Jason Zweig On Writing

Jason Zweig of the WSJ wrote a 3-part series on writing.

I took notes for myself.

On Getting Better

Making your writing better is tantamount to declaring war on yourself.

I’m often asked what the most important quality is to be a columnist for a major publication.

I always answer: “Self-loathing.”

I don’t loathe myself as a person, at least not most of the time. But I loathe myself as a writer, because I should and I must: because I know, to the marrow of my bones, that nothing I’ve ever written or ever will write can capture the subtle, confounding, infinite complexity and contradictions of reality. To be a writer is to recognize that you will always be overmastered and defeated by whatever topic you choose: The richness of life always beggars anyone who tries to wrap it in words.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebooks, “When we see how little we can express, it is a wonder that any man ever takes up a pen a second time.” The great playwright and novelist and Samuel Beckett wasn’t joking when he defined writing as “disimproving the silence.”

Coaching and constant practice can minimize and manage the problem, but never quite eliminate it. As Mark Twain said, “You can straighten a worm, but the crook is in him and only waiting.”

You have no right to act affronted when someone asks you to cut your writing as if the request were some sort of selfish demand. You’re the one who’s being selfish, by refusing to make your readers’ lives easier. And, above all, you’re hurting yourself, as selfish people always do: The point of cutting your writing isn’t to make it shorter. The point of cutting it is to make it better.

Cutting your writing is the surest way to find its weaknesses; it is only when you take a knife to what you wrote that you can find out whether any of it is even alive.

How To Get Better (Link)

  1. Cut your writing

    Now, cut hard and deep.  The biggest mistake developing writers make is to try cutting a few words here and a handful there.  But you aren’t doing cosmetic surgery on beautiful moviestars in Beverly Hills; you are doing amputations.  The tools you need aren’t microscopes and miniaturized scalpels.  You need to start with a chain saw. It sounds harder and scarier than it is.  Read as fast as you can.  Read in big gulps, a paragraph at a time.  Identify the weakest paragraph and delete it.  Delete the next weakest, and the one after that. If you can’t find any paragraphs to cut, you’re kidding yourself.  The best solution I know of is to become exhausted: Go run 10 miles, or stay up an hour past your bedtime, or get up an hour earlier in the morning than usual.  Now, while you’re exhausted, read what you wrote.  The weak links should leap out at you. Next, find the weakest remaining sentence, and kill that.  If you can’t find one, take any sentence at random and delete it. Ask yourself: Do I miss it? Answer honestly.  Your piece might be better without it.  Or maybe you can replace the deleted sentence with something shorter and sharper.  Put it back only if its absence creates a black hole.  Keep searching for sentences to kill.

    • Kill adverbs. They are a crutch for weak verbs.

      Now, kill all the adverbs.  It’s not that I really dislike adverbs; I hate them. When you use the right verb — notice how, in the previous sentence, I replaced that wimpy “really dislike” with the militant “hate”? — you don’t need the fake emphasis of “really,” or most other adverbs either.  Get rid of them: Slaughter every single “actually,” “very,” “really,” “truly,” “clearly,” “certainly,” and the entire kennel-full of these weasel words.  The typical writer can cut a piece by 5% just by exterminating every adverb

    Finally, set it aside for a day, or longer if you have the luxury of time.  Don’t touch what you wrote.  Don’t look at it or even think about it.  Let it rest, and get some rest yourself.  You’re about to embark on the hardest leg of the journey to becoming a better writer.

  2. Re-writing

The essence of rewriting is destruction. Journalists and other professional writers almost always call it “killing my darlings.” Cutting is bloody, but rewriting is what hurts, because it requires brutal self-examination. Rewriting also hurts more than cutting because, after you already put all that work into striving for perfection, now you have to scan everything you did with a cold, alien, objective eye that focuses on finding every imperfection. If you can’t find any, you are writing, but you are not a writer.

If you wrote it in Microsoft Word, copy-and-paste it into Google Docs, or vice versa. If you printed it out, then read it on a computer screen. If you wrote it on your computer, then read it on a printout. Change the font or the color. Do whatever it takes to help you see it as someone else’s work, or as no one’s work.

Specific Techniques (From Part1 and Part2)

  • Good writing flashes between the concrete and the abstract
    • bounce between the particular and the general; it uses specific details and images to ignite our feelings and open our minds to the wider world.

  • Write something else when you have writer’s block:
    • it’s okay to drop a piece of writing when you can’t seem to make headway on it.  Use the extra time you’ve just created to write something else instead, so you can still work on polishing your craft even when you aren’t working on the piece of writing you most want to do.  Writer’s block doesn’t mean you can’t write anything; it just means you can’t write the one thing you’ve been working on.  If you switch to something easier, you will probably write better; that should help you get unstuck, enabling you to turn back to the harder writing with more freedom and openness.

  • Momentum

    • Just talk it out onto the page, without overthinking. Once you pop the cork out of the bottle, keep pouring as fast and as long as you can. Do not — I repeat, do not — revise or edit the sentences you’ve already written. Keep rolling forward, and don’t look back at what you’ve done, or you will lose your momentum…If you lose your momentum and get stuck again, step away and come back. Go to the bathroom; go to the gym; go for a walk; go get lunch. Try again — where you left off, not where you started.

    • Picking up a thread: If you’re writing something long and making good progress, but you won’t have time to finish it until tomorrow, stop in midstream. You can even stop in the middle of a sentence. Go do any old thing that gets your mind off your writing. Pick it up the next day; it will be easier to resume where you left off if you stopped right in the middle of a great idea that you know how to see through to completion.

  • How to practice

    • Write more: always writing mindfully — developing good mental hygiene by never being sloppy or lazy, whether you’re tossing off an email, putting together an office memo, or writing a note inside a birthday card. If you want to become a better writer, there’s no such thing as being off-duty. Treat every opportunity to write anything as a chance to improve. Challenge yourself to avoid lazy language and phrases that feel effortless.
    • Read more: When you find writers you love, read everything they’ve written. I continually ask myself: How did he do that? Why did she make this choice here?  What makes this work so well?

  • Don’t write with a passive styleIf you ever find yourself typing that something “…will have an effect on…” or “…had an impact on…,” it isn’t your writing that’s passive.  It’s you!  How dare you pretend that you are providing any information by telling your reader that something will have an “impact” or an “effect” on something else?  Nearly everything in the universe has an effect or an impact on other things!  Delete that passive crud and tell us what will happen: It “…will devastate…” or “…will rejuvenate…” or “…will eradicate…” or “…will repair…” without  resorting to the pallid abstractions of “impact” or “effect” or “result.”

    Consider this:

    There is a growing number of people who find themselves using smart phones to track whether their friendships are healthy.

    Let’s pick that apart.  It’s passive in at least three ways.

    “There is a growing number of people who…” means nothing more, and nothing less, than “I have no idea how many people…”

      1. The “there is a” is unnecessary.  It’s one of the most common, and annoying, crutches of passive language.  “There is a reason for the shortfall in wheat production:…”  Well, duh!  Instead, say: “Wheat production fell short because….”  (Note how, when you do this, the clunky noun string “the shortfall in” naturally turns into a simple verb structure: “fell short.”)  Once you develop the habit of recognizing “there is” as passive language that serves no purpose, you will be able to look at “There was somebody at the door” and automatically edit it to “Somebody was at the door.

      2. Zweig’s Law of Passive Language: Writers resort to passive wording when they are actively trying to hide something. The thing they are trying to hide is usually their ignorance or the flimsiness of an idea
      3. Why are these people with the smartphones “finding themselves”? They’re not in an ashram or a hippie commune. They are, unfortunately, in the hands of a writer who is piling up verbiage like balsa wood to try covering the hollowness of the premise.
  • Writing better is all about paying attention to the smallest details. 

    If you don’t treat each word with exquisite care, you can’t improve….Are you letting verbs do their work, or are you treating them as if they can’t move without crutches and canes?

    Most people handle words as if they were pennies: light, cheap, dispensable.  Instead, I want you to handle them as if they were manhole covers or 45-pound weights in the gym.  Think before you pick them up.  Look before you put them down.  Make sure you choose the right one and put it in the right place.  Words shouldn’t be cheap to you and interchangeable.  They should be dear to you and fit-for-purpose.

    As for me, I estimate that I’ve written about 425,000 words for The Wall Street Journal over the past decade.  It wouldn’t surprise me if at least 20,000 of them were wasted —

    — Hey!  I meant, “It wouldn’t surprise me if I wasted at least 20,000 words.”

    All you can do is try to purge all the passive wording from your writing. You will fail and fail and fail again. I’ve been failing at it my entire life. But trying to expunge every instance of passive language from every sentence will make your writing far better than it is — no matter how good it already may be.

  • Cliches and idioms are lazy but that’s not all

    One of the biggest mistakes an aspiring writer can make is to assume that you can easily avoid perpetrating clichés if only you steer clear of obviously proverbial language. That’s much too narrow a view! A cliché is any wording that springs automatically to mind and types itself, as if it has kidnapped your hands, but that falls apart at the slightest touch:

    “incredible”(“I was there, and I’ve never witnessed anything like it.  But, rather than use vivid language to show you, I’ll just tell you.  Maybe if you read a few more paragraphs, I’ll finally get around to making you feel what I felt.”)

    “interesting”(“Trust me: You do want to read about this thing I’m describing, although I can’t be bothered yet to explain why.”)

    “a serious crisis”(if a crisis isn’t serious, what is it?)

    “in a very real sense”(What would “a partly real sense” be? So the “very” adds nothing. Delete it! How does “in a real sense” differ from “in a sense”? Delete it! Now that you’re left with only “in a sense,” which sense? You don’t know, do you? Go back to the drawing board. Figure out what you mean, and say that.)

    “on a weekly basis”(“weekly”)

    “despite the fact that”(“although”)

    “in a state of anxiety”(“anxious”)

    “the reasons are three-fold”(“the three reasons are…”)

    “a disaster of epic / catastrophic / historic proportions”(And what would those proportions be: a mile wide and 10 feet tall? If you’re trying to say “it will go down in history,” what makes you so sure?  Show, don’t tell: How bad is the damage?  Give us numbers or imagery, not a lame reference to “proportions.”)

    “unmitigated gall”(What might “mitigated gall” be?)

    “mounting concerns / mounting pressure / mounting evidence”(Everything seems to be “mounting” nowadays; if you grew up around farm animals, as I did, the thought of using that term in serious prose would make you burst out laughing)

    “He disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”(“He disappeared mysteriously” or “No one knows how or why he disappeared.”)

    “The weather forecast calls for rainy conditions.”(“It will probably rain.”)

    “The car dealership is holding a sales event.”(“The car dealership is holding a sale.”)

    “That’s how innovation occurs in the social-media space.”(“That’s how innovation occurs in social media.”)

    “He’s argumentative by nature.”(“He’s argumentative.”)

    “The company’s clout is such that…”(“The company has so much clout that…”)

    “The crime was a terrible one.”(“The crime was terrible.”)

    “in some ways” / “in certain aspects”(Which ways or aspects might those be?)

    “The groups are similar with respect to their income and net worth.”(“The groups have similar income and net worth.”)

    “in terms of”(“in”)

    “…is at this point in time…”(“…is…”)

    “…is currently…”(“…is…”)

    “…is now…”(“…is…”)

As the great Viennese journalist Karl Kraus wrote, “The closer one looks at a word, the farther away it moves.”  Your goal should be to treat every word you write as an alien object: You should be able to look at it and say, What is that doing here? Why did I use that word instead of a better one? What am I trying to say here? How can I get to where I’m going if I use such stale and lifeless words?

You want to slash passive language out of your writing just as a tropical explorer blazing a trail hacks through the underbrush with a machete.

The more intensely I write, the more often I mutter under my breath, Get out of my way.  I’m talking to myself, and I’m talking to all the junk words that aren’t mine: Get out of my way!

Tips For Writing A Book (Link)

  • Be creative

Ask yourself, what’s the craziest, wackiest way I can possibly think of to make this point? Cartoons, diagrams, Rube Goldberg illustrations, graphs and charts, music, movies, paintings — make everything grist for your mill. Mind you, you don’t have to use all these sources in the final product, but they may help spark ideas for you that will help you turn abstract ideas into concrete words in a way no one else has thought of.

  • Use your eyes and ears.

Too many people write books entirely from the isolation of an office or a den at home. Get out in the field: travel, talk to people, explore, turn over the rocks. When I did my neuroeconomics book, I went to labs and had my brain scanned about a half-dozen times. The more you can get other places and other people’s voices and your own physical experiences into the project, the less it will seem like another generic advice book. Criticizing mutual funds? Well, go visit Fidelity (or you name it) and describe a day in the life of a stockpicker. Skeptical about day trading? Parachute into a brokerage office or trading floor and tell the reader what you found. Keep an open mind, and be honest with yourself: You might well find the exact opposite of what you expected. The best way to thrill your readers is to tell them things that surprised you. The same advice applies to any topic, not just finance.

  • It’s your book.

    You can write whatever you want, however you want to write it. Ask yourself: What are the three/five/ten/X things I most wish that I understood that I don’t?

    Go answer those questions.

    bove all, figure out what would make the project as fun and interesting as possible for you.  Write the book for yourself, and readers will follow.

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