I’ve done a lot of writing in my life. From the choose-your-own-adventure books I wrote as a kid, to the various blogs which I wrote through university, and my book-length theses I wrote in grad school. Of course, I count the No bullshit guide to math and physics and the No bullshit guide to linear algebra as major writing achievements too. So I figured, I should be a good writer by now, right? Nope!
Last night, I got a major lesson in writing when I had the Preface and Introduction sections of the upcoming LA book reviewed by my mom, who is an English major and a heavy-weight when it comes to writing bullshitlessly. I gave her a 10-page printout of what I believed to be solid writing, but she quickly deconstructed it, finding glaring problems like repetitions, mixed metaphors, and non sequiturs. No doubt many texts out there (certainly web copy) would fall apart on such close reading by an expert, but it showed me how much more there is in front of me to learn. This writing career that I’ve chosen for myself, I’m just a beginner in it…
The main feedback that emerged from the discussion is to practice “main idea”-centered writing, rather than just throwing together sentences. Writing prose is not like writing code. The value is in the paragraph, not the individual sentences. You can have three perfectly good sentences that make beautiful points, but that doesn’t mean stitching them together will result in a meaningful paragraph. The typical failure modes when stitching together sentences are repetition and lack of logical flow. Readers expect the next sentence to either build on the previous, add new information, add nuance, or summarize. The last thing you want is just a repeat of what was previously said. In particular for marketing copy, if you “sold” an idea in one sentence, do you really want to run the risk to mess up the “sale” by repeating the same point a second time?
I’m going to rewrite the Preface and the Intro now, but the feedback got me thinking and analyzing my writing style. I noticed parallels between my writing style and my coding style. Sometimes when writing a function, I build it piecemeal: first I figure out the complicated part in the middle (probably in an interactive shell), then figure out the function signature and what it will return. In the end I stitch together these parts and do some testing to make sure all the parts “work together.” This strategy works for code, but not so much for prose. Like I said, the value is in the paragraph as a whole, not in the individual lines.
Another thing I realized is my pathological attachment to sentences I’ve previously written. The Preface was such a mess because when writing it I tried to “reuse” several sources: the preface from the first book, the marketing copy from gumroad, and various other “pitches” I’ve written over time. I figured, why start from scratch when it would be easier/faster to adapt the existing texts. Wrong. This approach might be good for technical explanations (since coming up with a good explanation is hard), but doesn’t make sense for “soft” sections like prefaces and intros where the coherence of ideas is more important.
Writing is not easy. Lots of things to learn. Practice, practice, practice.