thirty potential first sentences.  Then go back and pick out the best.  Lots of writers do this, because they find that they arrive at certain words and phrases that click after the first dozen attempts.  In some cases they’ll decide to use the best sentence in the middle of the story or as an ending.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #11


You best writing may occur away from the keyboard.  When you least expect it, the exact point of the story or a special turn of a phrase might leap into your mind.


A newspaper reporter mentally writes her story driving back to the office after covering an event.  A magazine writer comes to grips with writing themes while cooking dinner.  A feature writer goes for a walk, head down, not noticing passersby, ideas churning with each step.  A deadline writer, with the clock ticking away, leans back in his chair, feet on the edge of the desk for balance, and closes his eyes.  A couple of minutes later, he sits upright and writes a flawless story from beginning to end as fast as he can type.


These are not fictional examples.  They describe real people approaching the writing process differently.  There’s no right way, there’s only your way.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Writing #12


Newspapers once had a theory that the most important information should go at the top of the story and the least important should go at the end.  The theory was known as the “inverted pyramid”.  If a story needed to be shortened, it was cut from the bottom up.


Today newspapers, magazines and websites generally agree with the theory that a story should have a beginning, middle and an end.  Indeed, many believe the ending is the most important of the three, because it is what is most remembered by the reader.


Frequently writers decide how their stories will end before they determine the beginning.


The beginning and the ending should echo one another, holding together the middle, as though they were two pieces of bread in a sandwich.


Speaking of food, do you often leave the last good bite of a meal till the end?  Readers of stories also like to savor that last bite of information.


                                      Copyright, 2003, MIT Media Laboratory