This book was recommended in a slack channel I'm in, along with How to Write Short. The two books together helped her write better copy for a site she was developing. Having recently read Draft No. 4 and How to Write Short, I read this one, too.
The book has two big sections. The first section has a series of short sentences giving writing advice. The second section contains examples of writing, along with a critique of the examples. I enjoyed reading the second section. The first section annoyed me.
A series of short sentences would be fine if each of the lines were actually a complete sentence. Instead, the book is formated with choppy lines that break apart longer sentences.
So, imagine reading a book.
Where each line has a fragment of a sentence.
And you are supposed to know.
That it is actually a single sentence.
One naturally pauses at a period.
Which is not how this book is meant to read.
The pause habit is not breakable.
In a single book.
Yeah, so the first section annoyed me. Despite this annoyance, the advice is good. I was amused at how much of the advice I ignore, especially when it comes to pronouns. I am so bad with my use of pronouns. In particular, I use too many of them.
Anyway, main themes of the book:
1. Use short sentences, you don't need long sentences.
2. Have meaning in each sentence.
3. Trust yourself. Give yourself authority. Write about what interests you.
4. Notice things.
5. Don't use cliches. Question any sentence that appears unconsidered or "naturally."
6. Learn grammar so that you don't annoy the reader with bad grammar that they might not know about but can sense.
7. Writing is hard work, flow is a myth, "naturally" is, too.
8. Don't use an outline. Sure, take notes, use notes, but don't use an outline.
9. Don't talk down to the reader. Trust the reader.
10. Compose and edit at the same time.
I strongly disagree with the "don't use an outline" advise. At the risk of violating the "don't assume what the author meant" advice elsewhere in the book, perhaps Klinkenborg meant don't be a slave to the outline. Organizing a pile of notes into a coherent work is pretty much creating an outline on the fly. Outlines aren't abdicating thinking about one's writing, it's actively thinking about one's writing and creating a giant note about the direction one wants to go. Nothing wrong with that creation.
I'm not sure I recommend the book, despite learning a lot from it. I did remove a lot of pronouns in this review.
The biggest lesson I learned, however, was, "Don't format a prose book in poetry style, it annoys the reader."
Everything in this book is meant to be tested all over again, by you. You decide what works for you. This is perhaps the most important thing I have to say.
Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn’t useful to you and pay attention to what is.
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
It’s hard to pay attention to what your words are actually saying. As opposed to what you mean to say or what you think they’re saying. Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial.
Write these things down—the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.
What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.
The fact that you’ve included a word in the sentence you’re making Says nothing about its necessity.
Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you,
The prose of law, science, business, journalism, and most academic fields.
That means you don’t know how to use one of a writer’s most important tools:
The ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow,
The ability to speak to the reader in silence.
No two sentences are the same unless they’re exactly the same, word for word.
(And, in a lifetime of writing, it’s unlikely you’ll ever write the same sentence twice.)
I laughed at this one.
The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself.
No sentence can afford to be merely transitional.
If you’ve written clearly —
And you know what you’ve said and implied
As surely as you know what you haven’t said —
The reader will never get lost reading your prose
Or have trouble following you without transitions.
In journalism, the equivalent of the topic sentence is the notorious “nut graf,”
A paragraph that tells you the content of the article you’re about to read,
As if you couldn’t proceed without a précis.
I'm delighted to have learned about the nut graf in Draft No. 4.
If you love to read — as surely you must — you love being wherever you find yourself in the book you’re reading,
Happy to be in the presence of every sentence as it passes by,
Not biding your time until the meaning comes along.
They recall the moment, as children, when we came upon the phrase
“And then one day.”
You know exactly how those four words feel.
You know exactly what they do.
I love this. And then one day.
Were you asked to write in order to be heard, to be listened to?
We forget something fundamental as we read:
Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.
We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence.
But we can see the residue of those decisions.
Imagine the reason behind each sentence.
Why is it shaped just this way and not some other way?
Why that choice of words?
Why that phrasing?
Why that rhythm?
What you write—what you send out into the world to be read—
Is the residue of the choices and decisions you make.
Choices and decisions you are responsible for.
Start by learning to recognize what interests you.
Most people have been taught that what they notice doesn’t matter,
So they never learn how to notice,
Not even what interests them.
Or they assume that the world has been completely pre-noticed,
Already sifted and sorted and categorized
By everyone else, by people with real authority.
There’s always an urge among writers
To turn fleeting observations and momentary glimpses
Into metaphors and “material” as quickly as possible,
As if every perception ended in a trope,
As if the writer were a dynamo
Turning the world into words.
Don’t let the word “years” alarm you.
Think of it as months and months and months and months.
This is surprisingly hard to do at first
Because our reading habits are impatient and extractive.
And no matter how hard you look, you’re almost invisible to yourself,
Camouflaged by familiarity.
Try reading your work aloud.
The ear is much smarter than the eye,
If only because it’s also slower
And because the eye can’t see rhythm or hear unwanted repetition.
How well you read aloud reveals how well you understand the syntax of a sentence.
Do you remember, in school, going around the room,
Each student in turn reading a paragraph out loud?
Remember how well some students read and others, how badly?
It was a difference in comprehension,
Not of the sentence’s meaning,
But of its texture, pace, structure, actuality.
Don’t read straight through without stopping.
Read until your ear detects a problem.
How many sentences begin with the subject?
How many begin with an opening phrase before the subject?
Or with a word like “When” or “Since” or “While” or “Because”?
How many begin with “There” or “It”?
What kinds of nouns do you see?
Are you using “with” as a preposition or as a false conjunction, a false relative pronoun?
You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.
But you do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Between active and passive constructions.
The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent.
You need to look up even familiar words every time you have a doubt
And especially when you don’t have a doubt.
That is, very often. That is, every time you write.
You’ve already looked up every word you don’t know.
So why not give up the idea of “flow” and accept the basic truth about writing?
It’s hard work, and it’s been hard work for everyone all along.
The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense,
Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.
It’s always worth asking yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence
And adjusting it until you can.
Just as it’s always useful to ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to say?” The answer to that question is often the sentence you need to write down.
Concentration, attention, excitement, will be part of your working state.
Flow, inspiration—the spontaneous emission of sentences — will not.
That distinction is worth keeping in mind.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
Composing a sentence always involves revision
Unless you write down the words of a sentence exactly as they pop into your head.
And why would you do that?
So, you’ll be revising each sentence as you compose it.
Composing each sentence as you revise it.
What writers fear most is running out of material.
You want to begin the piece, not introduce it, which is the difference between a first sentence already moving at speed and a first sentence that wants to generalize while clearing its throat.
Don’t get trapped by the thought of writing sequentially.
We’re always hastening to be done writing,
But we’re also hastening to get out of the presence of our thoughts.
Everything about thinking makes us nervous.
We don’t believe there’s much of value to be found there.
My thought was, "Who the f--- thinks this?"
The piece you’re writing is simply the one that happens to get written.
How do you decide what works?
What do you do when your sentences seem to waver in quality and value before your eyes?
You read what you’ve written, and it looks good.
You read it again, and it looks bad.
You read it a third time, and now you can’t tell.
You can almost never fix a sentence —
Or find the better sentence within it —
By using only the words it already contains.
If they were the right words already, the sentence probably wouldn’t need fixing.
Accept it: you’ll surely fail again and just as surely succeed.
There’s nothing linear or steady in your growth as a writer.
And yes, you may begin a sentence with “but.”
Use the simple past tense —
Avoiding the layering of several pasts —
And give the reader clear temporal clues when needed.
Our lives are full of endings.
The sun goes down every day.
We ask for the check.
Eventually it comes.
How broad a hint does it take to make a reader who lives on a planet full of endings
Why reproduce the whole scene when only one moment matters?
A reader who’s opened a book to its first page is in a tender predicament,
Whether she’s standing in the aisle of a bookstore or sitting at home.
All the authority belongs to her — the authority to close the book.
And yet she’s willing — yearning — to surrender her authority to the author
And keep reading.
You’ve been told again and again that you have to seduce the reader,
Sell the story in the very first paragraph.
(Nonsense, but it explains a lot of bad writing.)
I laughed at this one, too.
No subject is so good that it can redeem indifferent writing.
But good writing can make almost any subject interesting.
People clamor to tell their stories in words.
This doesn’t make them writers,
Nor does it make their stories matter.
You may be used to denying your perceptions and dismissing your awareness.
You may be caught in a constant state of demurral.
Watch for the chronic language of self-disparagement,
The moments when you say, “My problem is …” Or “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
If you say these kinds of things, you probably say them out of habit, almost unconsciously.
This is a product of your education too, at home and at school.
Pay attention to it.
Recognize how harmful it is.
Its message — subliminal and overt — is that your perceptions are worthless.
Do everything you can to subvert this habit.
Part of the trouble may be this:
You’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough,
Your sentences not clever or original enough.
It’s surprising how often ideas that seem obvious to you
Are in no way apparent to the reader.
And vice versa.
What seems like common sense to you may come as a revelation to the reader.
Some people think that discipline is imposed from without,
Regular hours, strict containment, rigorous exclusion.
Some people think discipline is revealed from within,
Enlightenment, purity, solidity of intent.
Discipline is nothing more than interest and expectation, a looking forward.
It’s never hard to work when you’re interested in what you’re working on.
But what if you hate what you’re working on?
It helps to examine the content of your loathing.
What is it you hate?
The movement of your ideas?
The nature of your prose?
The obligations and prohibitions you still secretly honor?
It’s surprising how often the trouble with a piece of writing
Has nothing to do with the writing itself.
One of the most powerful feelings a writer experiences while working
Is a sense of obligation, of having to make a sentence or a paragraph
This way or that way, being obliged to write that sentence or that paragraph.
It’s a terrible feeling and always a sign of trouble.
Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.
They’ll become your own.
The books that trusted you most may be the ones you love best.
You’re not responsible for your readers’ ignorance,
And they’re not responsible for your erudition.
“Done” isn’t absolute or arbitrary.
Nor is it really about learning your limits as a writer.
It’s a compromise.
“Done enough” sounds too callow to describe the compromise,
So call it “perfection enough,”
As perfect as possible under the circumstances.
The better question now is the more fearful one: “How will I know when to stop revising?”
Let yourself ask the question why.
Why is the author choosing this word, writing that sentence that way?
Don’t expect to find an answer.
Expect to find some possibilities.
This passage has no larger purpose than to exist, to work out, for a moment, the possibilities of some sentences.
Reading these sentences — and my commentary on them — you’ll be tempted to side with the writer, to think, “I know what he means” or “I can see what she’s saying.” But that’s because it feels so normal to try to deduce the meaning of the sentence instead of observing what its words actually say.
We’re so trained to read for meaning — to look through the sentence to what we think is the author’s intention—that in our search for it we’re prepared to disregard the literal significance of the prose itself.
Don’t make time or frequency an attribute of the vehicle. Let the time or frequency indicator stand on its own. Cars flash past us now and then.
He hunched his shoulders, placed one arm on his left leg, and slid into the passenger seat before reaching across his body for his seatbelt.
Can you actually visualize this action? No. Descriptions of physical action require incredible care because we read them with our bodies as well as our brains.
Her clothes were nondescript, a white t-shirt and jean shorts.
And yet the writer can describe them. How about She wore a white T-shirt and jean shorts?