Reverse Engineer Your Writing

watch maker

Last year, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker published The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I found this comment from Dr. Pinker (from an interview in Scientific American) intriguing:

The main difference between good writing and turgid mush—academese, corporatese, and so on—is that good writing is a window on the world. The writer narrates an ongoing series of events, which the reader can see for himself, if only he is given an unobstructed view.

I also loved the spin he added to the familiar advice that would-be writers should read a lot:

Good writers acquire their craft not from memorizing rules but from reading a lot, savoring and reverse-engineering good prose, and assimilating vast numbers of words, idioms, tropes, and stylistic habits and tricks. (bold added)

This reminded me of the time, when I was about 11 years old, when I spent a summer vacation copying the first few chapters of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine into a notebook, trying to puzzle out exactly how he spun words into stories that captivated me. (And I’ve read that other writers do the same thing. There seems to be something about the physical, tactile act of writing words by hand, using actual ink and paper, that seems to hold some magic — or hope of magic.)

Reverse Engineer Your Writing

Why Writers Should Keep Their Mouths Shut


Amy Bloom worked as a psychotherapist before becoming a writer. In a Publishers Weekly interview, she’s asked how that training influenced her writing.

Her answer:

“It’s a great gift. It was the training: to listen, to observe. Those skills are very much what you need as a writer. Keep your mouth shut and see what’s happening around you. Don’t finish people’s sentences for them. Don’t just hear what they say, but also how they behave while they’re saying it. That was great training for writing.”

Why Writers Should Keep Their Mouths Shut

Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers

pendant calligraphy

I’m a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s. I’ve re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies a dozen times each, highlighting dialogue, turns of phrase, pithy descriptions, etc., studying the books line by line to see if I can figure out her writing secrets.

I plan to post other links about Mantel’s writing craft (still trying to learn her secret!), but thought I’d finish off this week with her rules for being a writer. They range from the practical (“get an accountant”) to the insightful (“concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change”) to the challenging (“be ready for anything”).


Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers

Two Truths and a Lie


Lily King wrote an essay (titled That Would Make a Good Novel) that offers an illuminating look at how the germ of idea can be developed, eventually, into a work of art.

And there’s a bonus! She includes a writing exercise she gives to her students:

When I teach fiction I often start a workshop with one of my favorite exercises called Two Truths and a Lie. I tell my students to write the first paragraph of a short story. The first sentence of the paragraph must be true (My sister has brown hair.), the second sentence must be true (Her name is Lisa.), but the third sentence must be a lie (Yesterday she went to prison.). What I forgot when conceiving of this book is that it’s the lie that brings the story to life, makes it hum. The lie is the steering wheel, the gearshift and the engine. The lie takes your two true sentences and makes a left turn off road and straight into the woods. It slams the story into fifth gear and guns it.

Any tip that helps you “slam a story into fifth gear and gun it” seems like a good one to try.

Two Truths and a Lie

What Kite Surfing Can Teach You About Writing

Female kitesurfer --- Image by © Jakob Helbig/cultura/Corbis

This post on Medium went viral a few months ago. It’s easy to see why:

  1. The title is great: How a Slight Change in Mindset Accelerated My Learning Forever.
  2. The content is surprising, helpful and pithy.
  3. The “slight change” can apply to almost any skill you’re trying to learn (such as writing a novel).

The writer of the post, Tristan de Montebello, wanted to learn kite surfing. In his first lesson, his instructor gave him this important tip: “Pull your kite in one motion into the power zone (almost to the horizon) — This will pull you out of the water immediately and get you moving.”

He noticed that most of the other beginners were bobbing in and out of the water, unable to gain speed or momentum. He spent some time observing the other kite surfers, comparing the beginners with the experts.

This is what he realized:

“If you don’t pull hard, your kite moves slowly and gives you less power. It’s not rocket science, yet 99% of beginners only pulled half way. When it was my turn, I shut my brain off, and did exactly what the pros were doing. I pulled hard, and waited for my kite to get low before pulling back. I was out of the water speeding on my first try. So why do most beginners only pull halfway? Because they feel shy. They aren’t comfortable in this new situation so they tiptoe around instead of ‘jumping in.'”

This is great advice if you’re the kind of writer who takes endless notes on what you’re going to write, spends hours online or at the library tracking down one more tidbit of research, or gets caught up in worrying about whether you’re up to the task. (Guilty as charged.)

As de Montebello writes:

Fast learners know this trick of the mind and apply it all the time. Refuse to be shy. Don’t overthink it. Once you know what to do, do it all the way. Jump in. You will learn faster, and you will have a lot more fun in the process.

Fast learners take the plunge and go all the way. They harbor the crazy hope that they might get it right on the first try.

And sometimes they do.

What Kite Surfing Can Teach You About Writing

Use Procastination for Good

DeathtoStock_Creative Community9Paul Graham is a programmer, writer and investor who posts consistently thought-provoking essays on his web site. His thoughts on procrastination struck me as particularly helpful (especially his point that doing creative work always trumps cleaning the house).

He writes:

“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.”

Use Procastination for Good