I’m not blogging this because my editor tried to reduce the number of sentences I started with “but” and “and” in What’s Best Next (though that did happen). I’ve had this down on my list to post for over a year; but I suppose this truth is not as appreciated as I perhaps thought it was.
So, here are two great words on this from two important books on writing.
Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” But that’s wrong—there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast.
Starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is an informal style; it makes your writing sound conversational. In addition, a conjunction at the beginning usually draws attention to the sentence and adds punch.
A few random tips for those who write long things (namely, books), gathered or reinforced from my own experience in writing What’s Best Next:
1. Starting is often the hardest thing
The best way to start is to just start. That is, don’t wait for a special burst of energy or insight — though, when those things do come, seize them to their max.
2. You have to jump start yourself in the moment of performance
That’s a quote a read somewhere a few years ago. It’s a helpful reminder. When you just start (point 1) and don’t have the burst of energy or creativity, you don’t simply go into your writing cold. You jump start yourself, like starting a car in a freezing Minnesota winter.
To jump start yourself, there are many things you can do. Pray, read some of the Scriptures, do jumping jacks (to get your physical energy up), read a few pages in an author you find inspiring like Seth Godin, review your notes, or do a number of other things. To “just start” doesn’t mean you don’t warm up.
3. Don’t bury the lead
Lead with your most important points rather than starting with something less relevant or irrelevant in an attempt to build up to your most important point. Burying the lead is one of the greatest temptations in writing.
The one exception: John Piper does a great job in many of his books of creating a problem and then resolving it. That’s helpful and interesting and memorable. In those cases, the most important point is the resolution that comes after the problem has developed, which is typically half way through the chapter or so. But even in these cases, you need to start with something super relevant and helpful; the lead in this case should often be the interesting problem you are raising.
More could be said, but these are the top ones that come to mind right now.
(By the way, I call these “advanced” because, although you can easily know these things right from the start, you don’t truly get them until you’ve been through it!)
And, if you read the post, you’ll learn a bonus fact on why it’s not necessarily wrong for me to have ended that sentence with a preposition.
(One other note of interest: Though it’s not as engaging, I used the term “wordsmithing” in the title of this post because I don’t like the term “wordsmithy” that Wilson uses in the title of his book! But that’s a small thing, and probably something Doug would find humorous in light of the subject.)
From Marvin Olasky; goes right to the core of good writing:
Here’s slightly overstated advice from George Orwell, and if you follow it 99 percent of the time you can find the joy of exceptions: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Never use a long word where a short word will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use the passive where you can use the active.” (Essayist Sheridan Baker noted similarly, “Never use a long word when you can find a short one…. Pick up every sentence in turn, asking ourselves if we can possibly make it shorter.”)
And one on crafting ideas well:
Last summer, in preparation for writing my book, I read 15 or so books on writing and publishing. I then went back through the books and typed up the most important points from them into a single document (which came to 66 pages).
Out of all of this — and based also just on what I already knew about writing from classes (especially from two incredible English and composition teachers in high school) and just plain writing a lot — I pulled together what I take to be the top 9 core principles for effective writing.
Here they are:
- Omit needless words
- Use the active voice
- Be clear
- Be concrete and specific, permeating the work with details. For non-fiction, interviews are a helpful way to do this.
- Build your work around a key question
- Create tension
- Be yourself
- Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs
- Give the reader room to play their role (for example, when you state an amazing fact, don’t then say “that’s really amazing.” Let readers do their own marveling)
If you have other core principles that you think should be included in this list, I’d love to hear them.
These are from my notes on writing and are pulled from a bunch of books I read last summer. While the focus is how to overcome procrastination in writing, these principles can easily be adapted to be applicable for anyone, in about any context:
- “Almost all writers procrastinate.”
- Turn it into rehearsal.
- Lower your standards. Writers block is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. Get rid of the standards that inhibit you, write, then raise your standards during revision.
- Just start typing.
- Adopt a daily routine. “Fluent writers prefer mornings.”
- Draft sooner. Avoid over research, which makes writing seem tougher. Write earlier in the process so you discover the information you need.
- Discount nothing.
- Limit self criticism in early drafts.
- Set the table (= pull everything together and get things ready; make short plan).
- Find a helper.
- Keep a daily record of accomplishment.
When you Get Stuck
- Just start writing. “Writing is the means to achieving the clarity of what you should write.”
- It’s OK if you just produce a few pages a day for the first several weeks. Things will snowball if you get momentum.