I love this book. It gives me new perspectives on writing. See my thoughts here.

Notes

  • Not just know what you want to say, but also what you’ve actually said.
  • Pay attention to the rules you have learned as you go about writing. Write them down. “You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.” (p. 6)
  • There are the ways we know nearly everything about the world around us — keep them in mind when you begin to think about what to write and how to write about it.
    • What you’ve been taught.
    • What you assume is true because you’ve heard it repeated by others.
    • What you feel, no matter how subtle.
    • What you don’t know. (“What you don’t know and why you don’t know it are information too.”)
    • What you learn from your own experience.
  • “Many people assume there’s a correlation between the reader’s experience while reading and the writer’s experience while writing — her state of mind, her ease or difficulty in putting words together. There is not.” (p. 8)
  • “Long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.” (p. 9)
  • Remove every unnecessary words.
    • You idea of necessary will change as your experience changes.
    • “Every word is optional until it proves to be essential. Something you can only determine by removing words one by one.”
  • Writing by implication should be one of your goals — the ability to suggest more than the words seem to allow, the ability to speak to the reader in silence.
    • Without extraneous words or phrases or clauses, there will be room for implication.
  • “Most of the sentences you make will be killed. The rest will need to be fixed.” (p. 13)
  • “For our purposes, genre is meaningless. It’s a method of shelving books and awarding prizes.”
  • What if meaning isn’t the sole purpose of the sentence? What if you wrote as though sentences can’t be summarized? (p. 20)
  • “No sentence can afford to be merely transitional. If you’ve written clearly—and you know what you’ve said and implied as surely as you know what you haven’t said—the reader will need get lost reading your prose.”
  • The basic truth about writing: you can get anywhere from anywhere.
  • “Good writing is significant everywhere, Delightful everywhere.” (p. 27)
  • How we need to read, as writers: paying attention to the decisions embedded in each sentence.
    • Imagine reading Jane Austen or James Baldwin, Why is this sentence this way and not another way? Imagine revising the sentence.
  • Notice: “If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.” (p. 37)
    • Don’t put words to it.
    • The goal is to get your words, your phrases as close as you can to the solidity, the materiality of the world you’re noticing.
    • Rushing to notice never works.
    • Let yourself wonder.
    • You’ll never run out of noticings.
  • “What you get in return for this gathering and releasing is habit, ease, trust, and a sense of abundance that sustains your writing. And your mind never relinquishes what really matters.” (p. 42)
  • Beware of volunteer sentences — they’re nearly always unacceptable.
    • “They occur because you’re not considering the actual sentence you’re making. You’re looking past it toward your meaning somewhere down the road, or toward the intent of the whole piece.”
    • “You’re distracted from the only thing of any value to the reader.”
    • Volunteer sentences are “the relics of your education and the desire to emulate”. They are “banal and structurally thoughtless”.
    • “Only revision will tell you whether a stance that offers itself is worth keeping. The writer’s job isn’t accepting sentences. The job is making them, word by word.” (p. 47)
  • When the work is really complete, the write knows how each sentence got that way, what choices were made.
  • “The fundamental act of revision is literally becoming conscious of the sentence, seeing it for what it is, word for word, as a shape, and in relation to all the other sentences in the piece.”
    • “This is surprisingly hard to do at first because our reading habits are impatient and extractive.”
  • One basic strategy for revision is becoming a stranger to what yo’ve written.
    • Try reading your work aloud.
      • Mechanically, without listening.
  • Another way to make it look less familiar: turn every sentence into its own paragraph.
  • “Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.” (p. 67)
    • “Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement.”
  • “There is nothing natural about writing except the tendency to assume that it’s natural.”
  • How to make a sentence sounds spoken
    • Ask yourself if you can imagine saying a sentence, and adjusting it until you can.
    • Ask yourself “What exactly am I trying to say?” The answer to that question is often the sentence you need to write down.
    • Imagine writing a letter or a long e-mail to a friend — the change in the reader is important: there is “a sense of connection and kinship, and intuitive grasp of what you say and don’t say.”
  • “Anything you think you need in order to write—or be ‘inspired’ to write or ‘get in the mood’ to write—becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking. Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions, with anything, starting from nowhere. All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.” (p. 80)
  • “In the pursuit of clarity, style revels itself.”
  • “Writers at every level of skill experience the tyranny of what exists.”… So try this: Revise at the point of composition. Compose at the point of revision.
    • Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can, before you write it down and after. (p. 88)
  • “Language writhes with urgency to be saying something.”
    • Learn to understand and control that urgency.
    • It takes time to practice, but you’ll “find yourself making discoveries you never could have predicted, finding thoughts you never knew existed because they didn’t exist, until you were exploring sentences for their implicit possibilities.”
    • With practice, it will be more efficient and creative, and more interesting.
  • “We assume that thought shapes the sentence. But thought and sentence are always a collaboration, the sum of what can be said and what you’re trying to say.” (p. 92)
  • Writing comes from writing.
  • Try this: no outline. Take notes. Reread your notes and take notes on them. Be certain to mark out what interests you. Think. And think again. Be patient. (p. 96)
    • How do you know what interests you? You’ll stop and rethink the thought.
    • Let the thoughts that interest you distract you. Ask yourself about them. What do they interest you?
    • Don’t try to distinguish between thinking and making sentences. Pretend they’re the same thing.
  • Practice. Teach yourself to be patient.
    • “You’ll learn to trust the agility and capacity of your thinking. You’ll learn that you don’t have to set aside inviolate chunks of time to think.”
    • Resist the temptation to start organizing and structuring your thoughts too soon… Postpone the search for order.
  • How do you begin to write? Look for a sentence that interests you.
  • “The reader doesn’t need grabbing. She needs to feel your interest in the sentence you’ve chosen to make.” (p. 101)
  • What makes the first sentence interesting? Its exact shape and what it says, And the possibility it creates for another sentence.
  • “See if you can write the sentence that arises from the first sentence. Not the sentence that follows from it, even if that means the second sentence lies at some distance from the first.”
  • “Thought isn’t as fleeting as you think, nor does it come completely unbidden. If the thought was worth having, you’ll rediscover it or find a better one.”
    • Write them down, just in case. And then go back to thinking — “imagining sentences and their possibilities, feeling your way into each new opportunity.”
  • “The writer’s world is full of parallel universe.”
  • “Rejoicing and despair aren’t very good tools for revising. Curiosity, patience, and the ability to improvise are.” (p. 116)
  • “Writing doesn’t prove anything, and it only rarely persuades. It does something much better… It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed.”
  • “Your job isn’t to arrange chunks of evidence, chunks of the world in the order you gather them. Your job is to atomize everything you touch… Pay attention only to what interests you in it. Break the complexity of what you’ve learned into the very small pieces of mosaic shaped not by the clumping of evidence but by your conscious decision as a writer.” (p. 122)
  • All writer’s authority is granted by the reader. “Yet the reader grants by her sense of the writer’s authority.”
  • “Rhythm is a vital source of the writer’s authority.” It comes as a precursor. How you write, rather than what you write about, creates your authority.
  • The only sure test of your ideas is whether they interest you, and whether they surprise you as you work. (p. 133)
  • Feeling a sense of obligation to write a sentence or paragraph in some way is always a sign of trouble. Question that obligation.
  • Try writing for the reader in yourself… impersonating the literal-minded reader and the trusting reader at the same time… A faith in the kinship between you and the reader who isn’t you, the assurance that what interests you will interest the reader… At the same time show a tender care.
  • There is no objective measure of “done”… It’s as much feeling as judgment, “derived from your rich experience of the completeness of all the books you’ve read in your life.”
  • Revise toward brevity, directness, simplicity, clarity, rhythm, literalness, implication, variation, silence, the name of the world, presence… when things are really working, that’s when it’s time to break what already works.