I am a frustrated writer. Not the kind who needs to work on The Great American Novel (or TGAN)*. If I wanted to write fiction — great or otherwise — there are plenty of models to follow, such as Flannery O’Connor’s habit of three-hours of writing first thing every morning, or advice to be found in places like Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life and Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty response (be forewarned) to a young aspiring writer. No, I want to be able to write essays, blog posts, magazine articles, reports, letters, and speeches that pull people in, make them care about the topic at hand, show a bit of my personality, and only say what needs to be said and nothing more.
If you have similar aspirations, you may not want to take advice about writing from a computer programmer, but let me suggest that Paul Graham — a programmer, writer, and investor who helped co-found Y-Combinator, a new type of startup investment firm — should be the exception.
In a tiny essay entitled Writing, Briefly, Graham lays out his thoughts on the importance of writing.
“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
I agree. “Let’s see how it writes” is my favorite instruction to our management team after we’ve talked through a topic. Writing helps you generate and think through ideas.
So after this opening, Graham proceeds, in one very long sentence, to outline how to write well. Here’s a flavor to whet your appetite:
“As for how to write well, here’s the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut;
. . .
print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”
Do yourself a favor and read the entire Graham essay at the link above. It will take less than two minutes. I suspect you’ll think differently about computer programmers — and writing — once you’re finished.
Have a good week.
More to come…
* The very wise — and recently departed — science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting essay on the topic of The Great American Novel, where she posits that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the book that will tell you the most about what is good and what is bad in America, but in the very next essay she writes that “Who cares?” is the correct answer to the question about what is TGAN. (Since this is a digression, I have placed this in an end note at the bottom of my blog post, per Graham’s advice.)
Image: Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)