I found this very hard to read. There are so many short sentences and bullet points that it looks like a PowerPoint presentation masquerading as prose.
What he seems to have lost with this approach is a rhythm. It’s a staccato battering with ideas. I’d much rather be seduced and cradled by writing that made me feel I’m learning by osmosis and not trepanning.
The author illustrates how his writing goes wrong by saying that the following paragraph:
To be brief on the sentence-level, remove words that don’t add necessary context. Extra words cause readers to slow down and do extra work. That makes it harder for them to recognize the sentence’s point. And when you bore readers, they quit reading.
is better rewritten as:
Your sentence is brief when no additional words can be removed. Being succinct is important because filler buries your talking points and bores readers into quitting.
It’s not. The two sentence rewrite is ugly. The first sentence is weird because it uses “additional” (which sounds like adding something) for things that will be removed. The second sentence uses “talking points” which makes it appear the writer is aiming for sound bites and not to educate the reader.
I much prefer the first paragraph above. Partly because it makes me empathize with the trouble readers might have and makes me want to work for them. When I read the first paragraph I imagine myself, the reader; when I read the second I’m being instructed by a voice that sounds like it comes from a cold machine.
William Safire’s Rules for Writers:
Remember to never split an infinitive.
The passive voice should never be used.
Do not put statements in the negative form.
Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
The above, plus Strunk & White, should be enough for most folks IMNSHO.
“If you have received a letter inviting you to speak at the dedication of a new cat hospital, and you hate cats, your reply, declining the invitation, does not necessarily have to cover the full range of your emotions. You must make it clear that you will not attend, but you do not have to let fly at the cats. The writer of the letter asked a civil question; attack cats, then, only if you can do so with good humor, good taste, and in such a way that your answer will be courteous as well as responsive. Since you are out of sympathy with cats, you may quite properly give this as a reason for not appearing at the dedicatory ceremonies of a cat hospital. But bear in mind that your opinion of cats was not sought, only your services as a speaker. Try to keep things straight.”
What fault, dear reader, might you find in the above advice? I’d be quite interested in your assessment, given your apparent expertise.
If you are examining your own writing critically, it is worth critically examining the writing of others that you admire, and those you might disagree with. This kind of criticism is supposed to be constructive, so it should not be taken as an attack.
I thought it would be informative to share a few links that might help readers and writers approach Strunk and White from other perspectives. The authors of those essays have far more expertise than I.
>If you are examining your own writing critically, it is worth critically examining the writing of others that you admire, and those you might disagree with.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I find that my own prose has benefited greatly from reading those who write well.
>This kind of criticism is supposed to be constructive, so it should not be taken as an attack.
Your point is well taken, however your characterization (“Everything is wrong”) is even more extreme than what Pullum said in the piece you linked. He said “almost everything is wrong.”
What’s more, all the links you posted are quite critical of The Elements of Style and are not representative of the many other voices out there (cf. ). I’d expect that one might attempt to balance the criticism, rather than just piling on.
That’s not to say I reject outright the criticisms of Pullum and Pereltsvaig. Rather, they both make interesting points.
However, from the standpoint of a lay person who wishes to write cogently and concisely (that is, most of us) rather than a grammarian or professional writer, Elements provides useful advice and numerous examples of good writing.
Are the recommendations contained therein universally apropos? Certainly not.
That said, for most people who wish to get a better sense, not only of how to write more clearly and concisely, but also what such writing looks like, Elements provides a wealth of suggestions and examples.
Whether or not you disagree with some of the recommendations in Elements, it stresses clarity, concision and direct expression of ideas.
That many will go beyond those recommendations doesn’t invalidate the value of elucidating good writing habits, and utilizing them to provide cogent examples of the same.
Writing styles are inherently subjective, and a text like Elements is and can be a worthy supplement to reading widely and honing one’s own style.
The Elements of Style isn’t a tome with a litany of prescribed and proscribed methods and techniques. Rather it’s a slim (only 52 pages) volume focused on expressing ideas clearly and concisely — a goal it achieves for itself.
I recommend that you read it. It shouldn’t take more than 30-45 minutes.
> Verbs have to agree with their subjects. (nobody9999 corrected this one already – was “has” in place of “have”)
> Proofread carefully to see if you [leave] words out.
For those not in on the joke. Not sure if this would be how Safire would correct it, but I made an effort.
I didn’t “correct” anything. Those are all Safire’s words and none of mine.
Safire was using sarcasm through those examples to get his point across.
> Proofread carefully to see if you [leave] words out.
Shouldn’t it be left rather than leave?
Good catch, though the fix I don’t think is quite right. “Proofread carefully to see if you [have left/are leaving] words out” probably should’ve been what I wrote. I invite a much more competent writer to fact-check me.
“Proofread carefully to see if you [leave] words out.” I believe is grammatically correct but a bit nonsensical as I’m no longer in the act of writing words when I’m proofreading. But again, I’m also possibly just embarrassing myself at this point.
I disagree with two of Safires points:
There is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. Shakespeare does it and Star Trek does it.
Passive voice is fine. Sure it can be used to make the text impersonal and hide responsibility. But is can also be used to make the text clearer and to emphasize what is important. Use it as appropriate.
I don’t think his point is that the you shouldn’t follow these rules though. Surely nobody would think you shouldn’t proofread? He is just stating the rules ironically with an embedded example. Most of his rules are fine.
Yeah, he’s obliquely endorsing the rules, most of which — certainly the ones about infinitives, passives and negation — are moronic.
What I take from it is that those points aren’t important at all.
That’s surely hyperbolic, because nobody would think about completely ignoring them. But they certainly do not make any text great, and they shouldn’t be followed on the cost of something more important.
Use as appropriate, yes. But there are some writers who massively over-use it.
Most such rules can sometimes be broken to good effect, but they offer a useful default. In many cases, rewriting so as to “follow the rules” will aid clarity. Deviations and exceptions should be the result of careful consideration, not just carelessness.
> Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
That omission almost seems too perfect
I think both versions are kinda lacking in rhythm. Here’s my attempt, certainly imperfect too:
If you make an effort to omit unnecessary words, your sentences will be easy for readers to understand without slowing down. It also reduces the chance that readers will get bored and quit.
I used to uncritically accept the idea that concision was the single important thing about writing. The problem is, if you only ever write in short sentences, you’ll neglect the skill of writing longer sentences that flow. And if you’re writing anything longer than a tweet, you really need that skill! Having a natural mix of long and short sentences leads to a less “stuttery” feeling, and has a kind of hypnotic effect pulling the reader into your text and making them feel at home.
Or even: Try deleting words, lest your reader feel bogged down and give up — but brevity must serve clarity, so a few extra words might be worthwhile.
To avoid repeating the readers I would change to: “If you make an effort to omit unnecessary words, your sentences will be easy for readers to understand without slowing them down. It also reduces the chance that they will get bored and quit.”
I was taught in high school that I should alternate long and short sentences in order to keep writing interesting. It seems like a pretty good rule of thumb.
As a sibling has said, writing to maximise engagement is a different beast from writing “well”. I’m sure some “growth hacker” types would argue for defining “well” in a way that’s quantifiable, hence the confusion.
I personally find that style very annoying. It’s especially popular on LinkedIn. When I notice that I’m reading some vertically-set essay, it’s my cue to stop scrolling and stay off LinkedIn for the next month.
I’ve had people try to convince me to use one of those apps that supposedly help you write for better “engagement.” Invariably, they just don’t get it when I say I’m not interested.
I’ve been thinking about how useful raw engagement metrics actually are. Likes on your post or view on your video. These metrics count every reader and audience member equally, when they are far from equally relevant to you. By writing according to some common denominator you may trade a smaller high-quality audience off for a larger low-quality audience.
For example if you want to promote your work, who cares if you get lots of views from people with small attention span and no deep interest? The goal is to put your thoughts out there into good hands (or minds). To foster collaboration, to get insightful feedback. (Or to make sales, but there again, consumers can have widely different behavior. Some have noted that pricing higher will get you a nicer user base.)
Just one thoughtful reader may be worth a thousand inattentive bored scroller-clickers on LinkedIn. Because that one may write you an interesting message, which may lead to new opportunities, open up new communities for you. What do a thousand likes get you besides stroking your ego? I just don’t see the value in that sort of mechanistic “karma farming”.
There’s some value in raw numbers, especially at scale. It’s reasonable for a company to care about how many views a product page, how to, or topic page gets. And it’s a proxy for a lot of other things that are really hard to suss out. (Though you can measure things like how far people read/watch, time they spend, etc.)
But for me personally, I mostly go by what I want to read and I don’t really care if an SEO plug-in is telling me I should be writing at a sixth grade level–which is the level a lot of these tools work at. (And I’m often working with experienced editors who have a pretty good sense of what their audience/desired audience is looking for.) They’re also not mostly ad-supported so there isn’t a lot of incentive to go for pageviews for the sake of pageviews.
What I had in mind was for example popularizing one’s research as a scientist, or spreading your thoughts about your industry. In these cases it can be much more important to reach some people in your small niche, as opposed to a mass of a generic audience. Applying the same growth hacks as generic Youtubers may not be fitting in one’s specific use case. Perhaps you could clickbaitify your content, and increase the raw numbers (makes sense in case of an ad-driven Youtuber) but if you’re hoping for high quality feedback or getting to know other interesting people, you may better spend your time on catering to your special audience even when it’s small. And instead of promoting it left and right, target it specifically through niche channels, like email contacts, etc.
This may seem obvious, but sometimes people can get caught up in cargo-culting the established trendy marketing strategies that are actually designed for another use case than yours.
People aren’t machines. We don’t take an input and process it completely the first time. Human functions are not idempotent because we are stateful to the extreme, and when we hear the same message, we process it a different way the second time.
Repetition is a tool. Repeating yourself is useful. When I was younger, I thought it was good to be brief, succinct, and concise (and for some purposes, it is). But with most audiences, repeating yourself several times, as I have done here, is your best chance at getting your message to actually hit home. People need to understand and process your idea from different angles and perspectives, and if you aren’t able or willing to take efforts to make yourself understood, they will justifiably not make the effort to understand you either.
Or, as I could have said more succinctly, there is value in repeating an important message in different but overlapping ways.
Very well put. To add to this, the onus is really on the writer to help the reader understand. Repetition is one of the best tools for this.
If your reader doesn’t get it, they blame you. So its wise to use all of the tools at your disposal.
A parent walks into a gallery, points at a Picasso, and says: “my five year old could do that.”
The truth is, simplicity is hard. It’s about editing down to what’s essential. But not everything has to be Hemingway. Not everyone is a fan of that. So it’s also about knowing your audience, and finding your voice.
I’ll take a crack at it:
“Keep it simple. Aim for clarity. Know your audience. If a word doesn’t help move things along, get rid of it — otherwise you might put your readers to sleep.”
I work with SEO, CRO, UX and I can confirm that this style of writing – short sentences, tiny paragraphs – results in better outcomes: time on page is higher and bounce rate is lower.
The title of the article is “Writing Well”. It is not “Writing that Reduces Bounce Rates.” These are not the same thing and marketing copy is not something every writer should seek to emulate.
The thing is, “Well” in “Writing Well” needs to be defined, because everyone sees it differently.
For some, “Writing Well” is writing in a way that gives the reader a emotional reaction, like lots of fiction tends to aim for.
For others, “Writing Well” is deconstructing concepts so people can understand complex ideas easier, like what most of technical writing aims to do.
For yet others, “Writing Well” is writing in a way that visitors on a website stays for longer and reduces bounce rates, like content marketing tries to do.
Like many things in life, what you understand “well” to mean, changes how you need to do your writing. Sometimes you need to switch how you see “well”, depending on your goals. There is no right or wrong answer what “well” actually means.
I wonder if those metrics are like that because this style of writing has the reader thinking that the author has something important to say and has to spend a long time figuring out what it is because the sentences have been cut to the bone.
I honestly don’t know, but the metrics rise on average, sending a positive signal to Google, which yields us higher rankings in Google, which equals more visitors. It’s a constant battle between competitors — finding out what the visitors want to read — and how they want to read it.
Ironically, “when no additional words can be removed” is the same number of words as “remove words that don’t add necessary context” but communicates less by leaving out the concept of context.
Changing “To be brief on the sentence-level” to “To write brief sentences” then leaving the rest would have been better.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to just say something like:
> Keep sentences brief; unnecessary filler obscures your point and bores the reader.
“Brevity is the soul of wit.”
There are different kinds of long windedness. One kind, that people most think about, is rambling, bringing up unimportant points, repeating something you’ve already said etc. The other kind is more on the wordsmithing level of formulating the same thing in fewer words by switching out longer, less dense grammatical structures with snappier ones.
It’s very much like refactoring code. You can do it on a higher level by cutting out entire chunks of code that don’t really need to be done, or on a low level by being familiar with the language’s helpful syntactic sugars, best practices, to make the meaning clear and less obscured by boilerplate and “syntactic chores”.
I noticed the effectiveness of low-level refactoring in prose when I first started writing academic papers. Since page limits are strict, you need to pay attention to eliminate any words that aren’t necessary and are thin on semantics. This doesn’t mean writing in staccato. But when you spot a paragraph where a single word spills over to an extra line, it requires a specific learnable skill to rewrite a sentence or two to eliminate the extra line. You can often tell how much someone wordsmithed around on a paper by seeing how long the last line of each paragraph is.
Of course sometimes gains are on the high level, I’m not saying that good writing is just about messing with the low level of the actual words and the grammar. Similarly to the debate whether premature optimization is the root of all evil, it’s about a balance in writing too. First you must have clear thoughts on what to say and what you can leave out. But at the end, when things have settled, it is worth to go over it once again at specific places and low-level edit things to be snappier, counting words, letters and millimeters on the paper.
Not strictly on topic, but your comment made me think of this…
It was very pleasant to receive a letter from you the other day. Perhaps I should have found it pleasanter if I had been able to decipher it. I don’t think I mastered anything beyond the date, which I knew, and the signature, at which I guessed.
There is a singular and perpetual charm in a letter of yours — it never grows old, and it never loses its novelty. One can say every morning, as one looks at it, ‘Here’s a letter of Morse’s I haven’t read yet. I think I shall take another shy at it to-day, and maybe I shall be able in the course of a few years to make out what he means by those t’s that look like w’s and those i’s that haven’t any eyebrows.’
Other letters are read and thrown away and forgotten, but yours are kept forever–unread. One of them will last a reasonable man a lifetime.
I remember at university, we had a lot of exams with heavy emphasis on essay-based answers where I’d frequently see my friends and peers ask for second and even third answer booklets. As a left-handed person with poor writing technique, writing continuously for a 3 hour exam caused me a fair amount of discomfort and pain, so i’d take a lot of breaks. So when my friends were leaving the exam 30 minutes early, having filled three booklets, I was staying to the very end – struggling to fill even one.
In nearly every example of this, I got (marginally) better grades than them.
Your sentence is brief when no additional words can be removed. Being succinct is important because filler buries your talking points and bores readers into quitting.
I find it harder to understand as well. I do get it but I see that a lot of my fellow non-native speakers will struggle with this kind of writing. Second sentence is way more complex then the whole original paragraph. “Succint”, “filler”, “buries”, “bores into quitting” – whoah. Give me a breath, please! Is this an articatle on how to write good looking text, or easy to understand text? At first glance I though it was supposed to ilustrate the exact opposite of what it tries to ilustrate.
The whole first page is composed of only bullet points and it requires a lot of focus and effort to go through. I had no urge to click to the next page after that introduction. Is it grandiose (had to google that), or do they treat me like an idiot? Bizarre.
It’s like reading a list of quotes from famous people. If you would read it aloud after 3 or 4 of these I’m done. Next ones could be a dinner recipe – I might not notice.
When I write to much and too fast (like now I am, sorry!) I like to remind myself how authors write on sites for beginners in a particular language . It’s clean and doesn’t treat me like an idiot.
Doesn’t this depend a lot on _what_ and _where_ you are reading?
I suspect people have completely different styles when reading e.g. a fiction book on a Kindle vs. a tutorial about deploying a Docker container. I wouldn’t be surprised if generation/age played a factor too.
Absolutely. Academic writing has its own conventions that a lot of people have to unlearn when they leave that world, legal writing literally has its own grammar rules, etc.
That said, the author strikes me as trying to teach something he isn’t actually good at while pretending to be authorative. Most of this advice is standard stuff found in Strunk and White, Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and a hundred other solid books on this topic, but his style is disjointed, his examples aren’t great, and then there’s just the sheer silliness:
> Why? The best writing is therapy that you publish for the world to learn from.
No, it’s really not.
Thanks for sharing your opinion. I found myself strongly agreeing with the post, and it’s really helpful to get a counter-perspective.
This is a well written tutorial about writing well. It practices what it preaches. And it makes good points about clarity, succinctness and persuasiveness.
This isn’t a tutorial about “writing well” in general. It focusses on a particular way of writing: writing short articles that sell a specific idea, service or product to as many readers as possible. It’s a practice that won’t make great or enjoyable novels, though. And while Hemingway became famous for his terse and objective prose, so did the eclectic writing of James Joyce or the long winded storytelling of Proust.
I feel that tone of voice and style are crucial in one’s writing. The words you choose, ordering of your sentences, the construction of your argument, attention for positive or negative sentiment,… shape the perception with your audience. The author only briefly glosses over those points in his fourth section, before admitting it needs expansion. And yet, without developing those, your writing won’t yield much life to the topic you want to brings across.
This brings me back to the style of this tutorial. It’s well written in a particular context, bring a point across as quickly and efficiently as possible, but it’s written in a style which I don’t enjoy at all. It’s a purely functional, dry, uncompromising way of writing. It’s a style that comes with risks and trade offs.
This type of writing might come off as treating the reader as a passive agent that needs to be educated. And the key in doing so is applying well known devices to achieve that goal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Push the right buttons and you’ll be able to build the desired sentiment with your audience.
This shines through, for instance, in his second section – objectives – where his bullet points read as:
> Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong.
> Identify key trends on a topic. Then use them to predict the future.
While this isn’t inherently wrong, these are bold tactics that create huge expectations at the start of the article. As an author, you better make sure you can deliver on your promise when you go down that road. Worst case, you may come of as presumptuous, even pretentious, and lose a big chunk of your target audience, while the readers that stick likely already are part of the parish you’re preaching to.
Writing only becomes better when you go on a journey of identifying your own intentions, and confronting your own trepidation. Why do you want to write? Who do you want to convince? Why do you want to convince them? What do you hope to achieve with your writing? What is your relationship with the reader and what defines your relationship with your readers? What is the importance to you, personally, in writing down your thoughts? What is it you want to express through your writing?
Answering these questions as you practice your writing will provide the building blocks you need to define your style, your tone of voice, the pace of your writing and so on.
Without a due amount of self reflection, authors might risk treating this type of writing into a golden hammer. Writing only becomes compelling if there’s clear, genuine, personal investment in the content itself. Without it, “writing like Paul Graham or Derek Sivers” risks turning into a cargo cult like practice which produces boring, look-a-like writing.
I know you all will take it hard, but all Paul Graham and Derek Sivers have to offer the aspiring writer is proof that you can write drivel in short, declarative sentences.
The thing most novice writers don’t do enough of is revision. If you don’t know where to start, it’s hard to go wrong cutting all your favorite parts and halving the word count.
Writing only becomes better when you go on a journey of identifying your own intentions, and confronting your own trepidation.
Thanks for writing this, I’ve been struggling to write about fallacies in software verification for over a month now.
I realized that I wasn’t writing for myself, or even folks who are likely to agree (mathematicians, logicians) with my viewpoint. I was writing to convince and justify, instead of examine, teach, or tell.
The style of this article reminds me of Wittgenstein: short, clinical, almost mathematical statements, with no poetical ambition whatsover. I understand that there might be situations in which such a style is appropriate, but this article is just very annoying to read. I would not definitely not call it “good writing”.
The kind of “clarity” presented here as good writing works well if you assume that everything that can be thought can be directly expressed in words, without substantial loss. This is clearly not the case. Language is a very poor medium to transmit throughts and feelings. So the “trick” every good writer uses is this: don’t describe something directly, but instead try to construct some secondary clues, hints and a general atmosphere that will start a thought process in the reader’s mind which leads to the conclusions you want to bring across. This is the poetic approach, it could also simply be called “writing between the lines”.
In my experience, this approach is a much more effective transmitter of ideas than trying to describe them directly, also for the simple reason that the reader will subconsiously assume that it is his own idea.
You need beautiful prose, rhythm and images to achieve that, as those open up this additional dimension. The article undertakes considerable (even pedantic) effort to leave that dimension closed.
Just as an aside: This seems like a very unfair characterisation of Wittgenstein to me. His writing can be almost mathematical, but it can also be very poetic, playful and funny. Appreciating his writing might be a matter of taste, but it seems clear to me that his writing had a lot of “poetical ambition”. How we use language was one of his primary concerns and he clearly cared a lot about how he himself wrote. In Philosophische Untersuchungen I see a lot of warmth in his writing. Often it seems like he is talking very personally to the reader like he would to a friend.
From quick googling it seems like I am not alone in my view of Wittgenstein as a poetic philosopher, see e.g.
Chiming in — Wittgenstein has some of the most creative, enlightening and unexpectedly funny metaphors in all of literature.
True, I might have been a bit unfair to him above. I mainly based my comment on my reading of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, which I remember as being written extremely dry and in a similar style as the article. I have not read anything else by Wittgenstein (yet).
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
You know what I consider engaging writing? HN comments
Good HN comments are longer than tweets but shorter than essays, they strike a perfect balance of expressing an interesting idea in a reasonable time. And they always have an underlying, implicit amount of playful pedantry that makes them even more fun to read.
This very comment was fun to write because not even I know if I’m being sarcastic or not.
I assumed you weren’t being sarcastic.
Comments in general are pseudo-dialog. Whereas in real life, we stumble over our words and can’t edit, in well-policed comment sections with sincere posters, we can all contribute to a Sorkian drama.
This is why I love HN. These rare moments of hearing someone articulate something that I haven’t quite grasped yet, but have seen glimpses of and have struggled with, presented clearly, insightfully. Feeling my brain being rewired. I’ve watched this talk multiple times over the last days and it is transformative.
It’s not like anything he says is, by itself, that new or counterintuitive. But the whole talk, when fully digested, lets you view the world in an entirely different way.
The talk isn’t about writing. It’s not about science. Not about careers. It’s about everything. The same thinking can be applied to speaking, to dating, to everything human.
What’s in your head isn’t intrinsically interesting to anyone except your mother. What value do you deliver? It’s harsh. Harsh and cruel. It’s not the cozy feel-good message you see everywhere nowadays. Maybe some would call the whole framing toxic. But would you rather taste the poison and then learn how to handle it, or would you stay ignorant and die of it (silently get ignored, nosedive your career, etc.).
In a masterfully meta way, the talk manages to deliver immense value.
Absolutely. In that same vein, I’ve gotten a lot out of so many similar videos which are ostensibly about one thing, but to effectively use what they’re teaching, you have to start learning/mastering something else entirely. “Indirect learning” is one way to put it, and a term I picked up from Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. I’ve gained so much from watching that video, as well as his Time Management video. So much so that I rewatch it about once a year, because every time you rewatch something, you’re a different person in certain ways, and you often appreciate things much more the more you change and grow as a person.
Echoing the other comments that this was an excellent lecture on how to approach writing from the perspective of the reader, aka the top-down approach.
He contrasted top-down with the bottom-up approach taught from elementary school to the undergraduate level which shows it as a superior approach to writing—if your goal is to introduce ideas that change the minds of your readers with your writing.
Thanks for the recommendation. Watching it now. I like how he takes a top-down approach to writing.
Thanks for the recommendation. The point that more than anything, your writing should be valuable to the group of readers it is targeted at is fascinating.
Am I the only one who thinks that sinlge-sentence paragraphs should be the exception, not the rule?
You are not the only one. It’s irritating to read. Complexity and nuance are sacrificed because the writer values concision over truthfulness.
You can see the problem in the first two sentences of the article:
“To write well is to think clearly.
If you can think clearly, you can find something worth saying.”
These are pleasant aphoristic paragragraphs, but what they say is not actually true. They gesture towards something true, but the drive to simplicity has turned potentially interesting points into falsehoods.
And the next sentence is both false and damaging. Good writing is most definitely not “therapy that you publish for the world to learn from”.
(Plus, the writer should give balanced sentences a rest. They’re useful to have in the rhetorical toolbox, but quickly become tedious when overused.)
There’s another problem with being obsessed with concision: it’s more compatible with simple ideas than nuanced ideas. I work at a place where I’m required to explain urban planning issues while using the simplest-possible subjects in all sentences. So, I can write, “Transit improves traffic,” but I can’t write, “To the extent that transit enables residents to reach destinations more efficiently than driving, a greater number of proportion of people can travel without worsening traffic.” This isn’t a great example because I’m sure there’s a simpler way to write my second sentence. The pattern I’ve noticed, however, is that I often need to be intellectually dishonest to write simple sentences with simple subjects, because they make the world seem simpler than it is. A complex world — full of gradations and marginal costs — often requires complex sentences.
Transit improves traffic
When many people travel on the road as a unit – in a bus for example – traffic flow improves compared to everyone driving their own car and thus travelling as separate units of traffic. Most of the bad stuff we dislike about traffic results from “friction” and interaction: yielding at intersections, the gaps between vehicles following each other, being slow to react on green light, and so on. But traffic won’t automatically improve with more transit. It needs to be planned such that …
In your long version (which you admit can be improved) I dislike the fancy, prestige words of “residents”, “destination”, “greater number or proportion of people” can just be “more people”. I find that good, world-renowned experts are not afraid to write in simple words but still give deep insights into special topics. I find that the less pretentious and shorter the words are in an academic paper, the more likely it is to come from a top research group or top researcher.
I find the same when I write about technical topics for a non-technical audience. I write sentences that aren’t quite true, because the truth is more complex than the reader cares about or would understand without additional background.
I’ve learned to live with it, because the alternatives are to i) write a book instead of a memo or article or ii) weigh sentences down with hedges, caveats, and qualifications that don’t help the reader anyway.
I tried reading some of the later articles in the series, and they’re exhausting! All the writing has this incredibly tiring staccato rhythm, and the articles are just gigantic dumps of bullet points and headers. It’s like having being machine-gunned with marketing platitudes and writing truisms.
It’s super trendy right now.
Especially on LinkedIn.
These single sentence paragraphs.
At least that’s what they think they are.
I find them annoying.
In all seriousness: this article reads more like an outline than an actual piece of writing. Good writing is all about pacing. Some of your sentences should be long and winding. While others are short.
That variance in rhythm keeps your reader involved in the piece. It’s not necessary to convey a point-information is just as easily digested in bullet-point form-but it’s necessary if you want to maintain your audience’s attention over time.
When I worked for a Japanese company, this became the norm. It made translations a lot easier.
I still believe in short paragraphs; though not necessarily single-sentence ones. Paragraphs are meant to collect ideas, and it’s often a good practice to have a fairly “granular” approach, with “atomic,” self-contained “modules.”
The idea is to allow reading to proceed in a “piecemeal” fashion. This is due to the way people consume prose, these days, with sidebars and interruptions. It also lends itself well to reference reading.
In any case, a “wall of text” approach is disastrous in digital media. It works well, for justified paperbacks, but not so well on a digital device.
> In any case, a “wall of text” approach is disastrous in digital media.
I hear this a lot, but it seems to me true only in a limited context. “Walls of text” are disastrous in marketing and some technical content, but these should not be the standard to which all writers aspire, even if they publish exclusively online.
For example, the London Review of Books is famed for its long paragraphs, but they suit the topics and discursive, nuanced argument. Chopping them into smaller chunks would not make the arguments easier to follow for the educated readers who subscribe to the LRB.
That’s not a “wall of text.” The typography, layout and paragraphs are done in a fashion that makes them quite readable in digital format.
Note that the paragraphs are not indented, space-separated, and the text is left-justified.
The use of a serif font is somewhat unusual for a digital medium, but it’s a very crisp, “light” font, presented with maximum contrast, on a pure white background.
That is a concession to digital media.
Also, the writing is excellent, which helps a lot.
Ah, perhaps I misunderstood. You said “I still believe in short paragraphs,” which I did not understand to mean “I believe in excellent typography”.
They are not mutually exclusive. I think that I could have phrased the “wall of text” comment a bit better.
Basically, I think we’ve all encountered sites that have huge blocks of text that could be broken into discrete sections (AKA “paragraphs”).
Paragraphing is a bit of an “artform.” All of the rules are heuristics, not “hard and fast.” I feel that it helps my prose to be more readable, if I break it up.
One reason is that, even though I am fairly prolific, I am not a “top notch” writer, so I need all the help I can get.
You said the magic word: “Subscribers”, i.e. people who are paying for content. LRB’s reputation and audience is such that it does not need to obsess about SEO or social shares attracting the widest possible audience to show ads to.
As a result, they can stick to providing long-form writing instead of chasing whatever the new “maximize engagement/conversions” trick is.
Nope! You’re definitely not the only one. For a page about writing well, this is a stupendously annoying thing to read.
That’s my reaction as well but it seems to becoming more popular, presumably because people are consuming it.
That style is ideal for advertising copy, but for little else. The author of the original article could have avoided a lot of criticism if he’d called it “Writing Marketing Copy Well” instead of “Writing Well”.
It’s a pretty specific style for writing on the web, where you assume that users are initially scanning the page rather than focusing on the text. On the web, users have been trained to do this because websites are designed differently from books. Body text segments will be split up by ads, there’s a sidebar with popular articles, etc.
In this medium, a long paragraph of text may look less scannable to a reader, especially if they are on a mobile device. Hence the single setence paragraphs.
I don’t prefer this style of writing either. I save to Pocket and read offline, so a standard essay-style layout works fine for me.
People don’t read on the internet, they only skim. Short sentences are better for that.
You promote short sentences but I asked about single-sentence paragraphs. Maybe you only skimmed my comment?
Would also recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Amazing guide on writing nonfiction.
Too much clarity loses writing voice.
Poor writers with substance can create compelling content.
Sometimes I want the cliff notes and sometimes I want to be enamored with some lovely prose that leads me somewhere and makes me think.
Absolutely. But there are different writing styles for different purposes. Technical writing should be different than creative writing or you might lose some of the audience. But I read some great creative and technical writing that explains concepts through metaphors are imagery and do enjoy it.
Great read with pleasing aesthetics. However, there is one point I do not agree with, namely:
> That isn’t to say children should understand your references and jargon. Do not over-simplify your language and weaken your ideas. Rather, children must be able to follow the logic of every argument.
Richard Feynman argues that people often hide between jargon to hide the fact that one doesn’t know. As a programmer, I often see jargon as an additional dependency and only introduce it if I really cannot avoid it.
Brevity and concision on their own are monotonous. You may have stumbled on this before but Gary Provost talks about writing ‘music’:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
Stripping a sentence to its cleanest components is a worthy aim but not at the cost of composition. Because, writers are part composers. In gmail, you’re not prompted to ‘write’ an email. You’re prompted to ‘compose’ it.
Brevity for its own sake isn’t sustainable.
Absolutely sublime comment. Educational, thought-provoking and entertaining. Thank you very much johnharrison!
Note that Julian runs an SEO and growth marketing company, so the type of writing here is more for that purpose, to sell your product, than to become the next great author.
Maybe he should have put that in the title then, rather than proclaiming to know how to write well in general. Such an imprecise title is indicative of a poor writer, so I guess there is a good amount of irony to be had. Who knows; maybe he’s a brilliant satirical writer.
Considering he has others on “being rational” and “building muscle”, I just thought he was one of those tech bros that loves Tim Ferriss and feels that same need to create prescriptive tutorials on topics they aren’t domain experts in.
Wasted heading. What website doesn’t welcome readers? An offline one.
> To write well is to think clearly.
No, it’s to communicate well. There is beautifully-written nonsense.
> If you can think clearly, you can find something worth saying.
Meaninglessly asserts a relationship between two ambiguous thresholds. A vague thought not worth saying!
> An ideal place to start is thinking through what bothers you most in life.
No. That problem is likely too difficult. The correct essay topic is whatever thought won’t go away until it’s written down.
> The best writing is therapy that you publish for the world to learn from.
I know what Julian’s trying to express. My Pubmind-T3 blogs are for publishing early and often, which is a best practice. But without Textmind (or David Allen’s GTD), thinking in essays would be a frustratingly overloaded affordance.
Good writing, like clear thought, is reliably produced only via sound process.
The link to  appears to be a subset of a larger document/program from University of Chicago (but this appears to be source from OSU). Do you have a link to all the book/materials? Thanks
The first step to writing well is to avoid taking advice from people who write this poorly. I recommend Paul Zinnser’s “On Writing Well” as an alternative to whatever this bad writer is shilling.
> The Shakespeares, Twains, and Austens of the future won’t emerge from the book publishing industry. They’ll come from YouTube, podcasts, and blogs.
The author pushes for a cold technical writing style. Then he brings up a bunch of literary writers? The two worlds are very much at odds.
The worship of the literary that’s all too common in classrooms is, I believe, why so many people are scared of writing anything in the first place. And then there’s the obsession with grammar.
If you want to write, stop worrying about writing. Worrying about writing isn’t writing. It’s just spending time and energy that could otherwise be used as writing. So, write something. Then read it back to yourself out loud. If something sounds stupid, change it.
Now do that every day at least once.
Congratulations. You’re a writer.
[Edited because I read it out loud to myself and some parts sounded stupid]
Reading works written by masters is one way in which one can organically internalize the art of writing well.
Another thought that comes to my mind regarding writing is that why does one have to necessarily follow a particular set of rules?
Writing is an art. You should be able to develop and hone your own style, your own signature, something that stands apart from others, yet is readable and lucid.
> why does one have to necessarily follow a particular set of rules?
I find rules are an excellent way to quickly get up to a reasonable level. One can discover these rules by trial and error, but this takes time and practice.
When one is comfortable working within these rules, they can then be broken for effect.
I think most great artists started as an apprentice, before becoming the master.
“Writing well” often takes different shapes in different contexts. The author’s example seems fine, maybe, for product copy, but it certainly isn’t applicable everywhere.
If you (or the author) disagree, then you have to explain what Jane Austen doesn’t understand that you do.
There’s a lot of people disagreeing here on the definition of “well,” and it’s interesting to see in real-time how the various assumed definitions result in assessments that are both valid and disagree with each other.
Just get The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and read it cover to cover.
It’s cheap, small (less than 70 pages.. don’t remember exactly) and full of useful actionable tips.
Didn’t think much of the content but I am impressed he managed to get the julian.com domain and the @julian twitter handle. I would assume that it’s a pretty common name.
What style of icons and graphics are these? They seem hand drawn but I am wondering if stylistically there is a name so I can hunt down something similar or find more inspiration like this.
Just hand-drawn illustrations (or bought, but drawn by someone). Searching for “website illustrations” on Google Images or your favorite stock website will show you bunch of similar illustrations. All the rage today.
This article on writing well seems to be missing basic paragraph structures, which is probably why some find it hard to read.
This reminds me of my first unsuccessful job interview. I came away from it with totally unexpected lessons about writing and life.
I had just moved across the country after leaving my job at a newspaper. The job posting was for a copy editor at an in-house trade magazine at a Texas education nonprofit. They called me in for an interview, likely because I had copy editing experience on my resume.
Nothing unexpected happened. I talked to a few folks and the hiring manager, completed a copy editing exercise meant to test my competence at finding and addressing various spelling/grammar/AP style issues, and made my way back to the hiring manager before the final meeting with a few higher level executives.
The whole day went to shit when I found myself giving an honest answer to an off-hand question posed by the hiring manager. I heard myself talking about my fascination with writers, and especially those who made convincing and beautiful arguments while ignoring seemingly every rule and convention of the grammar and style books I had mastered in journalism school. As the words wound out of my brain through my mouth I knew there was no getting back to the promising path to a full-time copy editing job I had been on for the last few hours.
Based on our conversation thus far I knew this hiring manager was unlikely to be interested in my point of view, or in hiring me, now that the truth was out. A few minutes after we met she told me about how important the copy editor role was, especially since the educators who read the magazine tended to be sticklers when it came to matters of grammar and style. She knew this to be true because her first title at the company was, you guessed it, Copy Editor. It was as if I was running the final stages of a FAANG interview gauntlet, only to find myself loudly extolling the benefits of working for small startups.
She reacted as negatively as you would expect, and we moved on to the final portion of the day with the executives. By now I knew my job search would have to continue. The day wasn’t a total waste, however, because the CEO and founder of the nonprofit asked me the final question of the day.
“Is there anything else you want to know about me or the nonprofit I started before we wrap up?”
I knew there would be no job offer, so I decided to ask about something I was actually interested in knowing. I asked him if he had any regrets in his life, and told him I wanted to know because he was clearly successful and I rarely had the opportunity to ask about the pitfalls of success. He looked at me for a few moments and I wasn’t sure if I had managed to step in another pile of shit. When he finally responded it was to tell me slowly, then quickly, about the neglected relationships in his life, especially those with his children. We talked about the nature of family and friendships for a few minutes and I came away feeling much better about the whole situation.
I didn’t get the job (they gave it to a freshly minted English PhD) but I’ll never forget what I learned that day. Grammar and style don’t really matter, even when you’re interviewing for a job ostensibly concerned with nothing else. People and our connections absolutely do matter, and it’s those relationships by which we should judge our success in life.