Uncommon Ground

A few thoughts on writing (inspired by Williams & Bizup, Style)

I do not claim to write well, but I have been writing for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been helping students with writing for more than 30. Along the way I’ve figured out a few things that work for me, so I thought I’d pass a few of them along. Keep in mind that I have no training, and I have no credentials suggesting that anything I write is worth reading. If you find something useful here, use it. If you don’t, ignore it. Better yet, if you find something here you think is fundamentally misguided, leave a comment so that others won’t be misled.

Nearly 30 years ago I bought a copy of Wiliams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I’ve referred to it frequently ever since. On Wednesday I bought the Kindle edition of Williams & Bizup, Style: The Basics of Style and Grace. I’m just getting started on it, but I can already recommend it. It’s a shorter version of Lessons, but even in the shorter version there’s a lot here that anyone who writes can use.

The first and most important lesson is not to worry about style or principles of style at all until you’ve written something down. The only bad first draft is the first draft you haven’t written. Before you worry about whether readers can understand you or whether what you’ve written will capture or hold their interest, write something down so that you can start revising it. This lesson took me a very long time to learn. When I was in graduate school I literally had to start writing with the first paragraph of the Introduction and then write every other paragraph in sequence until I was done. I also struggled to make every sentence and paragraph perfect as I was writing them, because that was how I imagined writers wrote. Even though I’d read and heard it before, it wasn’t until some time after I joined the faculty at UConn that I finally understood that 90 percent or more of writing is rewriting. As Williams and Bizup put it,

Most experienced writers get something down as fast as they can. Then as they revise that first draft into something clearer, they understand their ideas better. And when they understand their ideas better, they express them more clearly, and the more clearly they express them, the better they understand them—and so it goes, until they run out of energy, interest, or time.

They also point out that you can exercise your revising chops on other people’s writing. When you’re reading something that seems complicated and confusing, take a good, hard look at it and see if you can find a way to express the ideas more clearly. If you can, you’ll have the satisfaction not only of having worked out the meaning of that complicated thing, but also of knowing that you had the skill to make something understandable when the author couldn’t or wouldn’t do the Sam thing.

Just telling you to revise doesn’t help, of course. You have to know how to revise. The good news is that Williams and Bizup provide a set of principles that anyone can learn and apply. It’s not easy to apply them, and sometimes you won’t have the time to apply them, but keep in mind that

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly. —Ludwig wittgenstein

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