One email at the end of the month containing ideas on mastering your craft and yourself. Subscribe

Creativity

5 Masterful Insights on Writing

Writing is a necessary craft for communicating ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Regardless of what you do, and no matter how advanced technology becomes, the written word will always have a seat at the table.

I view writing like physical exercise: it’s an activity that welcomes a multitude of unintended benefits. For example, if you’re exercising to lose weight, as a by-product, you also become stronger and more flexible. It’s part of the process; you gain those things even if you didn’t want to.

When you make writing (and reading others’ writing) a regular practice, you’ll learn to think more critically, empathize with other perspectives, and widen a channel for new thoughts and ideas to flow inward and outward. The more you write, the more creative you’ll become.

As a writer, there are two fundamental things I practice: read every day and write every day. While those are two of the most difficult laws to abide by, I find it helpful to have the wisdom of great writers influencing me—to use their wisdom as a compass for finding my own voice, making writing a priority, and honing my work until I’m pleased with the outcome.

Here are five quotes from some of my favorite writers that I hope will guide and empower you as they have me.

Anne Lamott on Perfectionism

Author Anne Lamott, Photo cred: Salon.com

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

[…]

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Let’s say you want to get your team to contribute to the company blog. If they hesitate, my theory is that it has nothing to do with a lack of writing skills or a lack of ideas. If they mention “time” in any of their excuses, you’re hearing the fear loud and clear.

No, the greatest obstacle is the willingness to face a bad first draft. It’s about facing the painful and scary vulnerability of sharing your ideas and perspectives about the world and sitting down to write them—to take ownership of this public-facing work and say, “Here, this is what I see.”

The moment you can get past the futility of perfection is the moment your first sentence gets written.

E.B. White on Purpose

Author E.B. White,

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

Everything hinges on the narrative of your work, and this perspective on the role of the writer is a surefire way to remind yourself of the fundamental principles of why you’re doing what you do.

Purpose is the compass that guides clear thinking, and therefore, clear writing. If the purpose of your company blog is to educate and share inside looks because that’s what your audience seeks, you will know where to direct your energy and what kind of reaction to expect from your audience.

Without purpose, writing can feel like vomiting your insides and having to organize the mess afterwards. Your readers will simply step around it and move on. Writing that works generates enthusiasm; writing that doesn’t work generates indifference.

William Zinsser on Clarity

Author William Zinsser, photo cred: The New Yorker

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. . . . Thinking clearly is a conscious act that writers must force on themselves, as if they were working on any other project that requires logic: making a shopping list or doing an algebra problem.”

Before you sit down to write, ask yourself two questions:

  • What is this for?
  • Who am I trying to change?

If you don’t know what your next blog post is for and you don’t know the person you’re trying to change, how will you know if it’s working?

Here’s a tactic I use. Before I write an article, I write a quick thesis, containing two or three sentences on what the essay is for; a reader who reads the thesis should immediately understand what this essay entails. Underneath my thesis I put “takeaways” and write two or three lessons that I want the reader to have after finishing the essay. This keeps my writing focused.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Editing

Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Try to move thorough the document quickly, rather than getting bogged down in debating every single semi-colon. Don’t overthink it; your first instinct is usually correct. . . . The best writing comes at an uninterrupted tightrope-running pace. You can always fix it later. Better yet, just finish it and hand the manuscript over to someone else, and let them edit you with fresh eyes. And for heaven’s sake, listen to their feedback.”

I have an editor who reviews all my published work. When I receive the edits, I study them closely. I ask myself, “What did my editor see in this particular paragraph that I didn’t? What can I learn from this feedback to implement into future writing?”

Getting your work edited by someone else and studying the changes is a way to master your craft. Editing your own work is like trying to lick your own elbows: you may be able to do it, but not very well.

David Foster Wallace on the Lead Sentence

Author David Foster Wallace

 A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. . . .It’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. . . .If one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

Journalist Don Wycliff echoed a similar sentiment when he said, “I’ve always been a believer that if I’ve got two hours in which to write a story, the best investment I can make is to spend the first hour and forty-five minutes of it getting a good lead, because after that everything will come easily.”

I’ll let you in on a secret that all writers know: the first most important sentence is the headline; the second most important sentence is the lead. Your headline needs to widen the eyes and tickle the brain. Your lead sentence needs to grab the reader’s attention with the grip of a crab.

By the time they scan your headline and first paragraph, readers are asking themselves, “What is this about? Why should I read this? What am I going to learn?” Your lead sentence must communicate all of that.

Writing is not just an art for those who identify themselves as writers. Like good table manners, it’s a common craft worth practicing to enrich both your personal and professional life.

— PAUL JUN
Next Essay