Writing is easy. If you can talk, you can write. Almost everyone can talk
But in spite of how easy it is, most beginners seem to screw it up. Here are the most common mistakes they make.
1. Wrong topic— Topic choice is about 90% of writing well. If you pick the right topic, it’s hard for you not to write well. If you pick the wrong topic, it’s hard to produce good work no matter what else you do.
The great and long-running Dale Carnegie public speaking course says,
The right topic for you is some experience you have lived through and will never forget—one you are eager to tell us.
They also use this phraseology about topic choice:
…an incident about which you know you have earned the right to talk. Select an incident about which you feel deeply…
I seem to recall they said truly extensive research could substitute for living through an incident, indeed, extensive research is, itself, a sort of experience you have lived through. I could not find that reference in my old Dale Carnegie materials. (I took the course and got my wife and youngest son to do the same. We also urged our two older sons to take it, but they have not gotten around to it. I urge you to take it. Writing and pubic speaking go together for most writers or they should.)
Here are some more specific topic suggestions: an experience that taught you a lesson, one that excited you more than any other, a subject that makes you really angry, a change in behavior you think your readers absolutely must make and why, the time you were most scared.
The famous “What I did last summer” assignment is actually pretty good in terms of your having earned the right to speak about it. But it’s not good unless what you did last summer really excited you. The worst topics are the ones assigned to you by teachers like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. You don’t care about it. You never experienced it. You have no interest in it.
When I started writing for a new publication in 1976 at the beginning of my writing career, they initially assigned me topics about real estate investment. I hated that. Eventually, I revolted and demanded they let me assign my own topics. I promised far better articles. They tried it and never assigned me another topic again.
You must be extremely knowledgeable and excited about a topic to write about it well!
2. Wrong size— Writing comes in various sizes: article, chapter, book, encyclopedia. The topic narrowness or breadth must match the space it fills. Generally this mistake can be fixed during the process by shrinking or expanding the scope of the writing by changing its title. For example, I have a book called Youth Baseball Coaching. It has a chapter called “Base running.” That part of my baseball web site has an article titled, “It’s not how you swing, but what you don’t swing at that matters.” You get the idea.
Basically, you have to keep the promise made by your title to cover that subject completely. If you cannot, in the space allotted, change the title to make it narrower. The same is true if the topic turns out to be too narrow to fill the space allotted. Change the title so the topic is expanded.
It’s still better not to make the mistake to begin with—especially in a long project like a book. Many of my competitors apparently made it with regard to their books. They are full of white space, blank pages, double spacing, huge margins,larger type, and long lists of public information like the names and address of all the state attorney general in the U.S. Apparently, these authors wanted to write a book, tried, found they did not have enough material, then cranked up the white space and filler layout tricks to cover up the fact that they could not fill the space with legitimate content.
3. Little Old Me-ism—There is a very brief, but important, chapter about this in my book Succeeding. In this article, it is lack of self-confidence by the beginning non-fiction author regarding the exalted position of author. It manifests itself in ways like:
• apologizing for not really being qualified to write the article, book, or whatever
• stating ad nauseam, usually in the first paragraph, words to the effect that “I (the author) am no better or smarter or more knowledgeable about the subject than you (the reader) and your ideas are just as good as mine and we all have our opinions and I would never claim mine are better than anyone else’s, etc. etc.”
Knock that shit off!
Step one in being a non-fiction author is to become THE expert on the topic in question.
Step two is to write the article or book or whatever as if you were the expert you just became.
Little old me-ism really says, almost invariably in the first paragraph of the work,
I apologize for writing this. I am not qualified to write it. I know no more about the subject than you so there really is no good reason for you to spend any time, money, or effort reading what little old me has to say about it.
I am not telling you to bluff or pretend you are the expert when you’re not. If you are not the expert, stop writing and go back and finish becoming the expert. But by God when you finish becoming the expert, you damned well present yourself as the expert in your writing. At that point, going through some “aw shucks” routine is stupid, disingenuous, suicidal to your books success. on just plain stupid. I know I already said stupid. It bears repeating.
Let me tell you about two times when I made that mistake and got my ass chewed for it.
Deposition: When I was an apartment owner in the early 1990s, one of my tenants sued me. During my deposition, the opposing attorney asked me if I was an expert on managing an apartment building. I hesitated. My lawyer called time out. The opposing attorney screamed and refused to allow it. We did it anyway. The conversation in the private room away from the opposing attorney went like this.
Lawyer: You were going to say no to that weren’t you?
Me: Well, I’m not sure. It sounds a little conceited, doesn’t it to claim you’re an expert?
Lawyer: How many years have you been managing apartments?
Lawyer: And you wrote a book on managing apartments, right?
Me: Yeah. It’s in its 4th edition.
Lawyer: And haven’t you made speeches on managing apartments?
Me: Yes, to apartment associations and real estate investors clubs around the U.S.
Lawyer: Did you get paid for that?
Me: Yes. $1,500 plus expenses.
Lawyer: Weren’t you keynote speaker at some national apartment convention?
Me: I guess. At one, the brochure had my photo and Howard Jarvis’s on the cover. That indicated they thought the two of us were the big draws to get people to come to the convention. Jarvis had just been on the cover of all the news magazines as a result of leading the California property tax revolt in 1978.
Lawyer: Well, Jesus H. Christ, Jack! Exactly what more needs to happen to you in order for you to become an expert on apartment management!?
Me: I see your point.
The deposition resumes.
Opposing lawyer: Now that you’ve been coached how to answer by your lawyer, are you an expert on apartment management?
On June 1, 2004, Bill Walsh gave a clinic on passing to a select group of minority college football coaches at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Walsh died in 2007. He was the head football coach at Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame for winning three Superbowls. His Niners were called the “Team of the 1980s.”
I was the second speaker, at lunch, on the topic of football clock management, on which I wrote a book. There were only about 20 people in the room. Walsh sat right in front of me. At the end of my talk, he walked over to me and said, “That was really good!” After talking about clock management for a bit, I asked him:
Me: Bill, how can I make my clock clinic talk better?
Walsh: Stop apologizing for never having played or coached college or pro football. You’re “The Man” on clock management! Act like it!
Again, if you’re not The Man on the subject on which you are writing, stop writing, and go back and become The Man. And then act like it when you write about it.
By definition, a non-fiction author is the world’s biggest expert on the topic in question—or at least the biggest expert with an article or book on the subject. Are there people on this planet who are more qualified than I, who never played or coached college or pro football, to write a book about Football Clock Management?
One would think.
Has anyone on this planet written a better football clock management book than mine?
When you write a non-fiction article or book, you are implicitly putting yourself forward as the world’s biggest expert on that topic, literally. If there is a better article or book on the subject, you should just refer your audience to that article or book, right? You don’t kill lots of trees to make the paper to say something that has already been said and said better than little old you can say it.
As a non-fiction author, you are the professor and your readers are your college undergrads and grad students. You are the teacher and your readers are the students. If it is a how-to book, you are the leader and your readers are your subordinates. You are the coach and the readers are your players.
At my undergraduate college—West Point—they taught us, “When in command, command.”
In the movie Patton, General Patton (West Point class of 1909) did not walk up on the stage in front of that big American flag and apologize for being there or say that his ideas on fighting the Germans were no better than the audience’s—his troops.
By definition, a non-fiction author is in charge of the reader either as a teacher, or, in the case of a how-to book, as a coach/leader. So teach! Or lead! Get used to it. As a non-fiction author, you are not “little old you” anymore. You Da Man!
4. Thinking writing is different from talking—Everybody can talk. But everyone can’t write. Why not? Mainly because they assume writing is different from talking, that writing is some big formal deal that requires all sorts of different new skills and behavior.
I often get this “compliment” from people who read one of my books after having known me for a while.
In your book, you sound just like you talk!
They say that with great surprise in their voices. What the hell were they expecting?
Telling a writer he writes like he talks is like meeting Miss America in person and telling her that she’s really beautiful. Who’d have thought that? Or like meeting a pro football defensive tackle and telling him he is really big. What are the chances?
The problem is I am the first author they ever knew. They assume that since writing is so different from talking that an author talking would sound much different from that same writer’s book words.
One of the main reasons most people can talk, but can’t write, is they assume writing is some big new thing that they have to spend years learning. All they have to learn is to get out of the way of their what they’ve been doing almost their whole lives: talking.
5. Writing to impress rather than to express—Lots of would-be writers believe writing is an activity in which the objective is to impress the reader with how literary and well-read and educated and intellectual you are.
Wouldn’t you be disgusted with a new acquaintance who did that to you in conversation? Writing is the same as talking, remember? It sounds just as dopey and annoying in print as it does in person.
The purpose of writing is to communicate thoughts, facts, logic, analysis, motivation. To write is analogous to installing a plain glass window in the side of your head so others can see your thoughts. Writing to impress rather than to express is like installing that window, but making it a stained-glass window. It says “Look at my window! Isn’t it beautiful and clever?” Often, you cannot even see through the stained-glass window—literary or actual—at all.
It is another violation of truth in advertising. The title of your article or book is your advertising, your promise to the reader. The title is why they are reading the book. They want to learn about that topic. They are not the least bit interested in your stained-glass skills. Nor are they interested in how literary or classically educated or well-read in “The Great Books” you are. Try entitling your writing-to-impress work honestly, “Look at the clever words and obscure cultural references I gathered to throw into this article on U.S. policy in Somalia!” and see how many readers you get.
A few writers, most notably, Maureen Dowd, seem to get away with this stained-glass act at times. Not with me she doesn’t. I do not read her columns. She is not much more than an incorrigible show off, and so are you if you write like that. The late William F. Buckley, Jr., whom I enjoyed reading, also loved obscure words. President Ronald Reagan joked that he spent many an enjoyable hour in his easy chair with a Buckley National Review article in one hand and an unabridged dictionary in the other. Bing Crosby was also famous for enjoying using obscure words. But Buckley and Crosby were doing a self-parody shtick. They did it with a wink. Beginning would-be writers are actually trying to make us think they really talk like that with their friends or relatives. Not if they want to keep them. And you do not write like that if you want to get and keep readers, either.
Do not use obscure words or foreign words or sprinkle your writing with all sorts of majored-in-literature references to obscure high culture. See the writing chapter of my book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book. It actually has a list of the 850 most used words in the English language (C.K. Ogden’s Basic English) and admonishes you to use words not on that list only when absolutely necessary to EXPRESS your thoughts. Go beyond that list only “at gun point.” My book also refers you to E.L. Thorndike’s list of the 1,000 most often used English words and Dr. Edgar Dale’s 3,000 most common words known to fourth graders.
You say you don’t want to write for fourth graders? Me neither. What you do not understand is that fourth graders basically know about all the English anyone needs to express thoughts. The additional vocabulary you learn after fourth grade is of the impress, not express, variety.
I have met enormous resistance telling would-be writers that they should only use the simplest words. One said she “objected severly” because such writing is “boring.”
Write down the names of your favorite writers. When analyze their writing in accordance with the various measures of Plain English like the Gunning Fog Index, the Flesch Readability score. C.K. Ogden’s Basic English, human interest score, and so on. All that is discussed in my How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book and the pertinent references are listed in the book’s bibliography.
If you do that, I predict that you will be shocked to find that your favorite high-tone writers write as if they read my book on how to write. Actually, I read their books on writing. I did not dream up the great need for simplicity on my own. I kept being told that by books I read about writing.
Thorndike said that the 1,000 most frequently used words in English account for 80% of all the words used.
I did not say never use a word not on the most common 850 or 1,000. I said only do so at gun point. Gun point happens.
6. Fear of the record—I am a successful writer, an excellent writer. Does that sound conceited? Well, I have been told that maybe ten thousand times by people from all over the world. At some point denying it is false modesty which is no better than any other form of dishonesty. It’s like pretending you’re lazy and stupid because your friends are and you don’t want to lose them so you pander to their lowest common denominator mind set.
Anyway, I do not think I have any writing talent. I think I am actually the same as you in that regard. Indeed, if you and I talked about a subject where we both were knowledegable, I am sure a third party listening would not be able to discern any difference between us. But if we both sat down to write an article about what we just said in the conversation, mine would be good, and yours would probably suck if you are a beginning writer. Mine would sound like a transcript of the conversation. Yours would be hyperbland and say almost nothing.
How’d that happen if we sounded the same when we were talking? Simple. You are afraid to write your thoughts down. I am not. The difference in our writing is not our ability, it is your fear.
If I gave you a transcript of a tape recording of the conversation you and I just had—the one we are now writing articles about—you still could not write as well as I. Why? You would cut. “Oh, I can’t leave that in because it might offend someone. And I can leave this in because someone might make fun of me for saying it. And I have to take that out because it might piss someone off.” Etc. Etc.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the difference between those of us who are successful writers and those of you who would like to be, but are not yet. You are a bunch of wimps. You have sixteen filters. We successful writers have none. We make omelets because we know you have to break some eggs. You guys are trying to make omelets without breaking any eggs. Ain’t gonna happen.
By the time you get done removing all the things that someone somewhere might not like you fail to note that nothing worth saying is left. If your criteria for what you are going to write is only things that no one would dislike, you have defined yourself out of existence as far as writing goes.
What the heck did you think it meant to be a writer? Risk-free celebrity and universal popularity? To be a writer, you have to pick a side of whatever it is you are writing about. Your success is measured both by how many fans you attract and by how many critics. You can tell a man or woman, in part, by their enemies.If you don’t have any enemies, you are the human equivalent of the little animals like mice that survive by blending into the background. Human mice do not succeed as writers. Trying to be all things to all readers, to attract all fans and no critics, is politician behavior. Politicians occasionally have best sellers because of their celebrity, but their books suck and are soon forgotten when their celebrity fades. I cannot recal ever hearing someone quote a celebrity politician’s book.
Watch some talk shows until you see at least one author interviewed and one politician. Can’t you see the difference? The politician tries not to say anything at all that means anything. It’s all about “moving forward” and stuff like that which no one would pay to read. The author will give honest answers to the questions like a normal person.
Here’s a trick that can solve that problem overnight. Use a pseudonym, pen name, nom de plume. Many famous writers did that for various reasons. You can also write anonymously. I actually did that when I started because I wrote for a Harcourt Brace newsletter and no bylines was their policy. It helped me. I was able to try stuff I would have been afraid to try if my name had been on it. But we got lots of positive feedback so I started doing more of the stuff I had originally been afraid to do. After a year or so, I asked for and got a byline. There are blanks on the copyright registration form for both pseudonymous and anonymous works. Benjamin Franklin initially wrote anonymously, then came out of the closet when he got positive feedback. I am not aware of anyone who always wrote anonymously or pseudonymous. It is a training wheels deal for the initially fearful.
One expert called it “fear of the record,” that is, fear of putting something down in writing as part of “your permanent record” that might get criticized or make soeone dislike you—as opposed to saying it verbally in private to a friend where there is no record to get you into trouble.
Either get over your “fear of the record” or don’t quit your day job. Turn on your computer, open a blank page, and let ’er rip.
7. Elaborate descriptions—Somehere along the line non-writers got it in their heads that great writing involves lengthy, unusual ways of describing things. Other than wine reviews, I have no idea where that came from. Maybe some famous poetry that was required reading in high school? Help me out here, folks.
Here is a passage from a review I wrote of a first book written by a Rhodes Scholar. My comments are in red
After knocking on the door, I entered. [If you met with the chaplain, a superior officer in the Army, in his office, we would assume you must have knocked and entered. Good writing does not tell us what we already know.] Slashes of light from the window blinds cut across his desk and striped the dark wood paneling around me. An Army bible in camouflage was open on the desk. [Why are you telling us these things? To show off your propensity to observe irrelevant details? If it does not advance the point of the story, leave it out.] A silver-haired priest looked up at my uniform and spotted my name tag.
“Mullaney. Good irish name.”[Ditto]
Here is another such passage in a first book written by a PhD.
A few miles west of Lake Louise at a spot where the highway crosses the Great Divide, a nondescript little stream bubbles down the mountainside toward the valley far below. It is nothing special as streams go, just a foot-wide ribbon of water winding its way towards the same goal that all stream aim for—the ocean.
What do you suppose the subject of that book is? Would you believe its title is How to Write a Nothing Down Offer so that Everyone Wins? It is about buying real estate for nothing down. The author is Richard Allen, PhD, the brother of Nothing Down author Robert Allen.
I could write a lengthy critique of just these couple of sentences. He spells the word towards without the “s” once and with it once. He factually alleges all streams go to the ocean. Not the ones that lead to Lake Tahoe, or that ones that lead to nowhere petering out in the desert. Then there is all the obvious nonsense like telling us that the stream bubbles or that it goes downhill. Really?
Why was he even talking about it at all in a book about real estate investments? To make this philosophical point:
There are moments is all our lives where we find ourselves at a crossroad, standing before a Great Divide where a decision has to be made. Yadda yadda.
So which is it: a crossroad or a Great Divide [mountain range]? Pick a metaphor. Oh, never mind. Nothing Down was a best seller. It did not talk like this. As far as I know, hardly anyone bought How to Write a Nothing Down Offer so that Everyone Wins. I would guess it lost money because it is an 8 1/2 by 11 hardcover book with a dust jacket—somewhat expensive.
I am probably the leading critic of Nothing Down. But I did not criticize it for unreadable or verbose writing, only for content. Bob needs to teach brother Richard how to write.
In How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book, I said to only use adjectives and adverbs when you are absolutely forced to. And I quoted two famous writers:
When you catch an adjective, kill it. Mark Twain
The adverb insults the verb…It is a parasite; it weakens it. Graham Greene
Writing is about nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. If you write an account of a car running a red light, you need to use the adjective “red.” But you might be able to get by without any other adjectives in the piece. If so, you probably should.
One analysis of President Woodrow Wilson’s writing said his adjectives outnumbered his verbs. He was a PhD university president and a known lousy writer. In contrast, the same study found that writers like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain averaged 13 strong verbs and only 4.5 adjectives per 100 words.
Again, get out books by your all-time favorite authors and see how many original, flowery descriptions they contain. I do not know where people got it in their head that great writing is elaborate descriptions, but it most definitely is not. Among writers, that sort of thing is the mark of an amateur or novice. There is even a bad writing contest called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It is named after the 1830 author of a famous, overly-descriptive paragraph that begins with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” [I actually do not see the problem with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” I am a graduate of U.S. Army Ranger School which largely consists of walking around in the woods at night for two months. I assure you there are nights that are dark (no moon) and nights that are not (full moon). I also assure you that stormy nights are much different from, and worse than, non-stormy nights.]
John T. Reed