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Ask HN: What is your take on being a better writer?
37 points by anacleto on May 27, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments
In a world of hyperbolic tweets and biased content marketing, we all be should better at writing. What is your take on being a better writer?

I have been using hacker news comments to improve my writing and I get instant feedback. After awhile I had ideas that were big enough to write blog posts. From my experience in writing poetry is you must keep writing to really get good . Another thing is that about 10% or less of what you write is going to be any good. And 1% is going to be acceptable. Life isn't like college where your performance is judged on each piece of writing. Your job is to maximize that 1% so you just have to keep writing so you have enough exceptional pieces of writing and then you will be a better writer .

I don't think most upvotes or commentary here are driven by quality of writing. For one, it's a given that there are many non-native English speakers on this forum, and in general critiquing grammar or style is discouraged.

People upvote persuasive writing. Which matters, to me, as a writer.

People upvote popular opinions. Say something volatile that creates any sort of friction against the HN hive mind and it will be downvoted, regardless of how intelligent and true.

True. It's probably a sign of good writing if you can elicit such a response.

"The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

F. Scott Fitzgerald.

...which sounds like a great training field for persuasive writing ;)

And word games. Any voting outcome on my previous comment reflects as as "meta" and well thought out. As long as keep my mouth shut.

Damn it.

I think the best writers actually enjoy writing. pg told me that to him an unwritten essay is like an uneaten piece of cake. I realized that that feeling is foreign to me. I'd probably be a better writer if I liked it more.

This is a fair point but it's worth noting that lots of good writers don't seem to enjoy writing. This where quotes like "writing is easy, you just take a blank page, open a vein, and bleed" come to mind.

David Foster Wallace seemed to use writing as a way to treat his various depressions and ailments - as a way to "continue" almost.

I often write because I NEED to. I don't necessarily enjoy it per se, but I upvoted dang because I can relate to "an unwritten essay is like an uneaten piece of cake." That writing lives inside me and makes me crazy if I don't let it out. It may not be the most fun I have ever had, but it has a need to happen.

So perhaps enjoyment isn't the write word, but pg is describing a thing akin to a hunger that must be satisfied. Dang doesn't have that impetus. I do. So I write.

Perhaps someday I shall get read as well. ;-)

Same here, many of my diary pages are filled with garbage, just because thoughts make my mind crazy and to overcome with this craziness I write occasionally.

You're right, but I think we're talking about two different levels. The level on which writing is notoriously hard is deeper than what I mean, which is more the craft of the thing once you do get going. I imagine musicians are better if they like their instrument, too; which doesn't mean they always want to play.

I'd be surprised if DFW never enjoyed the mechanics of putting words together. Depression kills enjoyment, but that is a separate issue.

> I'd be surprised if DFW never enjoyed the mechanics of putting words together. Depression kills enjoyment, but that is a separate issue.

From what I've read he was raised with a great love for words and read the dictionary for fun as a kid. On top of that his writing is known for being 'meta', which is very much about the mechanics.

He always struck me as a writer unusually excited about the mechanics, unusual words, the structure of his articles and books, and so on.

As for his depression: I can't help but wonder to what degree his writing might've actually worsened his issues instead of treated them. Whenever I read something of his I cannot help but feel like it's both a diagnosis and example of a particular class of issues that is very much worsened by dwelling on them too much. Like an active alcohol writing about alcoholism and self-triggering a desire for more alcohol.

Of course perhaps that's exactly what makes me love his works so much, because they seem honest and very accurate. Maybe that kind of accuracy is difficult to pull of if you're writing purely from memory or imagination.

The author of "On Writing Well" amusingly makes this point. He was part of a panel with one other presenter who was a sort of "life coach instant fame" type. The life coach talked about how easy it was to let the words flow; the author talked about how every word was an agony. Different strokes.

How do you feel about writing HN comments? For me, the feeling of writing a comment or something longer-form is pretty much the same.

(Which is, of course, a disaster, since it means I almost never write anything but comments.)

They feel the same to me too, and I don't much enjoy either. Saying just what you mean is hard work!

That probably sounds complainey and (illustrating my point here) I don't mean it that way. It's more of a "huh" feeling.

I sometimes enjoy writing and other times I dread it, but I always enjoy having written.

Writing is also thinking.

1. You need to write in a way that addresses your goals within the context of a particular situation. I review a good book on the subject here: https://codewithoutrules.com/2016/06/15/writing-book/

2. You need to understand the idea of style: there are multiple styles, each with its own set of assumptions about how you address the reader, what "truth" is, etc.. "Clear and Simple as the Truth" is a great book about the idea of multiple styles, and one particular style (the classic one).

3. Learn the practical style, which is suitable for many business writing situations. "Style: basics of clarity and grace" by Williams and Colomb is great book on the topic.

Read the first few chapters of On Writing Well.

Omit needless words. There's a page in Stephen King's autobiography "On Writing" where he shows an editor's comments on an article he wrote as a teenager. Half of the words are crossed out. Remembering that example improved my writing significantly.

Also, understand that writing is an iterative process. It can take 5-6 passes to craft a good sentence.

I think this reflects writing software in some ways, judicious 'editing' is important. It's realizing what you don't need that is as important as what you do need to keep in there, at least in terms of avoiding snowballing tech debt/feature creep.

My first attempts at writing were monstrosities of flowery descriptions and long-winded dialogues, an awful hybrid prose/poetry. That didn't improve, but I realized the art is getting an interesting message across as simply as possible, not showing off your vocab or pre-empting the reader's imagination.

I've read "On Writing Well". Then I discovered "The Elements of Style". On Writing Well opens your eyes to what bad writing is, "The Elements of Style" explains how to write clearly.

"The Elements of Style" belongs to that 1% of books that are truly able to change the way you think (and write).

I tried to apply what I learned in "The Element of Styles" and "On Writing Well" to my company blog: https://medium.com/plainflow/how-we-write-at-plainflow-7e994...

The Elements of Style is contentious. Many of its prescriptions are linguistically sketchy. On the other hand, it points out many things that many people do badly.

E.B. White, the 'editor', was one of the best essayists around, but he didn't particularly obey the rules in his own book.

Best thing to come out of my high school English education. I was introduced to it by my sophomore year English composition teacher.

It does have its critics but I think it's a very useful guide for most writers, and being a small book it is easily referenced and has remained useful to me to this day, much like K&R was when I did "C" programming.

"Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" is better than "The Elements of Style".


I love this part: http://imgur.com/a/ipJSj

Just as others before me have mentioned here, to be a better writer you'll need to put in time doing it. In addition to a lot of writing, I believe reading will also help in making you a better writer.

I by no means can call myself good at writing, but I do learn from books I've read and try to apply what I 'discover' in my own writing. Find an author you like, read up on his works and see how he writes. If you like his works, chances are you like his writing style and it might match what you're hoping to create.

Good communication takes the effort of at least two parties: one "talking" (or writing) and one "listening" (or reading in good faith). Good writing is honed by finding some means to get your writing read and get some kind of feedback on how effectively it is conveying your message. You can't develop as a writer without that feedback.

In school, you get it from your teachers, but I was surprised to learn that what I learned about writing in school really was just scratching the surface. I have learned a lot more from talking with people online in forums like HN, blogging and doing paid freelance writing. I am still struggling to get real traction with my blogs. Although there is a long history of my comments in forums getting ridiculous overreactions from people, it has been surprisingly hard to translate that into meaningful engagement with my blog writing.

Writing is about communicating. Good grammar and all that matter, but it matters more that you have something you need to convey for some reason. Writing is merely the means to convey it. And that is wherein the work lies.

I hate to dump a laundry list of reading, but these all helped me tremendously:

1. Politics and the English Language (Orwell) 2. The Age of the Essay (Graham). 3. On Writing (Stephen King) 4. On Writing Well (Zinsser) 5. The Elements of Style (Strunk and White) 6. Essential English for Journalists, Editors, and Writers (Evans)

There are two steps required to become a better writer.

1. Read. Read everything. Read omnivorously. Read fiction and non-fiction, books and newspapers and magazines and Web sites. Read works by live authors and dead ones. Read stuff you wouldn't normally read. Part of developing your own voice is learning to hear the music in other peoples'.

2. Write. Write constantly. Write little notes and long essays. Write stories. Write a journal. Write down what happened to you today and what you dreamed last night. Write for an audience (even if it doesn't exist yet) and write for yourself. Writing is the process of trying on new voices until you find the one that fits you best. The only way to find the one that fits is to try on a lot that don't.

Excellent comment, I couldn't agree more! Just two things to add:

For general language skills, find authors who have good style and read as much of their work as you can. They might be well-known book authors (I personally enjoy CS Lewis and EO Wilson, amongst others) or a newspaper with a high standard of penmanship (to German readers I recommend Die Zeit, I'm not sure what an English equivalent would be).

You should read a bit of everything, but emphasize the type of writing that you are going to be doing yourself. For example, scientific papers require a very different style of writing to, say, newspaper essays. You need to be thoroughly acquainted with the type that is relevant to you. (Finding your voice comes later, first you need to master the basics.)

Direct experience leads to relevance. Have you ever read a piece of fiction or journalism and been like 'this person lived this and is sharing the experience'? Half of the creative process is identifying familiar, personal things you take for granted that others will find useful.

Effective writers (from farm-content buzzfeed to copywriter bill bernbach to pulitzer-winning journalist bill dedman) distill the most relevant events they've personally seen into a structure that coneveys the experience in order.

The delightful parody version of this is 'write what you know' in george lucas in love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0olm8478DE (and every writing manual). But the reason this line shows up everywhere is that it's a good first step.

Also, spend only 30% of your time on the first draft. It's seldom any good. Cultivate editors you trust who can work with you and meet you at the right stage. Writer Julian Fellowes talks about 'editing stages' in the first minute of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RSYT2gQFlQ.

Hyperbolic? Being a better writer is useless...

I think the context that prefaces the question betrays a misunderstanding.

When you really start digging into crafting messages, you start finding out things like the medium you work in actually changes how you should structure your message. Famous examples of why this should be done exist, like the first presidential debate that was both televised and broadcast on the radio. People who saw the television thought one candidate had won the debate. People who listened thought the other had won.

Twitter as a medium promotes a certain kind of content. Learning to be a better writer isn't going to change that. If the goal of learning to be a better writer is to prevent some sort of decline in writing as seen on Twitter? Don't learn more about writing.

There are so many different kinds of writing and being better at one doesn't mean you will be better at another. So really you're safe learning most of writing. Unfortunately, you're bound to run across ideas like using a hook to attract attention as quickly as possible.

Then you run the risk of joining the hyperbolic tweeters.

Are you talking about style, grammar or ethics? Hyperbolic tweets and biased content marketing can be written well, communicating exactly what the author intended.

I prefer my tweets hypergolic.

Really good, short book that you will learn a lot from and can apply the next day when writing emails.

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing


Also, in general all "HBR Guide to _____" books are awesome.

Writing takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to just gain basic competency, let alone master. You have to put in a lot of butt-in-seat time.

Though I've gotten paid to write for a technology website, I am not a strong writer. But, I currently spend about 10 hours a week writing for my blog and other mediums and am continuously trying to get better.

Assuming one is putting in the time and effort, the next thing that will most quickly speed improvement is having an editor or other competent reviewer provide critical feedback, including on grammar, structure, and style. Then, keep rewriting a piece until you are no longer unhappy with it.

Practice regularly and non-trivially for a long period of time. Figure on years. (Joe Haldeman recommends writing 1,000 words a day for ten years).

Find an honest editor, someone who will give you objective feedback and correct your mistakes.

I wrote a bunch and thought I was pretty good at technical documentation, and hey, I've got this blog I maintain [well, less now]. Then a real editor got hold of an effort of mine and it came back to me with many, many corrections. And you know, it was a LOT better; I couldn't argue with any of it.

And I know that Strunk and White is out of style, but I still recommend it.

Write a lot.

Have people read it; especially people with no incentive to just "be nice about it".

Write a lot.

A great tip to improve your writing is that sentences of varied length seem more natural.

Write a lot.

Ignore most of the rules. You stick to most rules by default but breaking them is what can make a piece excellent.

Write a lot.

Get great at research. Unless you are writing about yourself, your life or your experiences then you will need data to make the work come to life.

Write a lot.

Remember the 10,00 hour rule. To be great at something takes work and practice. So find a way to practice regularly and daily. I spent ~10 years writing Wikipedia articles.

Being able to effectively communicate ideas via written word is crucial in technical fields. It's not even about blog posts or tweeting -although that's perfectly valid. We work in thoughts and ideas and they don't exist if we can't accurately describe them.

If anyone is interested in writing better non fiction I recommend "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. It's compact and full of easy wins that one can translate quickly into their day to day written correspondence etc.

This is subject- and field-specific. Years ago someone pointed me at http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~pam/papers/goodwriting.h... on legal writing, which contains two excellent first points: "1) Have a point" and "2) Get to the point".

Technical writing is a genre all its own.

1. Revise

2. Practice

3. Turn off the TV, and social media

(You can apply this to a lot of other things)

Not sure what you mean by "take" though. I think it is both good and important, if that is what you were asking.

I started a habit of writing 1,000 words every single day with the intention of improving my writing. I've written at least 1,000 words every single day for the past 291 days (okay, I missed one day at day 264). The writing has been in a private journal, not on public blog, although I've published hundreds of thousands of words to my blog over the past 15 years, just not much in the past few years.

I'd say the greatest insight that I've had from writing 1,000 words every single day for nearly the past year has been that simply writing 1,000 words every single day is not enough to foster real improvement. The habit definitely helps you overcome the initial resistance that you might feel towards getting started, and if you're not already good at typing or transferring thoughts in your head into words on the screen, I'm sure it helps with that too, but there comes a point at which, if you actually want to continue growing and becoming a better writer, you need a goal other than "write every day".

For me, the act of writing something that I intend to publish, to share with others, forces me to work on the writing, to tweak it, to think about how it can be made better, to question its clarity, to question the value of what I'm sharing. If what I'm intending to share contains a story, then knowing that it's going to be shared forces me to work on storycraft, to think about how someone else is going to interpret what I wrote. None of that happens naturally when you write privately, when your only goal is to see the word counter pass 1,000.

I've found that the greatest advancements in my own writing have come when I was blogging regularly (comparing posts from one year to another makes this very obvious). Whenever I've stopped blogging regularly for long periods of time, I find that my writing stops improving, even if the overall amount of writing I'm doing on a regular basis doesn't change that much (e.g., Slack messages, comments like these, etc.).

I'm not saying that you cannot improve as a writer when you write privately, just that improvement requires working toward specific goals that you know will challenge you to improve. Write a haiku. Write a short story. Look up from your laptop, find an object, and then try to write 1,000 words describing that object in as fine detail as possible. Do the same thing with an emotion that you've felt. And if you can, share what you write. Even if others don't give you feedback, the very knowledge that somebody, somewhere, will likely be judging your writing will cause you to subconsciously work a little harder to write better, to rewrite and to edit (which is the work that actually produces good writing).

1k words a day teaches you how to quickly write a lot of words. This is a great skill for a pulp fiction writer/freelance copywriter, but not so great when you're not getting paid by the word.

My goal is to write 1+ words a day.

Reading a lot of good writers, and trying to notice and understand why they are good.

I think that's what has helped me the most. Sure a few rules of thumb such as "omit needless words" and "eschew obfuscation" but mostly just reading a lot.

Like others I do not feel as if I understand the question and feel as if the question could have been phrased better by a better writer.

Do I think writing is important? Yes. I automatically disqualify a job candidate if their writing is poor.

Do I think writing skills have gone down? Yes. However this did not happen recently. I noticed it in 1997-1998 as my younger brother's generation starting to spend more time using instant messaging on the computer than they were doing their homework.

Do my views represent society at large? I am afraid they do not. I am continually flabbergasted by the comments that I see on YouTube and on news websites. In my opinion either schools are failing us or society is. Either way it has become clear that people are rewarded in the communities they deem important by being confrontational and derogatory without formulating and conveying a proper argument.

Youtube comments are written by people who would, in previous times, barely ever have written anything for general consumption. I'm not sure if the impression that everything was better in the past isn't a serious observation bias.

After all, with the advent of first SMS, then messenger platforms, the average teenager is probably using the written word a few magnitudes more often than the generation that grew up in, say, the 1990s. If you go further back, maybe young people still wrote letters. But there was definitely a gap of at least a decade or two where writing was strictly reserved for unpleasant things. Sure, they're using various shortcuts, emojis, slang, and not enough capitalisation. But it's hard not to see most of that as a rather creative adaptation of language to new mediums.

What has changed is the audience that people with rather strange views can now command. I'm not even talking about youtube celebrities or 'twitter thought leaders'; just your average Joe from Sacramento who thinks it's high times these lying journalists get stomped to ground. He's now writing that down, and maybe 10 people read it, and he reads 10 similar things about jews/scientists/the CIA virus to start the next civil war etc. Where before, your opinions were regularly brought back into something like a mainstream consensus, you can now find approval for almost anything, if you just try.

Let's see how that ends...

Do you find the Socratic method can grate on the reader if overused? I know I certainly feel that way.

Does the number of rhetorical questions you ask in a day indicate how much of a bad day it is?

Understand your audience.

Speak their language.

Say what you really want to say.

If you want to get ahead, write persuasively. Cialdini's book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" is good for technique.

Say what you mean; lead with the idea you want to communicate; don't waste peoples' time.

edit: always be practicing, revising, improving.

How much do they even teach this in school?

That is aint's all that gol danged importunt?

I don't understand the premise/motivation of the question.

We changed the title from "Ask HN: We should all be better at writing" to the question in the text above.

thank you, Daniel.

Subtle :-)

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