How to Write Well – The Quintessential Guide
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” ― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most prolific American novelists of the last century. His writing was unconventional and trippy. A dense mixture of authenticity, panache, and attentiveness. Something that could transcend the limits of regular writing as we understand it.
Kurt Vonnegut was no ordinary man. His passages were oozing emotion and every word was trying to communicate something more than just its mere meaning.
He wanted to inspire, to stimulate attention, to help the reader feel.
Take this simple, yet profound, dialogue between two figures in his most popular bestseller “Slaughterhouse-Five”:
“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”
Or this passage where he implicitly tries to criticize the American dream:
“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.”
He is unflinchingly and unrelentingly attempting to question the status quo and provoke thinking.
It is this lack of ordinariness that made him the writer that was and is still admired by many. It is this lack of ordinariness that can make any writer stand out.
As you can see from the introductory quote, though, that is not an easy task.
Kurt Vonnegut, despite his extraordinary writing skills, every time he had to face the challenge of writing, he felt powerless.
This is an angst-provoking sentiment, but also a humbling one.
When you understand the level of complexity that the writing process entails, you prepare yourself for a true odyssey.
The journey from mere incompetence associated with your starting to put words on paper to the feeling of serene elation that your wrapping up of your essay elicits is practically cathartic. It is a process that allows you to face all your creative demons and articulate thought in a way so powerful that makes other creative processes seem inadequate.
That’s what Kurt Vonnegut was trying to communicate with his maxim and that’s why his words strike a chord with every person trying to embark on a meaningful writing journey.
My personal journey has been no different.
For three years now, I have been trying to create stories, essays, courses, and even poems. Sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. I have written articles that were embraced by thousands of people, but I have also experienced instances where my words yielded nothing but crickets.
And I have enjoyed tremendously every single moment.
Writing, for me, isn’t just a creative process. It is a process that allows me to make sense of the world around me. I read, I write, I create, I discover, and this holistic mode of being reinforces my sense of purpose. Life becomes different when you do that. It becomes more colorful. It becomes more vivid.
Many of you have noticed that and it inspired you to embark on a similar journey.
Hence, this article constitutes an attempt from my side to help you catch a glimpse of my word.
In the following paragraphs, you will find some ideas and practical pieces of advice on, not only how to start writing, but also on how to write well.
Because writing, in itself, is a difficult process. Writing well is, self-evidently, even more difficult, but it is the process that can re-engineer one’s reality in marvelous ways.
HOW TO WRITE WELL
Monitoring your work
It was almost four years ago when I decided to start working on my first blog post. I remember that moment quite vividly. It took me almost two hours to finish writing 200 words. To put that in perspective, today, whenever I manage to reach flow state, I can write around 1000 words within 30 minutes.
This article is not available on the blog anymore because it is not relevant to the topics I cover now. But here is a small paragraph from one of my early articles titled “Beyond Resilience – The Rise of the Antifragile” to help you get a taste of what my writing style looked like:
Efficiency. What a widely misunderstood term. I had to go through a lot of stages and career changes in order to understand what efficiency is and how to be properly efficient in whatever I do. Efficiency is closely related to discipline and focus. It is the process you need to undertake in order to achieve different goals you have. These goals can range from starting your own business or learning guitar, to mastering a specific craft. Now, why is this related to anti-fragility? You can consider efficiency as a proactive measure. Or maybe the first step toward achieving an anti-fragile nature. If you have the notion of efficiency well established in your mind, you will become more familiar with the notion of chaos as well. Nobody started becoming efficient without understanding that chaos is part of the efficiency equation. From my early years as an electrical engineer student when I had to deal with complex mathematical equations, to my latest entrepreneurial days, chaos was the main parameter in the efficiency equation. If I wouldn’t embrace it, I would become lost and confused. I would probably give up and question my own abilities and existence.
This is not a bad paragraph. The writing style is direct and simple. Most of the sentences are well-connected and the thoughts are clearly articulated. But one wouldn’t characterize it as great writing because it is missing some essential ingredients that can bring one’s writing style to a whole new level. Now, take a look at a paragraph from my last article “Dealing With the Absurdity of Reality – 7 Cardinal Life Principles”:
Becoming enamored with the way your brain operates can lead to a marvelous way in the way you manage it but also in the way you evolve it. Although more information grants us access to more knowledge, our ability to analyze this information is predicated upon our ability to understand our cerebral makeup. Think of your brain as an uber-sensitive tool that shapes its form and capacity in accordance with the information it gathers. Nowadays, the information torrent we have to face has increased dramatically and our brain struggles to keep up with this newness. Instances of people who feel confused and don’t know what to do with all this information keep cropping up. You can see that most are lost in their thoughts and find it quite challenging to structure a well-articulated stream of reasoning. The verdict is that we weren’t ready to deal with this predicament. Ergo, the adoption of methodologies relative to the taming of our brain becomes imperative. Instead of going adrift and allowing technology to hijack our brain, leading to a future attention war dystopia, each one of us has the option to obstruct it.
Writing well demands a degree of granularity. That is, it needs to consist of multiple diverse or discrete elements. Beautiful words, great syntax, almost flawless grammar, coherent connection between sentences.
That composition will result in a pleasurable experience not only for the eyes of the reader but also for their soul.
Moreover, as a writer, you always need to have in mind that your words should illuminate purpose. That purpose could be your will to transfer knowledge, or convey a message, or whatever your idiosyncratic interpretation of purpose demands.
At the end of the day, a great writer thinks like a great marketer. He poses questions like: Does my writing make sense? Am I communicating my message to the right audience? Is there any room for improvement?
This is why monitoring your work becomes so critical. Identifying points of friction and areas that are open to improvement allows you to evolve your writing style in unprecedented ways.
Think of writing as any skill that can be learned and improved. True competence emerges when one is capable of becoming aware of one’s control over the skill. Continuous immersion offers a level of understanding of the constituents of the skill that an untrained eye will never be able to see.
You become the writing and the writing becomes you.
The end goal is a symbiotic process that allows both parties to change each other in a potent and, oftentimes, visceral way.
How to monitor your writing: Every now and then revisit things that you wrote three to six months back. Read them slowly and carefully. Understand that you are the best evaluator of your work. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but not too soft either. Think of ways that a certain passage could be written better and edit it according to what you understand well in your present state. This process will help your brain become accustomed to things that you did wrong and allow room for error-correcting in the future.
Reading – understanding – emulating
An important tipping point in my writing career engendered when I realized that I am the conglomeration of my biggest influencers.
The writers that inspire me have had such a strong impact on the way I perceive words and various writing styles that they inevitably shaped the writer that I am today.
It all started with the fundamentals of personal growth. Books like “The 4-hour work week” by Tim Ferriss, “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, “The 7 habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey, “Mastery” by Robert Greene, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.
These books really paved the path to what would later become a more refined version of myself as a writer. The writing of these authors wasn’t that simple, but it wasn’t that complicated either. They constitute the perfect starting point for every person who is new to the self-development game and can help every young writer understand how proper writing is formulated.
Later on, I felt that I could stretch my perceptual limits and dive into the works of people like Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Goleman and Carlos Castaneda, to name but a few.
These people examined more esoteric ideas, thus their writing illuminates a level of intellectual depth very few people in this world have managed to reach. When one invests the time and effort to properly construe these ideas, one incontestably increases the probability of forming similar ones.
Eventually, I started to adopt more abstract thinking patterns and I decided to challenge myself with what I like to call as the pinnacle of higher thought. This is comprised of works produced by the greatest thinkers and philosophers across time and space. People like Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and so many others who devoted their lives in analyzing the human condition and making sense of the world around us. They did so in a way so dense that one can suggest that they transcended the limits of ordinary thought.
When you “befriend” these figures and make them your source of inspiration, you can’t help but understand that there is so much more to writing than mere thought articulation.
Take for instance this powerful passage from Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”:
“It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being OBLIGED to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure. He enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life in itself already brings with it; not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way, becomes isolated, and is torn piecemeal by some minotaur of conscience. Supposing such a one comes to grief, it is so far from the comprehension of men that they neither feel it, nor sympathize with it. And he cannot any longer go back! He cannot even go back again to the sympathy of men!”
There is so much madness in his writing. But there is also so much reason in his madness.
How to read – understand – emulate: When you read, read slowly and deliberately. You will often hear people promulgating that speed reading is important so you can absorb as much information as possible. This is wrong. Speed reading allows you to only scratch the surface of a topic. There is no proper comprehension entailed in this process and it will inevitably lead to frustration. When you read, read to understand. Take your time and absorb what the author wants to communicate. Read analyses of their ideas online and discuss what you read with fellow thinkers. Write down, or copy into a file, passages that you really like and re-read them from time to time so they can stick. You will soon see yourself showcasing knowledge on the things that you read because they will become part of who you are.
When I moved to London in 2011 I started working for a consulting firm in the telecoms sector. Part of the training for the new employees was how to write in plain English. That is, according to Wikipedia, a style of communication that uses easy to understand, plain language with an emphasis on clarity, brevity, and avoidance of overly complex vocabulary.
Needless to say that I considered this the cornerstone of great English up until the point I started writing on my blog. I sincerely thought that plain English is proper English and that every person who deviates from this idea is either ignorant or a poser.
Plain English is great when you interact with people whose native language isn’t English. Obviously, it was introduced as an idea because London is a big metropolis and people need to speak plain English in order to interact with each other effectively. Other than that, it doesn’t serve any actual purpose.
Your language is your main tool for articulating thought. By confining it within the premises of the plain English plane, you are limiting tremendously your potential for more elaborate thought articulation. Life remains in a stagnant state and every opportunity to raise your standards and enter a more diverse set of life experiences becomes limited because you can’t keep up with thought-provoking ideas.
Thankfully, I realized that soon enough and, for over a year now, I have been trying to include more of the so-called “big words” in my articles in order to positively provoke both myself and my readers.
That is not an easy task, but I employed a very effective strategy for achieving that: I read hard books.
Hard books are quite rigorous in the way the narrative is presented and the authors usually use big words in order to attach one more layer of grandiosity to their ideas.
Hard books have usually such a rare and beautiful vocabulary that reading them allows you to reevaluate what you know and what you don’t know.
According to my experience, the most efficacious way of dealing with big words is to keep a file on your computer with words that you like and feel comfortable using.
In my file, you can find words like self-sabotage, plausible deniability, begrudge, palatable, connotes, adroitly, acrimonious, imbue, tirade, whimsical, extirpate, patently, temerity, derision, stultifying, and many more.
This file is an essential companion whenever I decide to start a new essay and some words, just by the way they sound, can spark a new sentence or even paragraph.
Let’s take for example the word extirpate, which means eradicate.
I could easily add in this section of the article something along the lines of, “the use of big words could extirpate any sense of incompetence associated with your lack of a rich vocabulary.”
See how that sentence blends in nicely with the rest of the text and clearly elevates my writing stature in the eyes of the reader.
Sometimes, a beautiful sentence is also the creative boost a writer needs to stay dedicated to their endeavor.
For people who want to kick start their attempt to enrich their vocabulary, I suggest a great book titled “30 days to a more powerful vocabulary.” It was recommended by Sam Harris in one of his podcasts and I really enjoyed reading it.
Furthermore, as a piece of personal advice, due to my Greek descent, I truly enjoy the fact that words with a Greek origin hold a very dear position in the English language.
Words like antithesis, apotheosis, anathema, hyperbole, dichotomy, thesis, symbiosis, ethos, deleterious, and epithet sound so alluring.
To understand the level of big words necessary to achieve a great narrative and not alienate your reader is an exercise in finesse. Be nuanced with your words, but also think before you write.
Create a voice by avoiding clichés and using personal style, anecdotes, and experience
Ultimately, great writing boils down not to what you write, but how you write it.
There is a myriad of topics one can draw inspiration from and there will be many people who will assert that your topic of choice has been covered ad nauseam.
This is irrelevant and these voices shouldn’t be of any concern to you as a writer.
A topic is authentic, regardless of its content, insofar as the writer adds his or her personal touch to it.
Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Camus, Bukowski, they all covered similar topics revolving around a similar theme, that of life as a struggle. No one accused them of being banal or repeating the same intellectual patterns, despite the fact that most were inspired by their predecessors.
The choice of words, the emotion elicited, the level of resonance evoked and the flow created are all constituents that make a work special and unique.
There is only one thing a writer needs to fight and be constantly aware of – clichés.
The battle will clichés will be an omnipresent battle. It is a battle so tiring and difficult that, ultimately, becomes the catalyst that differentiates good writers from great ones.
As a new writer, one can logically wonder how one can identify clichés in their writing.
A typical example would be to avoid repetition and use of conventional wisdom as the basis of your claims.
Many people, due to their constant involvement with standardized and conventional ideas, exhibit a severe lack of innovation in the way they express themselves.
You are, more or less, what your experience and knowledge allow you to be. You can’t expect to rely on pre-warmed food in order to formulate a more advanced level of reasoning.
There is no chance that you will be able to battle clichés that way.
Take a look at this sentence from the popular book “The Secret”:
“There is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer.”
It is a beautiful sentence, that creates an emotional response when you read it, but it is the most common motivational motif ever used. The Internet is inundated with this type of reasoning and, although it has a degree of positivity entrenched to it, it virtually offers zero value to the reader.
In a nutshell, it epitomizes the idea of clichés.
Now take a look at this excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!”:
“Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go around looking for it, and I think it can be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please — a little less love, and a little more common decency’.”
This extraordinary combination of words is sublime. Clichés are nowhere to be found here. They were eradicated simply by the writer’s choice to reject the norm and think unconventionally.
In essence, the battle between a writer and clichés is akin to the battle between idealism and pragmatism.
It is a battle that resembles life itself, for idealism and pragmatism will probably keep fighting each other until the end of time.
There are many more things to be discussed on the topic of “how to write well,” but I decided to limit my scope of examination to four points that I personally consider more crucial than the rest.
In the overall scheme of things, one eventually understands that good writing, in and of itself, is predicated upon the capacity of the individual to evolve it.
This evolution is quite essential and also quite antithetical to all things that limit us that one cannot ignore it for long.
It is a tough process, albeit an extremely beautiful one.
For people who want to immerse in the skill of writing and don’t know where to start, I suggest starting with journaling. Journaling is the best way to express your thoughts and a great way to become accustomed to the mechanics of writing. It is one of the challenges suggested in “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” along with 29 more that can evolve one’s creativity and discipline in unprecedented ways.”
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