An Novice's Guide to Writing

by Mike Shea on 21 February 2004

We all love our little Moleskine notebooks. We all know that the notebook is worthless if it has no words in it. Many of us want to write, whether it is fiction, a travelog, a journal, poetry, or just notes. Some of us have discovered that writing isn't as easy as we thought. Sometimes the ideas just aren't there. Sometimes we look at our sentences and realize the prose sucks. Most of the time, we simply do not have the time.

I am not a professional writer. I have never been paid for any single sentence outside of my day job. I have little authority to write this article. I do write, however, and I want to constantly improve.

Two books and one essay have made the biggest difference in my writing. Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing, and George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.

Strunk and White - the book is almost always referred to by its authors - includes some of the most useful and simple instruction for writing, whatever the style. Its push for simplicity, technical correctness, and solid form may seem a contradiction to creative writing, but it is not.

Our story is where our creative spirit lies. The words, sentences, and paragraphs we use to create it should be simple and clear. This is what makes Stephen King's books so good. People may throw his work away as simplistic low-class horror. In reality, his stories are rich and powerful and so well communicated that you can rip through a five hundred page book in a weekend and not realize you've done it. Stephen King has learned how to communicate his story with simplicity and power.

There is a lot of great stuff in Strunk and White. Its worth every penny of your seven bucks. Read it, highlight it, carry it along with your Moleskines and your fancy snobby pens.

Keep the following Strunk and White tips handy. Use them whenever you write. Keep them in the little back pocket of your Moleskine.

* Choose a suitable design
* Use the active voice
* Put statements in positive form
* Use definite, specific, concrete language
* Omit needless words
* Place yourself in the background
* Write naturally
* Write with nouns and verbs
* Revise and rewrite
* Do not overwrite
* Avoid qualifiers
* Do not affect a breezy manner
* Use orthodox spelling
* Do not explain too much
* Do not construct awkward adverbs
* Avoid fancy words
* Avoid dialect
* Avoid mixing languages
* Prefer the standard to the offbeat

These are not the only rules of the book. These are the ones that stand out in my mind every time I sit down to write. They make sense for both fiction and non-fiction. While they may seem to break the creative process with oppressive rules, they will make your writing simple, clear, and powerful.

An interesting topic for Moleskinners is the subject of re-writing. The words in our fancy notebooks are most often a first draft. One time I tried to write a story out on a PC first and then copy it by hand into my Moleskine when I was finished. I found the process so painful that I won't try it again. If we hope that our Moleskines and archival quality ink will last hundreds of years, we must accept that those who read it in 2400 AD will be reading our first drafts.

Stephen King is the best popular author currently living. He has written over forty novels and two hundred short stories. In "On Writing" he tells his story and he tells the reader how to write. Of all of the tips in this book the two most powerful and most simple are also the hardest to follow.

* Read four hours a day
* Write four hours a day

Its that easy. Read a lot and write a lot and you will improve. There are a few other good tips in his book but none of them come easy. Like dieting, we all know what we need to do to lose weight, the hard part is doing it.

Few of us think we have the time to read four hours a day but books on CD can help. My two hour a day commute has been much more bearable by listening to unabridged books on CD. It's one way to squeeze in a bit more reading into an already busy day.

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay that not only made the biggest difference in my writing but also in how I perceive the world around me. His article, Politics and the English Language, is the best essay on political writing ever written. His commentary on political and bureaucratic propaganda is as valid today as it was fifty years ago when he wrote this. I cannot watch a Powerpoint presentation the same way again. His rules are simple:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Writing well and improving at it is hard work. Like regular exercise, make reading and writing part of every day. Learn and use the techniques of Strunk and White, George Orwell, and Stephen King and you will become a better writer.

Send comments to mike@mikeshea.net or follow @mshea on Twitter. If you enjoyed this article, please use this link to Amazon.com for your next online purchase.