First Principles Writing

It’s late at night. The words on the screen swirl before your heavy eyes. With each pass, what you wrote sounds worse and worse. A clumsy passage or sentence takes on the appearance of a Gordian Knot. What should be simple and clear is a tangled mess. It doesn’t convey your meaning at all.

Suddenly, you’re overcome with crippling self-doubt, asking: “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I get this right?”

This is a shared experience among writers. Writing is hard, even for those who do it for a living.

I suffered through a similar situation recently. Instead of banging my head against the desk, I decided to just step away. I took a walk. I tried meditating. I drank some wine. I pet my dog and asked her what she would say. When I returned to my work, I still had nothing. That is until I started to leaf through an old, worn, underlined book that is always near my desk.

As with the Gordian Knot of ancient myth, there are simple solutions to overcome seemingly intractable weaknesses in a piece of writing. The problem isn’t you as a writer, but rather in how you look at the mechanics of the problem. Simple solutions are found by breaking down everything into basic parts.

It is the writer’s form of first principles thinking, which is essentially a way of thinking in reverse, deconstructing a problem into its basic elements. Lately, the mental strategy has been popularized by Elon Musk. As the story goes, having found it too costly to buy a pre-made rocket, he studied a rocket’s individual parts, bought the raw materials and made one himself. With that, SpaceX was born.

We are awash with list after list of writing hacks, usually written by hacks. The reality is none of those will magically make writing easier or your writing more successful. I do not want to add another bucket of water to the flood.

Instead, I want to explore some first principles in writing. I don’t think there is a better resource than The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This is the book I picked up that one late night.

Published in 1935, it was updated numerous times, primarily with additional advice from White, of Charlotte’s Web fame. The book generally covers the correct, or acceptable, uses of English. Beyond that though, there is a wealth of advice on style and what makes for effective writing. These are the suggestions that allowed me to see my problem from a more simplified angle. They are more instructive than the impoverished “don’t write shit” tips permeating writing today and certainly more time tested.

Of course, writing has since changed. After all, “language is perpetually in flux.” And technology has influenced how we write and read. But first principles still apply. No matter if you’re writing a novel, personal memoirs, a blog, content marketing or social media posts.

After rereading The Elements of Style, these are the basic principles I think are most helpful for today’s writers.

Choose a suitable design and hold to it

A blank page is a scary sight. Other than prose and poetry, every writer should follow an established form. It is easier to get started and organize your thoughts, as well as determine how detailed you want to write about your subject.

Form can the shape of a certain structure – something as simple as the five-paragraph essay or more creative, like the ingredients of a happy retirement in recipe form. Form can come from a set of creative restrictions, such as a word limit or particular point of view.

Of course, never let shape smother substance. When the mood strikes, let the words flow.

“The first principle of composition is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape… The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success.”

Put statements in positive form

Hemingway is famous for saying: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

From a technical standpoint, that means writing definitive sentences. A reader should never have to wade through rivers of doubt.

Example from the book:

Okay: He was not very often on time.

Better: He usually came late.

In finance, this principle is violated all the time. It is, however, generally a result of strict regulatory review. But there’s always room for improvement.

Okay: Market timing is not very often a sensible investment strategy.

Better: Market timing is usually a waste of time.

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language… Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is.”

Use definite, specific, concrete language

This was true in mid-20th century, and it is even more true today. The fact is, I’ve already lost most readers at this point. The average reader spends 15 seconds on a blog. Write clearly and concisely to keep the reader moving forward.

If your essay is a house, build one long hallway, not a labyrinth.

“The surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.”

Place yourself in the background

The best advice is often counterintuitive. It is a good indicator of value. When I hear something that sounds counterintuitive, I know I need to pay more attention.

In business, one would think the desires of your customers are crucial to the future of your company. But you’d be wrong. Henry Ford knew better: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

For writers, the urge is to bedazzle readers with style, to show off. How else do you stand out? In truth, the harder you try, the harder you fail.

“…to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become more proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Write in a way that comes naturally

Good writing is an act of restraining one’s ego. Let go of any notion you’re great, or any desire to be the best. Forget about originality. Read voraciously those you think are great, and then write, write, write without care of your own voice. Naturally, it will all come together.

“Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.”

Revise and rewrite

Revising is writing.

Now that publishing is just a click of a button, it is easy to skip this step. Quantity is valued more than quality. I would argue a writer’s chance of success improves with the latter. Many pieces of moderate quality are not as memorable as one piece of high quality. Even if you write a daily blog, give yourself 12-18 hours to step away and then revise.

And do not pressure yourself with writing flawlessly on your first attempt. Lord of the Flies, Portrait of an Artist of a Young Man, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – these are just a few masterpieces that are entirely different from their first drafts.

“It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery.”

Do not overwrite

On a computer, words cost nothing. It is easy to get carried away, seduced by the pleasure of clicking keys. You end up with unnecessary words or whole passages. Every sentence is primped like a bride until the reader chokes on the perfume.

Again, keep it simple.

One way to avoid overwriting is to write by hand. It causes you to slow down and really think about to say next.

“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Lastly, we live in a time when writing is judged by SEO and page views. The trend is to write to readers’ wants. This makes sense in content marketing and business writing.

But it isn’t the only way. Personally, I think you should sincerely for yourself. In other words, don’t let how someone looks up information in a search engine to wholly dictate how you write. It may be slower to drawing attention to your work, but it will eventually create a more loyal audience and fell as the more rewarding.

Take it from E.B. White:

“You must sympathize with the reader’s plight but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffer the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead…”


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