The Write Stuff Too, Or As Nathaniel Hawthorne Said, Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

November 6, 2010

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
• Gene Fowler

I’ve just finished more than ten hours of reading over the last few days and I’ve been keeping track of some hints for writers based on things I’ve been seeing over and over in papers.

The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.
• Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare (1827), Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers

Edit. Edit. Edit. This is hard work and requires you to read what you’ve written with a critical and thoughtful eye. I read many essays that are compilations of ideas from several essays that are stewing in the writer’s mind. It is not the editor or reader’s job to tell you what to include. It’s your job to determine a direction so that the editor/reader will be able to help instead of becoming lost in a forest of words.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
• Elmore Leonard

Lengthy, repetitive paragraphs that include the same information said in several ways generally need sentence-combining and serious deletions. And lengthy paragraphs need to be broken up. Any time there’s a paragraph of a page or more, it’s probably too long.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
• Truman Capote, McCall’s, November 1967

Read what you’ve written out loud to someone else. You’ll likely catch awkward sentences this way. When someone says that your writing is “awkward,” it generally means that something is poorly worded and stops the reader who has to try and figure out what it means or who is struck by something that just doesn’t sound right.

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.
• Enrique Jardiel Poncela

Please, I beg of you, do not rely on the thesaurus provided in your word processing program’s “toolbox.” It doesn’t necessarily provide you with the correct word when you’re seeking a substitute. When you look up the definition of a word online, be sure to read all the meanings to be certain that you aren’t accidentally saying something you don’t really mean. This is a particular problem with words that may have negative connotations.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.
• Baltasar Gracián

Sometimes the writing I read, particularly when it’s related to personal beliefs, is platitudinous, filled with worthy aspirations and high-minded concepts, but devoid of personality because no personal connections are made with the content. Simply using first person does not assure that your words will connect the writer with your meaning. You must use stories, anecdotes, and other concrete examples that bring your beliefs to life and that make for interesting reading. Is your writing compelling, enthralling, infused with your experiences, and written in a way that only you could write it? Or could your work have been written by anyone?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
• Anton Chekhov

Read what you’ve written after letting it sit overnight, or at least for several hours. Sometimes what’s on the page seems to be the opposite of what you mean. Getting distance from your work is useful.

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.
• Henry Brooks Adams (1907), The Education of Henry Adams

Most unique. Peak pinnacle. Canine dog. Beware redundancy. Beware the use of clichés as well.

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
• James Michener

Regardless of how creative you’d like to be, when you’re writing something that will be read quickly by someone (an application letter or essay, for example), your writing should have a clear organizational structure that allows the reader to readily understand the point(s) you are making. This includes having a clear introduction with some kind of statement of purpose, an organized body, and a definite conclusion that returns in some way to the introduction, reminding the reader of your purpose.

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.
• Sholem Asch

There’s almost never a time when an exclamation point is really needed in formal writing. When you’re tempted to use one, think about it and unless you can truly justify its use, remove it.

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald

Then/than, choose/chose, loose/lose, and other personal challenges need to be identified and given special attention each time you write.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
• Mark Twain (Zinn’s corollary: And lightening is yet another thing!)

Write out the word and; don’t substitute the ampersand (&). This goes for words like 4th and 5th as well. Use fourth and fifth. I won’t list all the substitutions that reflect the drift of textspeak into writing, but each of them is inappropriate for formal writing.

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.
• Mark Twain

Reading what other people have written and trying to help them improve their work is time-consuming. Few people who do so want to annoy the writers they’re hoping to assist. Still, this sometimes happens since many papers are hard-birthed and no one wants to be told that their baby is ugly in any way. Be grateful for feedback and realize that in the end, you can do as you wish with it (unless, of course, there’s a scoring guide or some other kind of guidelines you have to meet).

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.
• Isaac Bashevis Singer

See “The Write Stuff “ (Zinnfull, October 25, 2009) for additional hints, including the correct use of myself, agreement issues, and the need for interesting titles.

What’s the first step you could take to improve your writing?

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
• William Wordsworth

Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.
• Theodore Dreiser, 1900



  1. As a student of some of the papers you had to read this weekend I suddenly fear which of the above quotes are going to apply to me. (I had to resist adding an exclamation point to this sentence but no way I am going to go against advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

    After thinking about the question posed at the end of your blog I have come up with two big steps I could take to improve my writing.

    1. Have my wife read everthing I write. She keeps me straight on so many things in my life there is no reason not to have her help me with my writing.

    2. Do not compose my writing on a word processor. I don’t think I proof my own writing as well as when I used to write it out on a legal pad first and then type it up.

  2. Hi, Jay,

    Do not fear! All essays received full “participation/in progress credit” since part of the purpose of this assignment is to get started early on the process of crafting something that really represents each person well in the job hunt process.

    I think you first steps are really terrific. Your wife also knows you well, so her insights into your writing are likely to be invaluable.

    Re: writing things out first. Interestingly, brain imaging is showing that different parts of the brain are activated when a person writes by hand. I almost always write things out by hand before I word process and I do find that it helps me.

    Again, do not fear! Just keep writing!!


  3. ARGH! I think “your” first steps. . .W-OZ

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