Writing Well: Getting The Words Right

writing wellWriting well made me a wizard who spun spellbinding words.

Even at a young age, I understood the power of words to bend reality.

Used with deft and cunning, words can make improbable things appear possible.

In High School, I loved essays, and they earned me a modicum of fame. The English teachers often asked me to read my essays aloud to the rest of the class.

My reputation as as essayist resulted in my selection for the inter-school quiz team. We made it into the finals, losing by a single answer on national television.

Writing empowered me to draw depth and meaning out of commonplace experiences.

Imagine my surprise when I first read Hemingway in my first semester in college. Here was a man who had a passion for getting the words right.

In an interview, Hemingway was asked: “How much rewriting do you do?”

Ernest Hemingway responded: “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

“Interviewer: “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you?”

Hemingway: “Getting the words right.” 

How do you distinguish good writing from poor writing? How do you get the words right?

A polished piece of writing may still not be writing well. Writing well is much more than avoiding common grammatical errors.

Hemingway on Writing Well

When people write on the web, they often dismiss the idea of not writing well.  You may even hear the disclaimer: “Hey, I’m no Hemingway.”

They are missing the point. It’s not about eloquence, but about clarity. It’s not about an impressive vocabulary, but about communication. And it’s not about complex descriptions, but about making complex ideas simple.

Like science, writing well is formulaic. Albert Einstein gave us a simple formula for Relativity. Henri Mandelbrot gave us a simple formula for the Mandelbrot set. Two of the most complex ideas in science and mathematics condense into simple algebraic equations. Just plug in the numbers, and you can marvel at how space, time, and infinity work their magic.

In the same spirit, Hemingway offered four simple rules for writers who aspire to write well.

Hemingway’s 4 Rules for Writing Well

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short introductory paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous words. (Those that push the idea forward with a sense of controlled excitement.)
  4. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice as much as possible.

Following these rules will make it much easier to express your best ideas.

What Writing Well Is Not

One way to understand something better is to look at it from a different angle.

  • Writing well is not (just) about the right SEO to get more traffic.
  • Writing well is not (just) about creativity in creative writing,
  • Writing well is not (just) good descriptions and explanations in expository writing.
  • Writing well is not (just) about power words in copywriting.
  • Writing well is not (just) and hypnotic phrases in persuasive writing.
  • Writing well is not (just) about the hidden architecture in a composition.

Improving a piece of writing is about something bigger. It’s about being clear and compelling.

If writing is simple, it is clear; and when it is clear, it is compelling.

Good writing is almost cinematic. A viewer is not sitting in a movie theater but is part of the agony and ecstasy of the unfolding story. In a similar way, a reader is not reading but is part of the  the slipstream of ideas.

Words that don’t draw attention to themselves engage the reader’s full attention.

Why It Matters

The better the writing, the more likely you are to build a solid readership.

The better the writing, the more likely you are to elicit spontaneous social likes.

The better the writing, the more likely you are to sell more of your services.

Yet, writing well is not a gift, a genetic endowment reserved for the few. Rather it is a careful study of the psychology of language.

A good piece of content will present ideas in a way that resonates with a target audience.

Writing well can make a world of difference if you hope to be a popular author. Your livelihood depends on it–and the joy you get from your craft.

Here is what Hemingway defined the power of getting the words right:

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened…. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

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