Writing about reading about writing

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about writing, and so, just to make this clever sentence, I must do some writing about my reading.

It must’ve been something I saw on television in my childhood that made me think that writing is done when inspiration strikes and words just flow. The image in my head was of an author writing an entire story, in longhand, in one sitting. This has never been the case with me.

Words, for me, have never flowed. They have never even accidentally leaked. Even when I invited them they didn’t come. In my head they all responded yes, but on paper, they didn’t show. I called them up and reminded them of the great time we had last weekend (we didn’t); they made excuses. I promised to make food they like; they pretended to have tummy issues. After a few tries, I thought to myself that they just don’t want to be friends, and left it at that.

But now, after constant advice from Pooja, Rhea, Amber and reading a few books, I am happy to realize that this isn’t the case. Making an outline, writing a rough draft, re-writing, editing, and endlessly repeating, is what writing is about. That, and tricking you into reading about writing about my reading.

On Writing Well

A half read ebook doesn’t clutter your bedside table. Instead, it buries itself under an icon. A 42-by-42px icon, of an obscure app, on a broken phone, which will never be taken for repair.

Fortunately, my copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser escaped this fate. I was reminded that I was reading it while scrolling through old blog posts. I was also reminded that I used to blog about books. These reminders ended my search for an open, sync-able, and cross-platform annotation solution. I have struggled to accept WhisperSync and struggled to implement OpenAnnotations, I just want a simple and easy alternative.

So, for now, I will have a single blog post for a book, with all highlights, and notes, using the Web Annotations markup standards. I didn’t make notes while reading this book so these are my highlights:

Unity is the anchor of good writing. So, first, get your unities straight…unity of pronoun…unity of tense…unity of mood…

I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.

The above quote was in the particular context of gendered pronouns (he/she/they), but I am noting it as general advice.

We are a culture that worships the winning result: the league championship, the high test score. Coaches are paid to win, teachers are valued for getting students into the best colleges. Less glamorous gains made along the way—learning, wisdom, growth, confidence, dealing with failure—aren’t given the same respect because they can’t be given a grade.

All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey.

I ask myself one very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What is the piece about?”)

When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper.

We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process that vague abstractions.

100 emails/day

The amount of email I get has increased since I joined the Wikimedia Foundation a year ago. Along with email, more written communication is expected off me on Phabricator and Gerrit. Looking at the amount of misunderstandings and arguments that happen on these channels I have developed fear and dislike for them. It might be rooted in my own insecurities of being unable to communicate well and so it needs to change.

No more flagging emails and bugs for later. I have finally gotten rid of my backlog, going through my flagged emails I found 3 month old emails that could have used my response. Starting Monday I am going to dedicate 6 hours every week responding to written communication. Rhea pointed out that deferring emails by flagging them for later is the issue. From now on I reply to email when I read it and I don’t read it as often as I do right now.