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5 Elements of Writing

Writing well is a skill that takes years to hone.

Key points

  • The skill and the craft of writing take time to cultivate.
  • Reading and digesting books or essays on writing can help improve one's writing skills.
  • Good writing often involves relevance, economy, vividness, coherence, and humor.

In the beginning was the word. —John 1:1, wondering how it all began

It’s all text. —Rosamel Segundo Benavides Venegas, during his early postmodernist period

BrAt82/Shutterstock
Source: BrAt82/Shutterstock

Good writing is hard. I have spent decades writing and re-writing formal and informal texts in English, my second language. I do not claim mastery, but I think my prose has gotten better. I have used this blog to explore the opportunities and the limitations of writing about psychology in a semi-formal way. The formal way is what some call journalese, as if it were a separate language. It is not, but it is a particular code within English, a patois of sorts, and it is not always pretty.

Many of my students write well, better than I did when I was their age. Others get bogged down when they aim at journalese without knowing what they are doing. I tell them that the skill and the craft of writing take time to cultivate, and this is not an easy message to convey in a culture that values speed and rapid results.

Besides students’ impatience, there is the problem that the provision of concrete, constructive, and timely feedback drains a lot of time and effort from the college instructor. It is tiring. As most term papers do not go through multiple drafts, neither the student nor the instructor gets to witness the progress and take encouragement from it. The situation is different with graduate students, who can be coached for several years.

Between doing nothing and having a dedicated and generous coach, the student-writer has a third option: read and digest books or essays on writing. Steven Pinker’s (2014) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is an excellent and recent resource; well, it is more recent than Strunk and White’s (1920) classic The Elements of Style. Pinker seeks to dis- and replace Strunk and White, and he succeeds by noting some of their anachronisms, by updating some usage, and by linking the craft of writing to cognitive science—that is, the art of thinking. Whereas Professor Strunk’s bottom line was that “Vigorous writing is concise,” Professor Pinker is not averse to adding some flair. Strunk still wins on concision, though, coming in at 81 pages, whereas Pinker asks for our attention over 368 pages. No matter. Both books are excellent and I recommend them to my students.

But I doubt that they read them. Why not? The answer is cognitive psychology. Reading a book is different from practicing its lessons. Books on writing must be re-read, much like drafts of writing must be revised. To facilitate the process, one may want to distill a book’s lessons into a finite set of points. Pinker does not do that. Pinker spreads his advice over six fine chapters, but there is no coherent master narrative; nor do the chapter titles stand in for takeaway bullet points.

So I offer a list of five points:

  1. Relevance: A good text conveys the information that matters, although a few exceptions (see point 5) can spice things up without much distraction.
  2. Economy: Wordiness debases writing by diluting it. I began this post with the sentence "Good writing is hard," when I could have written, "It has long been recognized that writers must overcome many difficult challenges before they can deliver an appealing and comprehensible body of text." Look out for boilerplate and run-on sentences! Even if a sentence is sound, most adverbs and adjectives can be stricken without loss of information. Strong action verbs communicate better than noun-heavy phrases.
  3. Vividness: Good writing evokes images in the reader’s mind. It is perceptual and hallucinatory. A poor text allows readers to hear the words in their minds without evoking images. Again, action verbs help.
  4. Coherence: The text must hang together, tell a story, and follow a narrative arc. Lists don’t do this, and this post is playing with fire. Each part of the text has its own mission. Section headers can help, but an elegant text won’t always need them. When the writing is good, readers know where they are in the story.
  5. Humor: A good text is entertaining, and humor is a spice that keeps boredom at bay. Good humor is subtle and not thigh-slapping. Good humor lets the reader in on a joke without being condescending or obscure. The comedian Jay Leno lost his touch with the discerning audience when he started to explain his jokes. I am partial to humor that mocks gently. The object of the mockery should be the self, at least some of the time.

As one writes and revises it is hard to know when it is time to close the book and submit the text. One clue that it’s enough is when revisions return the text to an earlier version. Another clue is one’s own delight when reading after having let the text sit for a few days.

Again, I don’t like lists. The list is the death of the text. Phone books (remember those?) were lists. There was no narrative. Yet, self-help gurus like list books—The 12 Rules of Living Well or The 54 Rules of Recovering from a Break-Up. Lists seem to work after a fashion because they create the impression of definitive knowledge. But besides killing the narrative and overselling the material, lists make you wonder if they are exhaustive or redundant. Redundancy (see point 2 on my list) is easy to check as it only requires within-list comparisons. Exhaustiveness is hard to assess, for how can you know what you are missing? Had you known you were missing Point X, you would have included it. It’s a conundrum for the cognitive scientists: How can we think of that which we are not thinking about?

When we write, we honor our ancestors who invented writing. Why did they do it? My 2-item list is this: One, they wanted to preserve oral traditions (and put the bards out of work) and two, they needed to keep track of who owed what to whom. The first reason’s legacy is our continued desire for dramatic tension; the second reason’s legacy is that we need to keep the facts straight.

My final piece of advice is to be honest. If you want to include Statement X in your text but you can’t find a good segue, just admit it and get on with it. Here is mine: I wanted to include a nod to George Orwell, one of the most gifted craftsmen of the English language, but was unable to weave that nod into the narrative. So here I say it bluntly: Read Orwell, any Orwell, but especially Orwell (1946) on Politics and the English language.

Après pensée [ha! here's your section header!]

"What is writ is writ," Byron said, and I don't know what the context was. But I offer an amendment to Byron that says "What is writ has already been writ—by someone else." To wit, after completing this post I narcissistically googled it, the post, and found that there are already about half a dozen sites with that title, or something close to it. I surely did not claim originality when writing the post, but now I am thinking I should have included a 6th element: Namely, some touch of originality, creativity, or innovation. Finding something partially original to write, like writing itself, is hard for it requires to think that which one has not thought.

References

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English language. Horizon.

Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century. Viking

Strunk, W. Jr. & White, E. B. (1920). The elements of style. Harcourt.

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