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What Rolls-Royce, Pixar, and Nabokov Can Teach Us About Writing

Sometimes sincerity takes a few drafts

Nine Post-Its attached to the wall with a woman’s hand grabbing one
Nine Post-Its attached to the wall with a woman’s hand grabbing one
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This is not an article on how to make your verbs active and your prose less cluttered. Not because word economy and voice aren’t important. But because they won’t make you a good writer. Punctuation and syntax are a must, but they don’t do the work for you.

It doesn’t matter how good you are; it only matters what you leave on the page.

You can make your sentences sing. You can discern an asyndeton from a polysyndeton. You can spot a comma splice. Perhaps you know who Stanley Fish is. You can follow all the rules, but ultimately they won’t help if you don’t have a container in which to put them. That is a curious mind, a sincere voice, and a few principles to guide you.

The Coordinates

It was a cold winter night and I was seven years old the first time I put pen on paper to voice my thoughts. It was the first night I spent alone in my own bed instead of my parents’ and I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote a four lines poem titled “I feel no more” on boxed children’s letter paper. It’s a terrible poem but it’s the fondest memory of my childhood.

Writing started for me as a way to cope with life, to put order to chaos, to glue myself back together, and it has since become a profession. One in which — I learned soon enough — it doesn’t matter how good you are; it only matters what you leave on the page.

English is not my first language, so I studied everything I could study about the craft twice. First in Italian, then in English.

Since my first years of high school — drawn by an insatiable curiosity for the magic of words — I joined as many creative writing courses I could join, including one meant for law school students. I watched online videos, read guides, manuals, novels, and came across some of the most inspiring voices in the writing industry.

From Joan Didion to Mark Twain to Scott Fitzgerald to Rolls-Royce to Nabokov to Pixar, these are four writing principles I try to live by. They have been a salve and a companion on my writing journey till now. I like to think they made my chaos look less chaotic and my writing look less like writing. Hopefully, they’ll make you a better writer, observer, and editor too.

If You Don’t Have the Details You Don’t Have a Story

If you can’t make your sentences alive with details, you don’t have a story people want to read. This is because we, as human beings, are not interested in issues as much as we are interested in the life that unfolds around those issues.

Your sentences are only as good as the amount of particular information they convey.

In other words, readers don’t want truths; they want facts they can picture that prove those truths.

I could say “I taught myself English watching TV.” Or I could say “I taught myself English watching American sitcoms.” The first sentence is generic, bland, and doesn’t carry as much information as the latter does.

But what if I say “I taught myself English watching ‘How I met your mother?’” This sentence gives the reader a clear image and it also informs them about my personality. It performs better than the previous ones not because is more elegant, but because is more specific.

The opening line of George Orwell’s 1984 reads:

It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is a richer, more vivid sentence than “Things were weird.” It’s powerful because it doesn’t tell us something, it shows us with an image painted with words.

Similarly, one of the earliest Rolls-Royce campaigns was:

At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.

Again, to highlight the car’s strength, Rolls-Royce copywriters didn’t just say, “This car is really quiet.” They gave the readers— and potential customers — the details. They showed them how quiet the car is. They didn’t just tell them.

Your sentences are only as good as the amount of particular information they convey. Being a good writer means, first and foremost, being a good observer.

As a writer, your job is to write sentences nobody else can write. And good, unique sentences are sentences charged with the description of the particular.

Economy Comes From Accuracy

If you care about your writing, I’m sure you heard the advice to keep your words simple, your paragraphs short, and your prose clear. To write as you speak. What they often don’t tell you is why this is important and how can you do it without sacrificing meaning.

The only word economy you should be interested in is the one that infuses your writing with the power of the particular instead of stripping your prose of portions of text.

To write clearly you don’t have to cut down words just to make your prose less cluttered. It’s not about saying less. It’s not about using fewer words. It’s about using more correct words.

As Mark Twain wrote about the importance of choosing the proper words:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bolt.

The only word economy you should be interested in is the one that infuses your writing with the power of the particular instead of stripping your prose of portions of text.

Before deciding what’s unnecessary, decide what’s important and how you can make it more specific.

Sentences Can Paint a Picture if You Let Them

The words you choose as a writer, and the order in which you put them, can change the world people see.

In her essay, published in The New York Times Book Review in 1976, Joan Didion writes:

All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences.

Writing is a lot like directing a movie or painting a picture if you know your way around words.

Where do you want to focus your reader’s attention? What’s important and what is secondary? Where do you want to zoom and what do you want to leave out of the frame?

As an example, saying, “I’d like to come for dinner, but I have a lot of work to do,” is different than saying, “I have a lot of work to do, but I’d like to come for dinner.” Same words, different order. Completely different meaning.

The words you choose as a writer, and the order in which you put them, can change the world people see.

Aim for a Shitty First Draft

In “Creativity Inc,” a book about Pixar written by co-founder Edwin Catmull, he writes:

Early on, all of our movies suck. It’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback, and the iterative process — reworking, reworking, and reworking again until a flawed story finds its through-line or a hollow character finds its soul.

With exceptional honesty, Edwin Catmull tells us that what makes Pixar and movies such as “Toy Story,” “Up,” and “Wall-E” great is not mere talent but a relentless process of revision.

In his memoir “Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov says about his approach to writing:

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencil outlasts their erasers.

A lot of writing is about deleting and rewriting again. Often, your greatest writing is mixed up with your worst. That’s why aiming for a shitty first draft is so important — because you can’t get it right if you don’t get it down.

Once you have a draft, you can make it better, no matter how bad it is. That’s how you come up with good second drafts and great third drafts that are authentic, heartfelt, and compliant with your voice: starting with a bad one.

Sometimes sincerity takes a few drafts. But as Mark Twain once wrote:

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

If you are too concerned about how good your sentences are when you first write them down, you may lose the opportunity to find your best content in a messy first attempt.

Write first so you can get the clutter out from your head and onto the page, where it’s easier to discard. Revise later.

What You Need to Know

Good writing is often subjective and it may take more than a couple of drafts. But that doesn’t mean we can’t follow a few principles to make our writing stand a better chance.

After all, if you want to write good sentences all you have to do is to keep reading good sentences.

Syntax, grammar, and punctuation make your writing look professional, but they don’t make you a good writer unless you have a container in which to put them. That is a curious mind, a sincere voice, and a few principles to guide you.

Written by

I write for the active dreamers, the old seekers, and the pure at heart. Stay in touch here: bit.ly/themorningair

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