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aY On writing (better)

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 7 February 2011.
Planet PHP

Over the last umpteen years, I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people (and techies in particular) have three main fears:

  • Speaking
  • Writing
  • Picking up the phone

In the past, I have talked about all three activities, but two recent events conspired to make me write this post. The first was an opportunity to co-write an article with my friend and collaborator Lex Friedman. The piece ended being killed for reasons beyond anyone's control, but the process of actually sitting down with someone and writing in the same document at the same time brought into sharp relief the fact that many others who write for a living use an approach to putting thoughts to paper that is very similar to mine.

What pushed me over the edge, however, was the fact my son was assigned a paper on black history, which he has been enthusiastically working on for the last week or so. Being only seven, however, means that writing doesn't yet come natural to him-just like, I've realized, it doesn't come natural to a lot of other people.

Part of the problem is that schools don't seem to teach proper composition1. Curricula are obsessed with the rules of grammar and the history of literature; the former is undoubtedly important and useful (which I'm not so sure could be said about the latter), but is secondary to being able to express your thoughts and ideas properly-which is the real goal of writing.

Writing as a process

Let's start by abandoning the term aowritinga and replace it with the term aocomposing.a The sound of a pen scrawling or of fingers typing is but a relatively small and unimportant part of a much larger process that, in one way or another, takes place in the mind of everyone who writes for a living. Yet, the first thing that so many do when assigned a writing process is to open their word processor or notepad and start composing.

Instead, the first activity that the seasoned writer does once assigned a writing project isa to do something else. I usually entertain myself with something completely unrelated while my brain processes and sorts out information and organizes my thoughts. I know of writers who go have a drinkA(usually by themselves-writing is a very lonely job), take a walk, make phone calls, play with their childrenaAanything but actually sitting down and writing.

You see, before you can write, you need to figure out what you want to write. Many writing courses suggest that anything on paper is better than nothing, but I disagree. Putting words together is a complex process that requires a lot of brainpower-brainpower that cannot otherwise be used to make sure what you want to say makes any sense. It's much better to get things organized first, and this could well be a process that takes the form of you writing down an idea or two, particularly for longer projects-and then worry about the letter side of things.

In general, I find that the complexity of this set-up process is proportional to what you have to write. For an e-mail, it might take a few seconds of thought; a newspiece might require fifteen minutes or so, and an opinion piece-well, let's just say those are hard, which is probably why so many of the ones you find are so bad. For books, the process can go on for days or weeks.

The goal of this initial process is, essentially, to design your story. You need to decide what your conclusion is going to be, and work your way backwards to make sure that everything you want to say fits cohesively together. I don't mind telling you that I have, more than once, started composing a piece convinced that I wanted to make a particular point, only to find out that a logical train of thought led me to a completely different conclusion. Good luck figuring that out while you're trying to find the right words to use, worrying about syntax and orthography, and typing all at the same time.

Telling a story

When you finally do decide that you've thought things through and you know exactly what you want to write and what conclusions you are what they should be, you can start writing. Here, there are two mistakes that I see people make; the first is that they write sentences but do not tell a story.

Every single piece you write is a story, with a beginning, a development, and an end. It doesn't matter whether you are composing an e-mail to your clients or writing the next Great American Novel-you still need to take the reader by the hand and walk with them through every nook and cranny of your story. Your writing needs to be engaging, or you will never move beyond your grade-school reports.

Alas, most people

Truncated by Planet PHP, read more at the original (another 8965 bytes)