Book: On Writing Well

November 27, 2016 Book

I like to peek into people's workflow and tool kit. It can be watching how a person drips a cup of coffee, from grinding the beans to pouring into a pre-heated mug; It can be observing how a chef cooks a dish, from choosing the ingredients to presenting it on the plate; It can also be, exactly what I'm gonna write about - reading a book about how a writer thinks and writes, from mastering basic principles to adjusting the attitudes.

Ever since I turned into 30, I've noticed an emerging needs to pin down who I once was, to ponder on who I really am and where I'm heading, to seek the meanings of life from all sorts of unexpectedness. My two great companions on this quest have been reading and writing. This book is perfect: it kills two birds with one stone. (Not like I got my 2 companions killed.)

I am a writer and I'm not. I am a writer because I write stuff regularly, but before that I love to think about stuff. Whenever I'm not talking - my majority life has been like that - I'm thinking about something inside. Meaningless or not, it doesn't matter. That something keeps me alive, and only through writing I can put those thoughts in a logical order and make sense out of it.

I'm not a writer in terms of professionals who publish some books and make a living with it. But I won't stop day dreaming that one day I might reach more readers not with better stories but with stories that are written better.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. No matter what type of writers you are, this book give you some guidance:

On writing skills (principles and methods)

  • How to choose and tweak words, lead and end
  • How to organize long pieces of information and where to stop
  • How to put your style, your symbols into your writing?
  • Should or should not indulge a humor that you're worried about whether the reader will "get it"
  • How to tweak rhythm and alliteration
  • Why rewrite is so critical
  • ...

On different formats of writings

  • How to write about people, place and yourself (memoir)
  • How to write subjects out of your specialty
  • How to write reviews and critics
  • ...

On attitudes

  • Who are you writing for ultimately?
  • How to fight fear, find confidence and have fun
  • ...

I especially enjoyed the technique of using thesaurus dictionary to choose words, not just to find more precise ones but also to make it sound good. Readers not just read your words, they also hear them. I think that's one of the secret ingredients why good articles read instinctively good - it's fine tuned for our palate.

And I loved the attitudes part the most. Even though the author is targeting non-fiction writers, the fundamental about writing or perfection can be applied to any fields that requires hard work and craftsmanship.

He also showed me writing well is not about talents but constant efforts:

"What do you do on days when it isn't going well?"

The professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. Writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspirations is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

"What if you're feeling depressed or unhappy? Won't that affect your writing?"

If you job is to write ever day, you have to learn to do it like any other job.

"Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is. What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field." As a person who has never lived in any English-speaking countries, learned it as 3rd language and only holds limited vocabularies in hands (can't blame anyone for this), I'm never confident enough to write with it. But language is a beautiful thing - with simple words and sentences I can still be myself and further find some missing fragments of myself within it, which can't be found in my native language.

I'm gonna continue this journey with 4 core lessons learned from the book: clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity. Now I've doubled my dual weapons, I hope and I can go out hunt for 2 birds, or 3.


Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao

Qihuan Piao(aka kinopyo) is Chinese based in Tokyo, Japan. Fulltime fullstack software writer using Rails. He shares coding tips, personal failures and random success in this blog. His infamous line - "I feel calm when I kill those monsters, or people (in game)" shocks his friends deeply.