Reading Bird by Bird is like having a friend console me about my fears and pains of writing. By showing us the very real and messy process of writing, Ann Lamott tells us that writing is never a linear journey from inspiration to finished work. She talks about all the potholes, detours and breakdowns on the way.
A quick disclaimer, the way I am about to write about this book is like describing a sunset as – ball of fire hidden from view due to a rock’s rotation. Please don’t read this summary, go read the book instead.
Lamott tells us that we don’t know what we’re going to write till we start writing, so the only way to start is by putting something down on paper. Things will emerge as we start writing. It’s ok for the first draft to be a mess, it is supposed to be. Perfectionism only blocks playfulness.
As we make writing a habit, putting in the hard work of working on our drafts, we slowly start fixing, checking, and polishing our work. Small amounts of work done regularly creates the larger work, we just have to take it bird by bird.
Stories too aren’t pre-determined, and come out of the writing process, Lamott says. She asks us to focus on our characters and environments; really understand who and what they are. What the characters do should drive the story, the story should never force them to do something just to move the plot. The environments and places should tell us the characters values, personality and history in ways that the characters themselves can’t. Genuine stories are built by characters and environments, never the other way around.
In the beginning we’ll have to borrow others’ voices to tell our stories. The stories might not be our own either. Lamott says that’s alright. As long as we persevere and practice, we’ll get better at understanding ourselves, understanding what we really want to say, and how we want to say it. Writing is about telling our truth, and our truth can only come out in our own voice.
Scrivener is a writing tool that brings together your notes and research.
- Allows composing text in small chunks that can be reordered later
- Outlining tools for planning and restructuring
- Create collections of documents in the project based on metadata and completion
- A corkboard to see and move around sections of your writing, or to look at your research.
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.
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.
An essay explaining why engineers tend to use the passive voice, and where it should actually be used.
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.