Note: I am asked about once a week about how to become a better writer, especially by woodworking bloggers. So while the following entry isn’t entirely about woodworking, it is intended for woodworkers.
Writing is a trade skill, and it involves no more magic or mystery than cutting a mortise or planing a board’s edge.
I went to college to become a journalist, but it was a trade school through-and-through. In fact, there really isn’t much to the training needed to become a good journalist. Of the 60 or so classes I took in college, only 12 were related to the craft. And of those, only nine were related to its practice.
So I think that anyone can learn to write at my level, which is where you use an 8th-grade vocabulary, sentences shorter than 30 words and an active (not passive) voice. Here’s how.
1. Buy a copy of William Zinnser’s “On Writing Well.” It is dirt cheap – I buy used copies for friends for $1 at Half-price Books. This is the only writing book that I really like. There is zero navel-gazing (unlike another popular choice, “Bird by Bird”). It is about writing clearly and it is clearly written. It is concise. I read it every other year to refresh its core messages in my mind.
2. Practice. I write every day. Usually the results become a blog entry or a section of a future book. Nothing helps more than practice. And unlike practicing woodworking, you aren’t wasting wood. Words are cheap.
3. Use the phone. My iPhone is my favorite writing tool. When I see something interesting or funny, I make a note of it in my phone’s Notes application. I take a picture of it with my phone (or with my Canon G10, which I carry everywhere). You will never run out of ideas if you record the world around you in one-sentence blurbs.
4. Get a blog. I wish every woodworker had a blog and recorded his or her woodworking triumphs and trials. Blogs are free – like this WordPress blog – and they are great ways to record your progress, even if no one else reads it.
5. Try to write like you talk. Don’t pretend to be another writer. People who read your writing should feel like they know you when they finish a piece. Don’t use words or sentence constructions you wouldn’t say.
6. Pretend to be dumb. When you finish a piece of writing, go back and read it over and pretend to be an idiot about the topic you are writing about. Explaining stuff to people is hard. It’s easy to skip over an important fact or assume your readers know a lot.
7. Learn to use a hatchet. Most writers are too wordy. Try to remove every word you can from a sentence and have it still mean the same thing. Good writing is concise writing.
Speaking of which, it’s time to be a moron.
— Christopher Schwarz