I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way — a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.
I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…
“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”
And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”
I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).
BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?
DFW: Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”
Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.
1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible
“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”
“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”
Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).
Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate. One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.
I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.
The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…
One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?
Because writing is about a relationship — a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.
Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.
2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself
“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.
This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen — DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…
“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.
What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…
“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”
This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).
A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.
The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.
I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.
3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.
DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere — don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.
“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”
It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.
Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.
“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” — Cicero
Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.
4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice.
“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”
“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.
it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.
So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.
So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
5. Write slow so you think carefully
I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.
But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.
BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?
DFW: Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.
BAG: You write everything in longhand?
DFW: Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.
Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.
“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”
“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.
When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”
Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.
I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity — it faded as he found his identity elsewhere — in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross — offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).
6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).
BAG: When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?
DFW: I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need. My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that. My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months
Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it. If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.
I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.
Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?
7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.
“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”
He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.
Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.
I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.
One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.
My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.
And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.
BAG: Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?
DFW: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do. Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.