Tag Archives: literature

On Writing

Many writers have left notes or whole libraries on writing. Here is a personal collection of helpful and inspiring works. On the why, the how, and the how in detail of writing.

Why write?

George Orwell (1946). Why I write. Gangrel. Subsequently published in numerous collections.
 (h/t T.J. Jackson Lears)

“Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” (last paragraph, emphases added).

Jean Paul Sartre (1964). The Words [Les Mots]. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: George Braziller.

Autobiographical study on how the words out there never quite capture what an author has in mind. And that the only way to capture that sense is to know more words, reuse them, innovate them and eventually overturn and redefine the concepts they stand for. The book is conveniently split into two sections: Reading and Writing – alpha and omega of the intellectual endeavor. Apart from speaking.

Stephen King (2000). On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Schuster.

To many a surprise, the master of horror came back to the scene with a writing manual after a car crash almost killed King in 1999. On Writing seems to be written in an attempt to regain confidence in his own voice. King writes about character and plot development, about the personal work schedule and office necessities, and most of all about his passion for thinking up stories – and seeing them published. It’s an autobiography of a life in writing fiction, whose occasional digressions into the histories of particular novels may be only of interest to dedicated King fans. The book also features lists of essential works (says Mr. King) in fiction and non-fiction, e.g. other books on writing. See further the 20 rules for writers or even the “36 killer writing tips” destilled from the book by thewhynot100 blog.


Brand Blanshard (1954). On Philosophical Style. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

In this short essay, Blanshard discusses very eloquently the benefits of a clear but personal style in writing, which need not be restricted to philosophical writing. Blanshard argues throughout the text that a complicated style, overbearing ornateness and disorienting grammatical constructions are not necessarily signs of learning or genius but often indicate that the writer wants to feel superior to his or her readers. “Persistently obscure writers,” Blanchard argues, “will usually be found to be defective human beings.” (p. 53). Central to the argument on style is that the content of writing and the way it is conveyed need to address the readers as often and as directly as possible. Style is not an excuse for lack of content, but then, what is being said needs to be said intelligibly. Especially in the social sciences and humanities, relevance for a given argument quite often is derived from general observations, general assumptions about people and society. Such arguments rely on and address a reader’s emotional and creative companionship. Contrary to works in the natural sciences, a given argument is advanced on the assumption that the reader will decide on its plausibility, that readers are offered an alternative way of conceiving of something that they may have already encountered or known all along.

“No one opens a book on algebra with anxiety as to whether the author is going to treat the binomial theorem roughly, or a book of physics with the feeling that hope will be blighted if Ohm’s law comes out badly. But people do feel that it is of importance whether the religious belief is honeycombed, or their hope of survival blasted, or even whether pleasure is made out to be the only good.” (p. 7).

Blanshard is especially at odds with the intricacies of German philosophy (and grammar). Upon reading Nietzsche, Blanshard often “felt like throwing the book across the room” because he is upset by the self-aggrandizing style in relation to what is being said. Instead of calling his thoughts “prejudices,” Nietzsche “obviously takes them for something more and something better ; he takes them as philosophy instead of what they largely are, pseudo-Isaian prohesyings, incoherent and unreasoned Sibylline oracles.” (p.15). Another example contrasts the ornate (and often self-absorbed) German style of Kant and Hegel with the apparently more reader-friendly styles of Thomas Babington Macaulay or Jonathan Swift:

“To say that Major André was hanged is clear and definite; to say that he was killed is less definite, because you do not know in what way he was killed ; to say that he died is still more indefinite because you do not even know whether his death was due to violence or to natural causes. If we were to use this statement as a varying symbol by which to rank writers for clearness, we might, I think, get something like the following : Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that André was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation.” (p. 30-31; example given in Barrett Wendell “English Composition,” p. 240f.)

A fine read on writing and an entertaining one at that.

Michael Billig (2013). Learn to Write Badly. How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

In this witty and insightful study of academic writing, Michael Billig makes the convincing case that the incessant urge to publish has had detrimental effects on the quality and clarity of research literature. The author is professor of social sciences at the University of Loughborough (UK) and thus no outsider to the increasing demands of mass publication and self promotion. He writes in an informed, self-reflective and critical way about the way research and its documentation has become a cornerstone in university education and financing. His main points of criticism are that an inflation of technical vocabulary contributes to growing tendencies of branding particular types of research (and researchers) through new approaches, theories or methods. A proliferation of writing in nominal style by using -ization and -isms all over the place, obscures questions of agency and even causality. Billig argues:

“words function as more than summaries of complex social processes … for the words have become commodities in themselves, with social scientists using the ization to label approaches that are to be championed or to be rejected.” (p. 113).

By using labels, approaches and theories as short-cuts to larger bodies of work, scholar conveniently  themselves in particular schools of thought without having to spell out the details of their analyses or research programs. As a social psychologist, Billig is especially concerned with the linguistic patterns that create authority at the expense of clarity or balanced arguments. His book is also a plea for personality in writing and an encouragment to question homogenizing trends in research and publishing.

Andrew Abbott (2004). Methods of Discovery. Heuristics for the Social Sciences. London: Norton.
Especially Chapter 1 (Explanation) and Chapter 7 (Ideas and Puzzles) are worthwhile reads on questions of inquiry, its presentation and how to generate new ideas. Abbott finds that the technical aspects of research, which to the student seem like the most important markers of academics rigor and quality, are “just window dressing” (p. xi). Abbott argues that an idea needs to be strong, interesting and challenging in the first place to drive research and inquiry for any extended period of time.

Patrick Dunleavy (2003). Authoring a PhD. How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. (h/t Karl Kaser)

From the macro structure of the whole piece to the micro structure of every single chapter, subchapter and even a paragraph. There are many quotes in this text that illustrate what famous writers said about writing and the process that makes ideas turn into words and written texts. For there is no natural procession from ideas to texts. Ideas are a psychological, spiritual or mental experience; texts and their production are a cultural technique, a skill, a craft that is learned by repetition, trial and feedback. Over years. Dunleavy makes the point that the organization of writing (what to put where and when) is just as important as the stuff you write (the content). Most writers would resist such a formalist approach to writing, but then, often enough, a clear structure of argument is visible in an understandable formal organization of ideas on the page. No matter how innovative your argument is, formal innovation tends to distract from the content. It is rarely a good strategy for clear style to labor on too many fronts at the same time.

How? In Detail.

On the technical aspects, and a good lesson in clear writing and a concise ways of expression in English, you may refer to the new (illustrated) edition of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White ([1979] 2007) The Elements of Style. New York: Penguin. The authors explain basic principles of composition and pitfalls of the English language. In general, they advocate simple expressions in place of verbose blundering. Their chapter on commonly misused phrases is especially helpful for learners of English but can also count as a general style guide for native speakers. The book has examples throughout, contrasting complicated or wrong phrases with simpler alternatives (that basically say the same thing). A collection of often misused phrases has examples such as

In the last analysis. A bankrupt expression.” (p.76).
Secondly, thirdly, etc. Unless you are prepared to begin with firstly and defend it (which will be difficult), do not prettify numbers with -ly. Modern usage prefers second, third, and so on.” (p. 86).

The details of furnishing a manuscript and the process of publishing it are laid out exquisitely in the Bible of Editors in English language academic publishing: The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago University Press). Presently in its 16th Edition (2010), the tome of more than one thousand pages is likely to cover any question you may have about types of citation, style of writing or the correct way of referencing names of ships (p.436f.). The online resource is also quite helpful. This book is not a weekend read but a valuable reference for any writer, even if they are not using Chicago Style for citation. All the chapters–ranging from manuscript preparation to copyright questions, from grammar rules to appendices on the print process–exemplify to the best of my knowledge how effective writing, elegant typesetting and an approachable style can come together to create a pleasurable, enriching and inspiring reading experience. Even for a manual.

Want to extend the list? Add your favorite quotes (with source, please) or books on writing in the comments section.