The ability to communicate clearly in writing is an essential modern skill. (There’s little doubt that life in our wired and online world has made writers of us all.) But larger writing projects—from important emails and newsletters to blog posts and novels—can prove a daunting challenge for even the most word-savvy among us. We looked to eleven famous writers and editors for advice on how to write better this year.
First, just write
All writing begins with simply getting the words down. Flawless first drafts are a myth. In fact, they’re called first drafts for a reason—there are always more to follow before you arrive at a polished final version. You’re not being fair to yourself if you expect perfect copy to flow from your fingertips. Even the most talented writers hone their work in the editing and rewriting process, so get into the zen of beginner’s mind and just get the words out.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged. —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. —Ernest Hemingway
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write. —Terry Pratchett
And then rewrite
Professional writers like to toss around the phrase “Writing is rewriting.” (There’s some dispute as to the origin of this idiom, so we’ll just call it a writer’s proverb.) The greats stress the importance of writing clearly, economically, and with authenticity.
The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. . . . I rewrite a good deal to make it clear. —E.B. White
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. —William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style
Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. —Rose Tremain
If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence. —William Allen White
Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. —Sarah Waters
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’ —C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. —Elmore Leonard, “Writers On Writing”, The New York Times