On Writing

Writing is not transcribing. It is creating new ideas and new ways of expressing old ideas. Thus, writing encompasses both, thinking about what to write, and how to write it.

It also holds then that if we don’t write, we don’t create. If we don’t write, some connections will not be made, and some innovations in phrasing will remain unthought. The act of writing, much like the act of talking, causes us to create.

Somewhat frighteningly, how we create remains beyond us. Take a second to think if you are conscious of where the words come from. You are in for an unsettling discovery.

We may not know where the words come from, but we do know how to turn the tap on. Reading, thinking, and talking about something make writing about that thing generally easier. So, read deeply, think hard, and talk extensively about what you want to write about.

Even when you do all this, the first draft is liable to be rife with errors. For it seems, often enough, we can’t quite fully appreciate the stupidity of an argument until we have put it down on paper. And even then, recognizing errors in arguments and style generally requires a ‘fresh pair of eyes,’ ours or someone else’s. So, take time between revisions. And ask others for help.

Here are some resources that I have found useful:

  • Robert’s Rules: Suggestions for Writing by Robert Luskin.
  • QJPS Style Guidelines
  • John Cochrane’s Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students
  • V.S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners via India Uncut:
    1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
    2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
    3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
    4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
    5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
    6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
    7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.