How to Become a Writer

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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to How to Become a Writer

  1. Marilyn says:

    I love this post. I want to be a better writer for so many reasons .. woodworking being one of them. I also love this advice: ” Blogs are free … and they are great ways to record your progress, even if no one else reads it.” I keep telling myself the same thing and looking back, I’m so glad that I’ve been recording as I go. When I finish something, it tends to become part of the scenery and I forget about it. Blogging helps me to remember .. ” oh yeah, I can do that. Look what I’ve already done.”

    Like

  2. Kim H says:

    Chris,

    I agree with your comments. I read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. No, I am not a writer. As chariman of a professional Quality society chapter back in the 90’s, I wrote a monthly message to the members. The newsletter editor was a college professor who wrote books. I asked him how he always said things so smoothly and was able to clean up my poor writing. His reply was that after you go through it 12 or 15 times, it gets to sounding pretty smooth! I learned from this and when I write something I leave it set and go back through it several times if it is important. I also have a colleague read it.

    I don’t claim to be a good writer, my English in high school was barely passable and I managed to get through a clep exam to get my college English.

    Looking forward to receiving your new book that just shipped!

    Regards,

    Kim

    PS: I only went thourgh this email 3 times!

    Like

    • lostartpress says:

      Ah, Strunk & White! I still have that one, too. It’s a fine book and is probably my second choice. And my wife’s first choice.

      Also, and I think this is important, I was so bad at English in high school that I was kicked out of the college program and sent to the vocational level English class. It was the best thing that could have happened. One of the students went into labor during class (blog fodder!). My fellow students had much more worldly concerns (kids, eating, rent). We focused on the basics all year. Subject and predicate. Subject and predicate.

      We didn’t read poetry and we didn’t talk about our feelings about literature.

      Thanks Mrs. Jesson.

      Chris

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  3. Tico Vogt says:

    This comment ties in with your decision to pursue the Lost Art Press commitment.
    Well written books about woodworking are the reason I have become a woodworker. I didn’t have the opportunity to see in person anything created by Krenov, Frid, Nakashima, Maloof, or Alan Peters, but their books kept me enthralled and inspired. Fortunately for me, at the time of my early wood butchering efforts my wife owned a small, independent bookstore just when the Taunton Press and other small presses came into being.
    I see what you are doing, Chris, as of the utmost importance for the craft. Write on!

    Like

  4. badger says:

    I agree on the blog item. I started a blog to chronicle my woodworking learning, and I’ve gotten better at writing, at the same time I’ve gotten better at both.

    http://badgerwoodworks.com/blog for the record.

    I’m currently writing out my attempts to learn about 17th century carving, a la Peter Follansbee.

    Badger

    Like

    • badger says:

      I would also counsel being able to laugh at your self when you write something stupid. 🙂

      Like “I’ve gotten better at writing, at the same time I’ve gotten better at both.”

      Yup, that’s high quality there. LOL.

      Like

  5. Scott S. says:

    I would add that most wood working writing is of the “put A to B now” variety. You don’t have to be the next Hemingway or Thoreau.

    I would, however, like to find the next Douglas Adams in wood working writing.

    Like

  6. David Cockey says:

    Every week in college we were assigned a 500 word essay. Mine generally wound up around 350 words. The instructor told me that I said more than the other students, I wrote in complete sentences and had well organized paragraphs, my grammer was very quite satisfactory, and spelling was okay but I needed to be more careful. The only criticism: I didn’t use enough words!

    I ignored the instructor.

    Like

  7. Niels says:

    respect.
    *fist bump*

    Like

  8. Jim says:

    Chris, thanks for being a great inspiration to me as a newbie, exclusively hand-tool woodworker. I can’t tell you how much your work has helped me.

    Ok, you convinced me: I’ll publish a blog. What WordPress template do you use? I like the mobile (iPhone) template a lot!

    Thanks again for being such an inspiration and mentor!

    Jim

    Like

  9. Jim says:

    Ok, nevermind, the theme is at the bottom!

    Like

  10. Auguste Gusteau says:

    8. do not use words you do not know the meaning;
    9. it the reader does not understand what you write, not always is his fault;
    10. use punctuation on an informed basis, putting random punctuation serves no purpose;
    11. internet has no borders and you’re probably read from around the world, try to avoid locutions that only an American can understand.

    Auguste

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  11. Auguste Gusteau says:

    12. occasionally come down from your real or self-perceived pedestal and write two lines of comment also on others’ blogs.

    Auguste

    Like

  12. John Cashman says:

    You should have titled this blog post “How to Write Good.”

    Like

  13. wilbur says:

    There’s a great piece of advice about blogging that I heard once. For your first blog post, just write about something. Avoid the “This is what my blog will be about” post, because you don’t know what you are going to be writing about a year from now.

    Also, use a blogging platform that properly converts quotes into left and right curved quotes, unless you are deliberately looking for a 1960’s typewriter vibe.

    Like

  14. Mark Wells says:

    On point #6, “Pretend to be dumb,” Chip and Dan Heath wrote a great book called “Made to Stick.” It’s about how to make concepts memorable. They point out that you should be vigilant of the “Curse of Knowledge.” Teachers and authors forget what they already know and then leave the student with gaps of understanding. I have read a lot of woodworking writing where that is true. Chris, you are particularly good at not succumbing to the Curse of Knowledge, which is one reason I think you are so successful.

    PS. The Heaths have a new book on motivating and adapting to change called “Switch.” I think it’s even better than “Made to Stick.” I hear change is in the air.

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  15. James says:

    This one really hit a cord with me……I’m a carpenter/cabinetmaker and my trade has been more then detrimental to my health. Fortunately, it’s all I’ve known and wanted to do since I was a young man. I now, also have a young son, who has inherited the same respitory disease. So, when he was very young, we visited book stores and libraries thoughout our area, and he gained a great appreaciation and respect for books and the written word. At home I’d lie in bed and read to him every night, until he could read for himself. One of our favorite memories is reading the Tell Tale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe, at Halloween.
    Today, I love to watch him craft a writing assignment for school, to “layout the sceen like Steinbeck”, as we always say. We still read together in the evenings and I love to see his satisfaction when he finishes a good book.
    This is how writing and woodworking have come together in my life and I could not be more proud of that. Unfortunately, Chris, this hand tool revolution you’ve endorsed is only an apparition in the life of today’s carpenter tradesmen. A trade who’s members today, garner the same respect as the a$* who carried the goods west before the advent of the locomotive. I don’t think this sentiment has come unfounded, but my hope is that my son can reap the rewards of his hard work in a world of cheap, ungracious and instant satisfaction. Just as any craftsmen would hope.

    Thanks for all you do. You’re an inspiration to many, especially the carpenter who finished high school with no more then a fouth grade reading level.

    Like

    • Scott S. says:

      I long ago came to the conclusion that the only people making money in woodworking are selling stuff to hobbyist woodworkers.

      The market for the true commercial craftsmen is small. It is there, but you really have to work to find it.

      Like

  16. Harry says:

    Weed out almost all of the adverbs – they never help much, and suggest that you haven’t picked the best verbs.

    Like

  17. Stewart says:

    I really enjoy your writing and have bought a couple of your books. I also plan to buy the “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” when it comes available at my local Lee Valley store. However, there is one attribute of your writing that I find awkward. You are apparently from a unique area of the States that eschews the word “of” after “couple”. This may seem a minor thing, but for me that missing “of” interferes with the flow of words from the page.

    Like

    • lostartpress says:

      It’s not a regional grammar variant. We had it beat into our heads at journalism school that the “of” in that construction is superfluous.

      I don’t even notice that I do it. It drives Megan crazy.

      Like

      • megan says:

        Indeed it does – but I’ve given up. (I will not, however, give up the fight on “and then.”)

        Like

  18. Not bad advice.

    Blogging is cheap and easy, but once you develop a following, you are as tied to it as any other job. Many times I have given thought to stopping, or at least slowing down, but in the end I always feel I owe it to my readers to keep on producing content.

    Even if i am half way around the world in the functional equivalent of the third ring of hell…

    Best to All,
    Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
    The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™

    Like

  19. Oops, I meant Seventh Circle. Though sometimes we make shuttle stops at the Ninth…

    LOL!
    Albert

    Like

  20. Joshua Klein says:

    Right on, Chris. Writing is neck and neck with woodworking for me. Or least it might be getting there. I do love wood-craft and oh, do I love word-craft. So when the words are about the wood, what else do you need? Maintaining my blog has been a wonderful exercise for me. It also is like having company over in my little shop. Sometimes I want to show someone what I’ve been doing but no one else is there. Just me and my tools. (Sigh.) Thanks, Blogger.

    Like

  21. Matt says:

    Hi, you’ve got some good basic tips here, but I think you’re missing a few vital links to becoming a good writer.
    8. Learn your grammar rules because nothing spells crap writer better than poor punctuation.
    9. Master the art of narrowing your topic, use a well honed thesis and start every paragraph off with a topic sentence.
    10. Stay on topic. I can’t tell you how many amateur writers wonder all over the map without a clue where they’re headed.
    I used to want to be a writer, but I gave up. Not because I couldn’t have done it, but just because it’s so terribly hard, time consuming and for me anyway, not very rewarding when compared to other things like working with my hands. If you want to be a writer, my advice to you is get dam good at it because the competition is fierce and those who manage to eek out a living writing are few and far between.
    Good luck.

    Like

  22. Thanks for a concise, straightforward approach to a daunting task. Actually, two of them; woodworking and writing.

    As a wannabe woodworker and a wannabe adventure humor travel writer I certainly need help with both.

    Like

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