Friday, August 20, 2010

First Word to Last

Take the advice of successful writers if you want to become a great writer. In his book on the art of writing, the science fiction writer, Stephen King has plenty of advice to give to a novice writer.

He says: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

King is a slow reader, but makes sure he reads at least 80 books in a year. The book list is crowded with works of fiction. He does not read fiction to study the craft of writing fiction, but to enjoy the stories told in these books.

“Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” King relates how a book that he read in grade eight changed his life. The writing was so poor King felt he could write a better book than the book he read at that time. King went on to write master piece horror stories that fill up a book of 300-500 pages.

Knowing what you are writing and for whom you are writing provides the barometer for good measured writing.

“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of the believable characters, and truth-telling…So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience good styles. You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

These words of Stephen King are difficult to erase from my mind. Good writing is positive, enjoyable, and enlivening to a reader. Bad writing is depressing, unedited, and difficult to digest without complaining.

To write well one has to make the distinction between good works of literature and bad writing that suffers from poor stylistics or simply poor understanding of the mechanics of writing. The principles of writing are the same in all genres.

The same advice is also dispensed to students and others having difficulties in writing.

Reading is the tool to good writing.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,” is the bluntness of Stephen King to would be writers and people having difficulties writing.

The writing styles of others can help a writer to develop his or her own styles of writing. One advice to those with manuscripts ready for publication: Before asking anyone to read your work ask yourself if you have a winning style of writing that is influenced from a writer you admire. It is said great artists are imitators of their masters having studied the works and styles of the master for many years. Good writing is an imitation of good writing styles. The only way to know the writing styles of others is to read the writings of other writers, especially the most successful writers.

As a teacher of writing, editing, and publishing I have always used one book that explains good writing from bad writing. Many writers, academics, journalists, and editors use William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style to improve their writing styles and techniques. The book also reveals the words and expressions commonly misused in our writings. The main components of the book are the eleven elementary principles of composition and eleven elements of style.

Over the years I have introduced the book to students studying literature, English, language, journalism, political science, public administration, and chemistry. This year I have a handful of students from the Law discipline.

During Lahara sessions and in various workshops I get the opportunity to introduce The Elements of Style to teachers, curriculum writers, designers, writers, administrators, and others interested in improving their writing styles and techniques. William Strunk Jr. first published the book The Elements of Style in 1919. In his own words Strunk describes good writing:

“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 that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoids all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”

The little book on elements of style has done wonders to many who were introduced to it. In E. B White’s words:

“In the English classes of today, ‘the little book’ is surrounded by longer, lower textbooks—books with permissive steering and automatic transitions. Perhaps the book has became [sic] something of a curiosity. To me, it still seems to maintain its original poise, standing, in a drafty time, erect, resolute, and assured. I still find the Strunkian humor, a delight, and the Strunkian attitude toward right-and-wrong a blessing undisguised.”

I recently came across a wonderful little book by Lynn Bahrych and Marjorie Dick Rombauer called Legal Writing in a Nutshell, inspired also by Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I recommended it to law students who are studying writing, editing, and publishing with me. I hope others will find interest in the book as well.

If you cannot attend a class on writing, then read a book on good writing to help your writing.

Whether one is writing fiction or non fiction the principles of good writing styles make a lot of difference in what a reader wants to read. Good writing entices and holds a reader from the first word to the last.



  1. Great stuff indeed. Very informative indeed. I wonder where I can get hold of "The Elements of Style"... University Bookshop perhaps??

  2. Quantum Binary Signals

    Professional trading signals delivered to your cell phone daily.

    Follow our signals NOW & profit up to 270% daily.