For me, it is easier to launch a book-writing project than begin a big woodworking job. That’s because with a book, I can begin by writing a chapter at any point in the narrative.
That doesn’t work in woodworking. You shouldn’t build a dresser by first sanding and finishing all the rough lumber.
I’ve tried to start a book by writing chapter one several times. The swarf in the mutton tallow here is that by the time you write your final chapter, your book has wandered in a different (probably better) direction than your TOC. So you have to throw out the first few chapters and rewrite them.
Here’s how I do it now. I write a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book – one that I have a handle on. If it’s a woodworking book, maybe it’s the chapter on how the hardware is made, or the one that compares several historical workbench forms. It’s something that I know forward and backward and can knock out.
We ask our new authors to do this, too. This is for two reasons: One, it gives the authors confidence that they can write a book. That first chapter is a significant step.
Then we edit this sample chapter and give the author a list of ways to improve the writing. Some authors ignore the advice (which makes more work for me) and some take it to heart. They tape notes to their computers to remind them of their weaknesses.
Here are the most common problems. (If you want to improve your writing, buy a used copy of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. There are millions of extant copies. I sometimes buy a bunch at Half-price Books for $2 each and send them to authors who request help.)
- Too wordy. Many people write like they talk. And they talk too much. After you write a paragraph, try to remove as many words as you can and not change the sentence’s meaning. Sometimes you can remove 25 percent.
- Use active voice instead of passive. Most sentences should be: subject, verb, predicate. Example: John handplaned the cherry. A passive construction is: The cherry was handplaned by John. Passive voice is weak and wordy. (But sometimes you should throw in a passive sentence to break things up.)
- Avoid -ly adverbs and -ing words. Most of them are stupid anyway. Banish the word “very” from your vocabulary.
- Avoid semicolons. Most people have no idea how to use them.
- Use the dash as little as you would use an exclamation mark. What comes after a dash should be something that you are shouting.
- Three short sentences are better than one long-ass briar patch of mouth oatmeal.
- Write a chapter, then leave it alone for eight weeks. Then edit it. You will be amazed at how you can improve your writing this way.
I could go on with this list for about nine weeks, like when I taught news writing classes at Ohio State and the University of Kentucky.
Bottom line: Write as if your audience is a bunch of 8th graders. If you can explain complex ideas to 8th graders, you have achieved something few writers do.
I haven’t decided where to begin with “The Stick Chair Book.” Perhaps the chapter on how to make stretchers. It’s shorter than other chapters about the seat, the legs and the arms. That’s because I don’t have as many tricks to make stretchers as I do for the other components.
Or perhaps I need to figure out some new stretcher tricks.
Let the self-doubt commence.
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.
21 thoughts on “Making Book Part 6: The Alt-write”
An amazingly very well written blog article that you wrote on this day In the year of our lord – : i.e. I mean this year being 2020.
I find it is good practice to do No. 1 (if you’ll excuse the expression) on any email longer than one sentence.
Interesting. I think I may have broken every one of your guidelines when I wrote Cut & Dried. I simply started at the beginning, the relatively loosey-goosey gentle introduction to sort of get me in the mood, and then dived into each section pretty much one after another. Having said that, once I’d got a few sections written there were numerous revisits to those sections for tweaking to make them better for a variety of reasons. I think the fact that it took me something like ten years to write Cut & Dried gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect upon sections I’d completed, and revisit them, particularly after the input of peer reviewers.
I’ve been accused of habitually writing in the passive voice, and according to some, that’s because I’m British and we Brits are allegedly preternaturally disposed to deferential behavioural characteristics – tugging our forelock, and all that nonsense. Oh, darn, there’s another use of the dashes I like to throw into the mix; I use semi colons and/or dashes to add a supplemental afterthought or clarifier, and to break up long and weedy sentences, and I’m with you in being no particular fan of the exclamation mark, got it!!!!
Finally, I definitely try to avoid writing as I talk. When I talk I mostly spout gibberish, so best avoided on the whole. Oh, and I do tend to throw in the Oxford comma, which I know drives some folk to distraction, but there you go, ha, ha.
Good writing advice. Succinct wins.
Time testing your work does as well. Leave it alone long enough so that when you read it again your response is, “I wrote that?”
All this reminds me of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White from someone that struggles with English grammar.
I second Strunk and White. It’s quick to read and an excellent reference to have at hand.
You could start with the chapter on making spindles that are too small for their holes . . .
For the record, what are your (I’m admittedly being presumptuous) literary tastes? Am I detecting hints of Bolano or is that Chekov that you’re channeling?
I’d have gone with Sendak and Dahl.
I read so much for my job (manuscripts, research, technical papers) that sometimes it is difficult to read for pleasure because my eyes are so tired at the end of a day.
My deepest loves are not terribly literary (keep in mind I have a lowly journalism degree):
1. Russian literature. Tolstoi, Gogol and Turgenev in particular. Also some Soviet dissident literature.
2. Kurt Vonnegut
3. Wendell Berry
4. Hunter S. Thompson
5. Tom Wolfe
6. Susanna Clarke
7. Neal Stephenson
8. Michael Chabon
I have the same problem with music…. after 10 hours of being in rehearsals and listening to students, the last thing I want to do is go home and listen to more music. Maybe that’s why I’ve really gotten into woodworking?
Similar: When I cook all day (such as a Sunday), I can barely taste the meal at the end. My senses are just saturated. I have to wait to eat the leftovers the next day to see if I got the flavors right. So I empathize.
My bible since high school in the ’60s: The Art of Readable Writing by Flesch. Served me well through two metro daily newspapers and a second career of writing briefs. (Yes, I’m one of the few lawyers who can write.) Includes the points Chris lists plus much more. The most important is simple declarative sentences. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0020464703/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awdb_btf_t1_RcMsFbN64X4D0
Well honed. You practice what you preach. In wood. In words. In photography and philosophy too.
People should practice being better readers too. Just an observation.
“briar patch of mouth oatmeal” – that’s getting taped to MY computer! That little turn of phrase has made my day.
“briar patch of mouth oatmeal”, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!
On Writing Well is the ONLY book I recommend to folks who want to brush up their style. The author was a scion of the still extant paint company that has products in your local hardware store. He was the black sheep of the family for initially becoming a writer. I think he showed them. Every time technology advanced, (word processing, for one), he came out with a new edition. They are priceless.
Old English Major
When you wrote previously about stick chairs in other countries, it brought to mind the Peasant art books. Haven’t read any of them, but in skimming through to the pictures I was surprised to see the occasional stick chair. Downloadable copies in various file formats.
Peasant Art in Austria and Hungary
Peasant Art in Sweden, Lapland and Iceland
Peasant Art in Switzerland
Peasant Art in Russia
Peasant Art in Italy
Thanks Chris. I ordered the book you suggested. I don’t plan on being a book author. I can see where my science training is completely back wards with your suggestions. We were trained to use passive voice exclusively. In fact, for all the writing I have done as a scientist, I can’t think of any time I used the active voice. It almost would feel like a sin.
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