As an extrovert, I loathe writing. It forces me to sit alone with myself. I’d much rather be scheming with friends or playing games. But alas, I know that to actualize my bigger purpose in life, I need to write.
Why? Well, it’s simple: Writing is thinking.
If I’m not writing, I’m not actually engaging, processing, internalizing, and figuring out what I actually believe. And perhaps more important: what I ought to do. If I’m just talking, I’m interacting with those around me: but am I reflecting on and building towards fulfillment of my deeper purpose?
Perhaps partially, but am I building something of meaning? Am I building a following, a movement, a legacy? Am I making a ruckus? Am I making a real and lasting impact?
One of the few books I’ve actually read multiple times is Economical Writing by Dierdre N. McCloskey.
I return to the book because it helps me recognize and name the “Resistance” (The same stuff that Steven Pressfield speaks so clearly about in The War of Art.) McCloskey offers a concise definition:
“Sitting down to write can be a problem, for it is then that your subconscious, which is dismayed by the anxiety of filling up blank pieces of paper, suggests that it would be ever so much more fun to do the dishes or to go get the mail.” (McCloskey p20, Economical Writing)
I think McCloskey was the first person to introduce me to the concept of the Resistance. Because of her book, I learned that the Resistance is the key thing that keeps me from writing.
McCloskey urges us to protect the spark of our inner Muse and resist all the temptations that inevitably arise:
“Writing, like any form of thinking, flares and fizzles like a candle. Don’t break off when on a burn. Don’t let anyone entice you into watching a movie on TV; tell Jane to go away; resist breaking for a snack. Be selfish about your little candle of creation.” (McCloskey p31)
In her short 99-page volume, McCloskey shares 5 ways to get people to love what you write.
1. “Lack of Clarity is selfish… Up with this, you need not put.”
“If the readers have too much trouble they give up. Lack of clarity is selfish and confusing. The writer is wasting your time. Up with this you need not put.” (p 13)
McCloskey titles chapter 4: “Be Thou Clear, but for Lord’s Sake Have Fun Too”.
And she actually lives up to this exhortation. She fills the chapters with puns, irony, and other humor. Some of it is geared towards economics students and an older crowd, but I find it helpful nonetheless.
2. “Use Verbs, Active Ones”
“Find the actor and the action. Find the verb. You have no idea what vigor it will bring.” (p 71)
I find this advice the hardest. The passive tense comes naturally. Changing things to the active voice is a drag. I hate being so clear. I have to name the subject first. Then I must search for a good verb. Then I actually think.
“Notice that a real verb, requires a real subject. There’s no place to hide.”
After reading McCloskey, I elevate my writing game.
She energizes and empowers. I immediately pick up my pen.
3. Read, Out Loud
“In the best writing, you do not stumble. It’s no trick to spot a bad sentence and to see what went wrong. Just read. You feel it, like rain or sunshine.” (p15)
We’ve all heard it before, but how often do we read an important email or memo aloud to ourselves before we send it?
4. “Write early Rather than late”
I’m most grateful for the college professor that made me write a 1-page paper every week. The purpose was simple. It forced us to write early. When you start writing, thrashing begins.
What am I actually trying to say here?
The best strategy to fight the resistance is to start.
“Amateur writers suppose that writing is a character trait instead of a skill.” (p1)
You can learn to write.
“It begins with getting the stuff down on paper.” (p20)
5. Write down what will come next
“At the end of a session, or at any substantial break, always write down your thoughts, however vague, on what will come next.”
McCloskey fills her book with this kind of simple, practical advice.
“Irrational cheerfulness is hard to teach but good to have for any work.” (p21)
So there you have it. Five of McCloskey’s best writing rules.
This is my first book report in a long time. I’d like to write more posts like this in the future. Are there any books you’d recommend to me?
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If so, please leave a comment. Or suggest in the comments what book you think I might like to read next.