How to Use Writing to Sharpen Your Thinking: Advice from Tim Ferriss

With the rise of AI tools like Chat­G­PT, which can gen­er­ate essay after essay near-instan­ta­neous­ly from even the sim­plest prompt, sure­ly the skill of writ­ing will soon go the way of arrow­head-sharp­en­ing. That would be easy to believe, any­way, amid the cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal buzz. But ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Paul Gra­ham, a man as well-placed as any to grasp these devel­op­ments and their prospects, sees things dif­fer­ent­ly. “Peo­ple are switch­ing to using Chat­G­PT to write things for them with almost inde­cent haste,” he wrote in a Twit­ter thread last year. “This is going to have unfor­tu­nate con­se­quences, just as switch­ing to liv­ing in sub­ur­bia and dri­ving every­where did. When you lose the abil­i­ty to write, you also lose some of your abil­i­ty to think.”

Gra­ham is also well-known as an essay­ist, and in recent years the iden­ti­ty of writ­ing and think­ing has become one of his major themes. He opens “Putting Ideas into Words” with the obser­va­tion that “writ­ing about some­thing, even some­thing you know well, usu­al­ly shows you that you did­n’t know it as well as you thought.” And “if writ­ing down your ideas always makes them more pre­cise and more com­plete, then no one who has­n’t writ­ten about a top­ic has ful­ly formed ideas about it.” In the video above, Tim Fer­riss (anoth­er fig­ure, like Gra­ham, well known in the greater Sil­i­con Val­ley uni­verse) offers a few tips on just how to form and improve your own ideas through the process of writ­ing.

“With­out writ­ing, it’s very hard to freeze your think­ing on paper so that you can sharp­en it,” elim­i­nat­ing “words that aren’t well-defined” or “things that don’t need to be said.” The first step to mas­ter­ing the craft is to “write any­thing” reg­u­lar­ly, with­out regard to struc­ture or qual­i­ty, which expos­es “where you are sharp and where you are dull in your think­ing.” From there, you must bear in mind the old saw that “writ­ing is rewrit­ing,” going on to per­form round after round of edits from your own per­spec­tive or dif­fer­ent imag­ined ones. Gra­ham sug­gests mak­ing the effort to read your writ­ing as if you were a com­plete stranger, some­one “who knows noth­ing of what’s in your head, only what you wrote.”

Fer­ris then rec­om­mends ask­ing peo­ple you know to read over your writ­ing. If you don’t have any con­nec­tions to pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, any­one with legal train­ing should be able to bring a keen crit­i­cal eye to the task. Even a non-spe­cial­ist can help by point­ing out the parts they find con­fus­ing. Who­ev­er Fer­ris enlists as a proof­read­er, he employs what he calls the “ten per­cent rule,” request­ing that the read­er of the text indi­cate “the ten per­cent I should keep no mat­ter what.” Even if you have no desire to write pro­fes­sion­al­ly, this prac­tice will keep you in men­tal shape for your cho­sen pur­suit in life, or indeed, for the task of life itself. As Gra­ham tweet­ed last year, “Read­ing won’t be obso­lete till writ­ing is, and writ­ing won’t be obso­lete till think­ing is” — though the aver­age day on social media may con­vince you that the lat­ter has already come to pass.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Craft of Writ­ing Effec­tive­ly: Essen­tial Lessons from the Long­time Direc­tor of UChicago’s Writ­ing Pro­gram

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

10 Writ­ing Tips from Leg­endary Writ­ing Teacher William Zinss­er

Umber­to Eco’s 36 Rules for Writ­ing Well (in Eng­lish or Ital­ian)

Neil Gaiman Talks Dream­i­ly About Foun­tain Pens, Note­books & His Writ­ing Process in His Long Inter­view with Tim Fer­riss

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


The Writing Systems of the World Explained, from the Latin Alphabet to the Abugidas of India

The Kore­an alpha­bet, hangul, is “the most sci­en­tif­ic writ­ing sys­tem.” One often hears that in South Korea, a soci­ety that has tak­en to heart Asia schol­ar Edwin O. Reis­chauer’s descrip­tion of hangul as “per­haps the most sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem of writ­ing in gen­er­al use in any coun­try.” But what­ev­er their sci­en­tif­ic cre­den­tials, all the oth­er writ­ing sys­tems in use (and indeed out of use) have fas­ci­nat­ing qual­i­ties of their own, a range of which are explained in the Use­fulCharts video above on the writ­ing sys­tems of the world — not just the alpha­bets of the world, mind you, but also the abjads, the syl­labaries, the logo-syl­labaries, and the abugi­das.

The sym­bols used in an abjad, like that of Hebrew or Ara­bic (or ancient Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs), rep­re­sent only con­so­nants; as for vow­els, “the read­ers are expect­ed to add them in on their own, based on con­text.” In a syl­labary, like the hira­gana and katakana used in Japan­ese, each char­ac­ter rep­re­sents a syl­la­ble: に for “ni,” ほ for “ho,” ん for “n” (though lin­guists no doubt argue about whether that last should real­ly count as a syl­la­ble).

But most of the Japan­ese writ­ing is adapt­ed from the Chi­nese one, a logo-syl­labary in which “a sin­gle char­ac­ter can stand for a unique syl­la­ble or an entire word or idea,” which results in “thou­sands of char­ac­ters that need to be learned for basic lit­er­a­cy.”

Abugi­das, pri­mar­i­ly used in Indi­an and south­east Asian lan­guages (but also to write Amhar­ic, the lan­guage of Ethiopia), “have unique char­ac­ters both for vow­els and for con­so­nants. How­ev­er, these vow­el let­ters are gen­er­al­ly only used in sit­u­a­tions where a word begins with a vow­el.” Oth­er­wise, a “small change” made to a con­so­nant char­ac­ter indi­cates which vow­el fol­lows. How­ev­er mechan­i­cal­ly or aes­thet­i­cal­ly diverse they may appear, none of these writ­ing sys­tems (all pic­tured on a poster from Use­fulCharts, avail­able for $19.95 USD) are so fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent that they can’t be mas­tered by a non-native with time and effort. Not that they’re all as easy as hangul, which — as its com­mis­sion­er King Sejong the Great put it, in anoth­er quotable quote — a wise man can learn before the morn­ing is over, and a stu­pid man can learn in ten days.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

How to Read Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs: A British Muse­um Cura­tor Explains

The Atlas of Endan­gered Alpha­bets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Pre­serve Writ­ing Sys­tems That May Soon Dis­ap­pear

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


George Bernard Shaw’s Famous Writing Hut, Which Could Be Rotated 360 Degrees to Catch the Sun All Day

Sev­en decades after his death, George Bernard Shaw is remem­bered for his prodi­gious body of work as a play­wright, but also — and at least as much — for his per­son­al eccen­tric­i­ties: the then-unfash­ion­able tee­to­tal­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, the rejec­tion of vac­cines and even the germ the­o­ry of dis­ease, the all-wool wardrobe. Thus, even those casu­al­ly famil­iar with Shaw’s life and work may not be ter­ri­bly sur­prised to learn that he not only had an out­build­ing in which to do his work, but an out­build­ing that could be rotat­ed 360 degrees. “Shaw’s writ­ing refuge was a six-square-meter wood­en sum­mer­house, orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for his wife Char­lotte,” writes Idler’s Alex John­son. “Built on a revolv­ing base that used cas­tors on a cir­cu­lar track,” it was “essen­tial­ly a shed on a lazy Susan.”

The hut became a part of Shaw’s for­mi­da­ble pub­lic image in a peri­od of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry “when there was a grow­ing appre­ci­a­tion of idyl­lic rur­al set­tings — a knock-on effect of which was that peo­ple had gar­den build­ings installed. Shaw made the most of this move­ment, pro­mot­ing him­self as a reclu­sive thinker toil­ing in his rus­tic shel­ter, away from the intru­sions of press and peo­ple alike, while at the same time invit­ing in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines and pos­ing for pho­tos.”

In 1929, “Shaw stood in front of his hut for a pho­to for Mod­ern Mechan­ics & Inven­tions mag­a­zine to pro­mote the idea of sun­light as a heal­ing agent.” Hence the impor­tance of rotat­ing to catch its rays all day long through win­dows made of Vita­glass, “a recent inven­tion that allowed UV rays to come through, let­ting, the mak­ers said, ‘health into the build­ing.’ ”

How­ev­er odd some of Shaw’s views and prac­tices, one can’t help but imag­ine that at least some of them con­tributed to his longevi­ty. The 1946 British Pathé news­reel above pays him a vis­it just a few years before his death at the age of 94, find­ing him still writ­ing (he still had the play Buoy­ant Bil­lions ahead of him, as well as sev­er­al oth­er mis­cel­la­neous works), and what’s more, doing so in his hut: “Like G. B. S. him­self,” says the nar­ra­tor, “it pre­tends to be strict­ly prac­ti­cal, with no non­sense about it.” Yet Shaw seems to have had a sense of humor about his the­o­ret­i­cal­ly hum­ble work­space, nam­ing it after the Eng­lish cap­i­tal so that unwant­ed vis­i­tors to his home in the vil­lage of Ayot St Lawrence could be told, not untruth­ful­ly, that he was in Lon­don. But one nat­u­ral­ly won­ders: when he rang up the main house with his in-hut tele­phone (anoth­er of its high­ly advanced fea­tures), did his house­keep­er say it was Lon­don call­ing?

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

Roald Dahl Gives a Tour of the Small Back­yard Hut Where He Wrote All of His Beloved Children’s Books

The Cork-Lined Bed­room & Writ­ing Room of Mar­cel Proust, the Orig­i­nal Mas­ter of Social Dis­tanc­ing

Clas­sic Mon­ty Python: Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw Engage in a Hilar­i­ous Bat­tle of Wits

Who Wrote at Stand­ing Desks? Kierkegaard, Dick­ens and Ernest Hem­ing­way Too

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

When the Indi­ana Bell Build­ing Was Rotat­ed 90° While Every­one Worked Inside in 1930 (by Kurt Vonnegut’s Archi­tect Dad)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Three Punctuation Rules of Cormac McCarthy (RIP), and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Note: Today nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy (All the Pret­ty Hors­es, The Road and No Coun­try for Old Men) passed away at the age of 89. Below, we’re revis­it­ing a favorite post from our archive that focus­es on punc­tu­a­tion, a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of McCarthy’s writ­ing.

Cor­mac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 review­er of his first nov­el, The Orchard Tree, dubbed him—a “dis­ci­ple of William Faulkn­er.” He makes admirable use of Faulkner­ian traits in his prose, and I’d always assumed he inher­it­ed his punc­tu­a­tion style from Faulkn­er as well. But in his very rare 2008 tele­vised inter­view with Oprah Win­frey, McCarthy cites two oth­er antecedents: James Joyce and for­got­ten nov­el­ist MacKin­lay Kan­tor, whose Ander­son­ville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Joyce’s influ­ence dom­i­nates, and in dis­cus­sion of punc­tu­a­tion, McCarthy stress­es that his min­i­mal­ist approach works in the inter­est of max­i­mum clar­i­ty. Speak­ing of Joyce, he says,

James Joyce is a good mod­el for punc­tu­a­tion. He keeps it to an absolute min­i­mum. There’s no rea­son to blot the page up with weird lit­tle marks. I mean, if you write prop­er­ly you shouldn’t have to punc­tu­ate.

So what “weird lit­tle marks” does McCarthy allow, or not, and why? Below is a brief sum­ma­ry of his stat­ed rules for punc­tu­a­tion:

1. Quo­ta­tion Marks:

McCarthy does­n’t use ’em. In his Oprah inter­view, he says MacKin­lay Kan­tor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stress­es that this way of writ­ing dia­logue requires par­tic­u­lar delib­er­a­tion. Speak­ing of writ­ers who have imi­tat­ed him, he says, “You real­ly have to be aware that there are no quo­ta­tion marks, and write in such a way as to guide peo­ple as to who’s speak­ing.” Oth­er­wise, con­fu­sion reigns.

2. Colons and semi­colons:

Care­ful McCarthy read­er Oprah says she “saw a colon once” in McCarthy’s prose, but she nev­er encoun­tered a semi­colon. McCarthy con­firms: “No semi­colons.”

Of the colon, he says: “You can use a colon, if you’re get­ting ready to give a list of some­thing that fol­lows from what you just said. Like, these are the rea­sons.” This is a spe­cif­ic occa­sion that does not present itself often. The colon, one might say, gen­u­flects to a very spe­cif­ic log­i­cal devel­op­ment, enu­mer­a­tion. McCarthy deems most oth­er punc­tu­a­tion uses need­less.

3. All oth­er punc­tu­a­tion:

Aside from his restric­tive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his styl­is­tic con­vic­tions with sim­plic­i­ty: “I believe in peri­ods, in cap­i­tals, in the occa­sion­al com­ma, and that’s it.” It’s a dis­ci­pline he learned first in a col­lege Eng­lish class, where he worked to sim­pli­fy 18th cen­tu­ry essays for a text­book the pro­fes­sor was edit­ing. Ear­ly mod­ern Eng­lish is noto­ri­ous­ly clut­tered with con­found­ing punc­tu­a­tion, which did not become stan­dard­ized until com­par­a­tive­ly recent­ly.

McCarthy, enam­ored of the prose style of the Neo­clas­si­cal Eng­lish writ­ers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semi­colons, remem­bers par­ing down an essay “by Swift or some­thing” and hear­ing his pro­fes­sor say, “this is very good, this is exact­ly what’s need­ed.” Encour­aged, he con­tin­ued to sim­pli­fy, work­ing, he says to Oprah, “to make it eas­i­er, not to make it hard­er” to deci­pher his prose. For those who find McCarthy some­times mad­den­ing­ly opaque, this state­ment of intent may not help clar­i­fy things much. But lovers of his work may find renewed appre­ci­a­tion for his stream­lined syn­tax.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Wern­er Her­zog Reads From Cor­mac McCarthy’s All the Pret­ty Hors­es

Cor­mac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Work­ing: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Lim­it Your Cre­ative Poten­tial

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Behold the Microscopically Tiny Handwriting of Novelist Robert Walser, Which Took Four Decades to Decipher

Robert Walser’s last nov­el, Der Räu­ber or The Rob­ber, came out in 1972. Walser him­self had died fif­teen years ear­li­er, hav­ing spent near­ly three sol­id decades in a sana­to­ri­um. He’d been a fair­ly suc­cess­ful fig­ure in the Berlin lit­er­ary scene of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, but dur­ing his long  insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in his home­land of Switzer­land — from which he refused to return to nor­mal life, despite his out­ward appear­ance of men­tal health — he claimed to have put let­ters behind him. As J. M. Coet­zee writes in the New York Review of Books, “Walser’s so-called mad­ness, his lone­ly death, and the posthu­mous­ly dis­cov­ered cache of his secret writ­ings were the pil­lars on which a leg­end of Walser as a scan­dalous­ly neglect­ed genius was erect­ed.”

This cache con­sist­ed of “some five hun­dred sheets of paper cov­ered in a micro­scop­ic pen­cil script so dif­fi­cult to read that his execu­tor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is sim­ply hand­writ­ing with so many idio­syn­crat­ic abbre­vi­a­tions that, even for edi­tors famil­iar with it, unam­bigu­ous deci­pher­ment is not always pos­si­ble.”

He devised this extreme short­hand as a kind of cure for writer’s block: “In a 1927 let­ter to a Swiss edi­tor, Walser claimed that his writ­ing was over­come with ‘a swoon, a cramp, a stu­por’ that was both ‘phys­i­cal and men­tal’ and brought on by the use of a pen,” writes the New York­er’s Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopt­ing his strange ‘pen­cil method’ enabled him to ‘play,’ to ‘scrib­ble, fid­dle about.’ ”

“Like an artist with a stick of char­coal between his fin­gers,” Coet­zee writes, “Walser need­ed to get a steady, rhyth­mic hand move­ment going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which rever­ie, com­po­si­tion, and the flow of the writ­ing tool became much the same thing.” This process facil­i­tat­ed the trans­fer of Walser’s thoughts straight to the page, with the result that his late works read — and have been belat­ed­ly rec­og­nized as read­ing — like no oth­er lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in his time. As Brett Bak­er at Painter’s table sees it,” Walser’s com­pressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) con­structs full nar­ra­tives than can be con­sumed rapid­ly – near­ly ‘at a glance,’ as it were. Their short length allows the read­er to revis­it the work in detail, focus­ing on sen­tences, phras­es, or words as one might exam­ine the paint­ed pas­sages or marks on a can­vas.”

These ultra-com­pressed works from the Bleis­tift­ge­bi­et, or “pen­cil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “estab­lish Walser as a mod­ernist of sorts: the recy­cling of mate­ri­als can make the texts look like col­lages, mod­ernist mashups toe­ing the line between mechan­i­cal and per­son­al pro­duc­tion.” But they also make him look like the fore­run­ner of anoth­er, lat­er vari­ety of exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture: in a longer New York­er piece on Walser, Ben­jamin Kunkel pro­pos­es 1972 as a cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate year to pub­lish The Rob­ber, “a fit­ting date for a beau­ti­ful, unsum­ma­riz­able work every bit as self-reflex­ive as any­thing pro­duced by the metafic­tion­ists of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.” The pub­li­ca­tion of his “micro­scripts,” in Ger­man as well as in trans­la­tion, has ensured him an influ­ence on writ­ers of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry — and not just their choice of font size.

For any­one inter­est­ed in see­ing a pub­lished ver­sion of Walser’s writ­ing, see the book Micro­scripts, which fea­tures full-col­or illus­tra­tions by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

Font Based on Sig­mund Freud’s Hand­writ­ing Com­ing Cour­tesy of Suc­cess­ful Kick­starter Cam­paign

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Martin Amis (RIP) Explains Why American Populism Is a Con

In the lat­er decades of his 50-year-long career as a nov­el­ist, the late Mar­tin Amis had a rep­u­ta­tion as some­thing of a con­tro­ver­sial­ist. This made more sense in his native Eng­land than in the Amer­i­ca to which he lat­er relo­cat­ed, and whose large­ly non-lit­er­ary provo­ca­teurs tend to an aggres­sive plain­spo­ken­ness bor­der­ing on — and more recent­ly, dri­ving well into the ter­ri­to­ry of — vul­gar­i­ty. “Intel­lec­tu­al snob­bery has been much neglect­ed,” says Amis in the Big Think inter­view clip above. His plea is for “more care about how peo­ple express them­selves and more rev­er­ence, not for peo­ple of high social stand­ing, but for peo­ple of decent edu­ca­tion and train­ing.”

This against pop­ulism, which “relies on a sen­ti­men­tal and very old-fash­ioned view that the une­d­u­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion knows bet­ter, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, which is self-destruc­tive for every­one”: the lion­iza­tion, in oth­er words, of the kind of fig­ure giv­en to dec­la­ra­tions like “I go with my gut.”

In every oth­er land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in Amer­i­ca it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the vis­cera-trust­ing rab­ble-rousers actu­al­ly worked to fur­ther the inter­ests of the com­mon man, but in every real-world sce­nario it turns out to be quite anoth­er. “It’s an act, pop­ulism. It’s always an act.”

An admir­er of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, Amis acknowl­edged the right to free speech as a vital ele­ment of that sys­tem. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminu­tion of free­dom of speech dimin­ish­es every­one, and lessens the cur­ren­cy of free­dom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The con­tro­ver­sial state­ment has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes him­self as “a fan of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” — of not “the out­er fringe P.C., but rais­ing the stan­dards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own chal­lenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restric­tions demand, and reward, more skill­ful sub­tle­ty, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will sure­ly be a while before we see anoth­er writer quite as adept as Mar­tin Amis.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Mar­tin Amis Explains His Method for Writ­ing Great Sen­tences

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Mar­tin Amis Explains How to Use a The­saurus to Actu­al­ly Improve Your Writ­ing

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­tin Amis, No Strangers to Con­tro­ver­sy, Talk in 1991

P. J. O’Rourke (RIP) Explains Why You Can Nev­er Win Over Your Polit­i­cal Adver­saries by Mock­ing Them

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers

Image by the USO, via Flickr Com­mons

In one of my favorite Stephen King inter­views, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital impor­tance of a good open­ing line. “There are all sorts of the­o­ries,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An open­ing line should invite the read­er to begin the sto­ry. It should say: Lis­ten. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s dis­cus­sion of open­ing lines is com­pelling because of his dual focus as an avid read­er and a prodi­gious writer of fiction—he doesn’t lose sight of either per­spec­tive:

We’ve talked so much about the read­er, but you can’t for­get that the open­ing line is impor­tant to the writer, too. To the per­son who’s actu­al­ly boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a door­way that fits us both.

This is excel­lent advice. As you ori­ent your read­er, so you ori­ent your­self, point­ing your work in the direc­tion it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the open­ing line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That per­fect­ly craft­ed and invit­ing open­ing sen­tence is some­thing that emerges in revi­sion, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work hap­pens.

Revi­sion in the sec­ond draft, “one of them, any­way,” may “neces­si­tate some big changes” says King in his 2000 mem­oir slash writ­ing guide On Writ­ing. And yet, it is an essen­tial process, and one that “hard­ly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twen­ty rules from On Writ­ing. About half of these relate direct­ly to revi­sion. The oth­er half cov­er the intangibles—attitude, dis­ci­pline, work habits. A num­ber of these sug­ges­tions reli­ably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of tri­al and error and—writes the Barnes & Noble book blog—“over 350 mil­lion copies” sold, “like them or loathe them.”

1. First write for your­self, and then wor­ry about the audi­ence. “When you write a sto­ry, you’re telling your­self the sto­ry. When you rewrite, your main job is tak­ing out all the things that are not the sto­ry.”

2. Don’t use pas­sive voice. “Timid writ­ers like pas­sive verbs for the same rea­son that timid lovers like pas­sive part­ners. The pas­sive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

4. Avoid adverbs, espe­cial­ly after “he said” and “she said.”

5. But don’t obsess over per­fect gram­mar. “The object of fic­tion isn’t gram­mat­i­cal cor­rect­ness but to make the read­er wel­come and then tell a sto­ry.”

6. The mag­ic is in you. “I’m con­vinced that fear is at the root of most bad writ­ing.”

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t wor­ry about mak­ing oth­er peo­ple hap­py. “If you intend to write as truth­ful­ly as you can, your days as a mem­ber of polite soci­ety are num­bered, any­way.”

9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while work­ing out or any­where else—really is about the last thing an aspir­ing writer needs.”

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a sea­son.”

11. There are two secrets to suc­cess. “I stayed phys­i­cal­ly healthy, and I stayed mar­ried.”

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a sin­gle page or an epic tril­o­gy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accom­plished one word at a time.”

13. Elim­i­nate dis­trac­tion. “There should be no tele­phone in your writ­ing room, cer­tain­ly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One can­not imi­tate a writer’s approach to a par­tic­u­lar genre, no mat­ter how sim­ple what that writer is doing may seem.”

15. Dig. “Sto­ries are relics, part of an undis­cov­ered pre-exist­ing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her tool­box to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as pos­si­ble.”

16. Take a break. “You’ll find read­ing your book over after a six-week lay­off to be a strange, often exhil­a­rat­ing expe­ri­ence.”

17. Leave out the bor­ing parts and kill your dar­lings. “(kill your dar­lings, kill your dar­lings, even when it breaks your ego­cen­tric lit­tle scribbler’s heart, kill your dar­lings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t over­shad­ow the sto­ry. “Remem­ber that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the back­ground and the back sto­ry as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer sim­ply by read­ing and writ­ing. “You learn best by read­ing a lot and writ­ing a lot, and the most valu­able lessons of all are the ones you teach your­self.”

20. Writ­ing is about get­ting hap­py. “Writ­ing isn’t about mak­ing mon­ey, get­ting famous, get­ting dates, get­ting laid or mak­ing friends. Writ­ing is mag­ic, as much as the water of life as any oth­er cre­ative art. The water is free. So drink.”

See a fuller expo­si­tion of King’s writ­ing wis­dom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 69 Pages of Writ­ing Advice Denis John­son Col­lect­ed from Flan­nery O’Connor, Jack Ker­ouac, Stephen King, Hunter Thomp­son, Wern­er Her­zog & Many Oth­ers

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Stephen King’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Museum of Wonky English, a Japanese Exhibition Dedicated to Hilarious Mistranslations

I got hooked on Duolin­go a few years ago. Since then, I’ve used it dai­ly to prac­tice lan­guages like French, Span­ish, Finnish, Chi­nese, and Japan­ese. But none of those cours­es is quite as pop­u­lar with as many users as the one for Eng­lish, which is wide­ly spo­ken around the world — and, inevitably, almost as wide­ly mis­spo­ken around the world. Even non-Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries tend to put up some Eng­lish-lan­guage sig­nage, sparse and strange though it can often be: a hand­writ­ten gro­cer’s sign warn­ing cus­tomers not to “fin­ger the peach­es”; a notice mount­ed just above a uri­nal that urges vis­i­tors to “please uri­nate with pre­ci­sion and ele­gance.”

These exam­ples come, unsur­pris­ing­ly, from Japan, whose awk­ward but vivid­ly mem­o­rable writ­ten Eng­lish has long cir­cu­lat­ed in West­ern media. That made Tokyo the ide­al loca­tion for the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish, a pop-up col­lab­o­ra­tion between Duolin­go Japan and cre­ative agency Ultra­Su­perNew that, as the lat­ter’s site describes it, exhibits “six­teen of the best exam­ples of wonky Eng­lish found all over Japan.”

When “vis­i­tors look at the signs, menus, clothes, and oth­er objects exhib­it­ed in the muse­um — objects that can make them chuck­le, gasp, think, and reflect — they will notice there’s more depth to wonky Eng­lish than they ini­tial­ly thought and become more embold­ened to learn a for­eign lan­guage.”

You can still see some of the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish’s prized lin­guis­tic arti­facts in the pro­mo­tion­al video above (which pro­vides the orig­i­nal Japan­ese phras­es from which these odd trans­la­tions sprang), as well as in the pic­tures accom­pa­ny­ing this Japan­ese-lan­guage arti­cle. “Please do not eat chil­dren and elder­ly.” “When cof­fee is gone. It’s over.” “Crap your hands.”

Though uni­d­iomat­ic at best, these phras­es and oth­ers exert a kind of pow­er over the imag­i­na­tion. When close­ly scru­ti­nized, they also illu­mi­nate the mechan­ics of the under­ly­ing Japan­ese lan­guage and its dif­fer­ences with Eng­lish. And though the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish was open for only a week, a run that end­ed last week, I can assure you — liv­ing, as I do, in Korea — that wonky Eng­lish itself remains in rude health.

via Spoon and Tam­a­go

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

“Weird Al” Yankovic Releas­es “Word Crimes,” a Gram­mar Nerd Par­o­dy of “Blurred Lines”

Steven Pinker Iden­ti­fies 10 Break­able Gram­mat­i­cal Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dan­gling Mod­i­fiers & More

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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