Writing

On Style

I recently finished reading Style – The Basics of Clarity and Grace – by Joseph M. Williams.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

When we don’t know what we’re talking about (or have no confidence in what we do know) we typically write long sentences choked with abstract words.

I suspect that those who choose to observe all the rules all the time do so not because they think they are protecting the integrity of the language or the quality of our culture, but because they want to assert a style of their own.

We began with two principles: •Make central characters subjects of verbs. • Use verbs to name the actions those characters are involved in.

Most readers prefer subjects of verbs to name the main characters in your story, and those main characters to be flesh-and-blood characters. When you write about concepts, however, you can turn them into virtual characters by making them the subjects of verbs that communicate actions.

Your readers want you to use the end of your sentences to communicate two kinds of difficulty: long and complex phrases and clauses; and new information, particularly unfamiliar technical terms.

Five Principles of Concision: 1. Delete words that mean little or nothing. 2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words. 3. Delete words implied by other words. 4. Replace a phrase with a word. 5. Change negatives to affirmatives.

A highly recommended read in the area of writing.

 

Advertisements

On Story Engineering

I recently finished reading Story Engineering – Mastering The 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Here then, at the most introductory level of definition, and in no particular order, are the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling: 1. CONCEPT—The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most empowering when expressed as a “what if?” question. The answer leads to further “what if?” questions in a branching and descending hierarchy. and the collective whole of those choices and answers becomes your story. 2. CHARACTER—Don’t leave home without one. Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like him (contrary to what your high school composition teacher told you), but we do need to root for him. 3. THEME—Yes, it’s like putting smoke into a bottle, but it can be done. Not to be confused with concept, theme is what your story is illuminating about real life. 4. STRUCTURE—What comes first, what comes next, and so forth and why. And no, you can’t just make it up for yourself. There are expectations and standards here. Knowing what they are is the first step toward getting published. 5. SCENE EXECUTION—You can know the game, but if you can’t play it well you can’t win. A story is a series of scenes with some connective tissue in place. And there are principles and guidelines to make them work. 6. WRITING VOICE-The coat of paint, or if you prefer, the suit of clothes, that delivers the story to the reader. The biggest risk here is letting your writing voice get in the way. Less is more. Sparingly clever or sparsely eloquent is even better.

A concept, it could be said—and it should be viewed this way—is something that asks a question. The answer to the question is your story.

Knowing the narrative goal in your storytelling is everything. It is the most powerful gift you can bestow upon your story, and yourself. Your concept clearly and compellingly stated, is the first step in your journey toward knowing and then pursuing that goal.

The Seven Key Characterization Variables Surface affectations and personality, Backstory, Character arc, Inner demons and conflicts, Worldview, Goals and motivations, Decisions, actions, and behaviors.

In the first dimension of character (which includes the list above). what you show the reader about your character simply exists. You leave it to the reader to assign meaning…In the second dimension of character, the reader learns the reason for choices and behaviors that define outward perception, or the effort to control it, which may or may not align with any meaning the reader has assigned to it on her own. In the third dimension of character, all of the choices made at the first-dimension level become subordinated to more important choices and behaviors made when greater weight and consequences are at stake.

To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What it says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges, and experiences it presents. Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.

 

These aren’t words as much as they are realms…dimensions…essences fundamental qualities. Compelling: Will anyone care about your story?…Hero: Yeah, you know you need a protagonist, blah blah blah. But is your lead character actually heroic? In what way?…Conflict: Nobody wants to read about a walk in the park. Really, they don’t. What opposes your hero’s quest?…Context: The most overlooked and taken-for-granted nuance in storytelling. What is the contextual subtext at any given moment in your story?…Architecture: That sound you hear is me once again beating this drum. Does your story unfold with a proper setup?…Resolution: Does the end of your story deliver an emotional payload to the reader? Does it make sense?

On a closing note:

You are a writer. And now, you are an enlightened writer. Take a moment to celebrate that fact. And then get back to work. The rest is out of your hands. The inner reward is the gift of life itself. Writers are scribes of the human experience. To write about life we must see it and feel it, and in a way that eludes most. We are not better people in any way—read the biographies of great writers and this becomes crystal clear—but we are alive in a way that others are not. We are all about meaning. About subtext. We notice what others don’t. If the purpose of the human experience is to immerse ourselves in growth and enlightenment, moving closer and closer to whatever spiritual truth you seek-hopefully have a few laughs and a few tears along the way—wearing the nametag of a writer makes that experience more vivid. We’re hands-on with life, and in the process of committing our observations to the page we add value to it for others…So, go out there and write with passion and insight. But always write with pleasure and fulfillment in the knowledge that you matter. And whatever your writing dream, keep the Six Core Competencies close at all times. They will set you free of the self-imposed limits others suffer. The ceiling is gone, vanished forever. Live the dream. Write your story. Then become one.

A recommended read in the areas of writing and storytelling.

On Writing

I recently finished reading On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft – by Stephen King.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your  job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I am approaching the heart of this of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, gram mar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.

Do you do it for the money, honey? The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it— but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

On a closing note:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the | end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book— perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it— is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

A highly recommended read in the areas of writing and storytelling.

On Walden or Life in the Woods

I recently finished reading Walden; or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. The backdrop for this literary masterpiece is: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, 1 lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

I think that we may safely trust a good deal more than we do. We may waive just so much care of ourselves as we honestly bestow elsewhere. Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength. The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.

With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows.

“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”

Such is oftenest the young man’s introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.

On a concluding note:

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit, —not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviae from their graves. You merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviae from their graves. You can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it, are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter.

On The Right To Write

I recently finished reading The Right to Write – An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life – by Julia Cameron. As best summarized by the author: ” What this book will do, if I have done it well enough, is t talk to you about writing for the sake of writing, for the sheer unadulterated joy of putting words to the page. In other words, this is less a ” “how to” book than a “why” book. Why should we write? We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own. We should write because humans are spiritual beings and writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance as well. We should write because writing brings clarity and passion to the act of living. Writing is sensual, experiential, grounding. We should write because writing is good for the soul. We should write because writing yields us a body of work, a felt path through the world we live in.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

As a result, most of us try to write too carefully. We try to do it “right.” We try to sound smart. We try, period. Writing goes much better when we don’t work at it so much. When we give ourselves permission to just hang out on the page. For me, writing is like a good pair of pajamas—comfortable. In our culture, writing is more often costumed up in a military outfit. We want our sentences to march in neat little rows, like well-behaved boarding-school children.

If we eliminate the word “writer,” if we just go back to writing as an act of listening and naming what we hear, some of the rules disappear. There is an organic shape, a form-coming-into-form that is inherent in the thing we are observing, listening to, and trying to put on the page. It has rules of its own that it will reveal to us if we listen with attention. Shape does not need to be imposed. Shape is part of with attention. Shape does not need to be imposed. Shape is part of what we are listening to. When we just let ourselves write, we get it “right.”

Not writing is the lonely thing. Not writing creates self-obsession. Self-obsession blocks connection with others. Self-obsession blocks connection with the self Writing is like looking at an inner compass. We check in and we get our bearings. Ah-ha! I am feeling, thinking. remembering. . . . When we know accurately what it is that we are doing, we tend to be more open, accurate, and affectionate in our dealings: I can miss David, but I can’t blame David anymore. I am the one who didn’t write enough yesterday.

People who write out of “discipline” are taking a substantial risk. They are setting up a situation against which they may one day strongly rebel. Writing from discipline invites extremism: “I have to do this or I’m a failure.” Writing from discipline creates a potential for emotional blackmail: “If I don’t write I’ve got no character.” People who write from discipline also take the risk of trying to write from the least open and imaginative part of themselves, the part of them that punches a time clock instead of taking flights of fancy. “Commitment” is a word I prefer to the word “discipline.” It is more proactive, more heart-centered, and ultimately more festive and productive. This is not mere semantics. If we are to be involved with writing for the long haul, we want to be comfortable in relationship to it. If we are relating to our writing as a “should” instead of as a desired good, we run the jeopardy of experiencing our writing connection like a thankless marriage: we’re there, but we don’t want to be. We’re thinking of what we’re missing.

We are all works in progress. We are all rough drafts. None of us is finished, final, “done.” How much healthier and happier if we ignore that mafioso’s advice to me and we put “it”—all of “it”—in writing: the flaws, foibles, frills, fantasies, and frailties that make us human. When we connect these dots, we connect.

I like writing to be more portable and flexible. I like writing to be something that fits into cracks and crannies. I don’t like it to dominate my life. I like it to fill my life. There is a big difference. When writing dominates a life, relationships suffer—and, not coincidentally, so does the writing. When writing is about being shut off” from the world in a room sequestered with our own important thoughts, we lose the flow of life, the flow of new ideas and input that can shape. improve, and inform that thought. It is a matter of balance. Yes, we need time and space to write, but we do not perhaps need as much time and as much space as we might think. Rather than being a private affair cordoned off” from life as the rest of the world lives it, writing might profitably be seen as an activity best embedded in life, not divorced from it—of course such a view of writing smacks of heresy.

The root of the word “integration” is the smaller word “integer,” which means “whole.” Too often, racing through life, we become the “hole,” not the “whole.” We become an unexamined maw into which our encounters and experiences rush unassimilated, leaving us both full and unsatisfied because nothing has been digested and taken in. In order to “integrate” our experiences, we must take them into account against the broader canvas of our life. We must slow down and recognize when currents of change, like movements in a symphony, are moving through us.

In those, and most professions, we assume that an interest in pursuing the career implies a probable proclivity for it and a reasonable chance for success. Not so with writing. The truth is, when you want a writing career and are willing to do the work to get it, the odds work with you, not against you. This is simple metaphysical law. As Goethe advised us, “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it—for action has magic grace and power in it.”

“Scrutinize second,” I laid down a rule for myself “Write first and freely.”

1. Write daily, even if only Morning Pages. 2. Use tools like Media Deprivation and Blasting Through Blocks to give you a jump-start 3. Watch your telephone consumption. 4. Watch your note production. 5. Set a clock for one half hour’s writing time. Pray for the willingness to write—and then write.

“Thou art truly human.” To be truly human, we all have the right to make art. We all have the right to write.

A highly recommended read in the areas of communication and writing.

Wired For Story

In line with my plan to improve my communication skills, I recently finished reading Wired For Story – The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence – by Lisa Cron. As the title indicates this is book about storytelling. More specifically, Lisa unveils how writers can leverage cognitive secrets of the brain to better engage their readership through powerful stories. Below is a summary of the main points of the book. On the importance of stories:

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it. In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.

What’s the role the writer can play?

Writers can change the way people think simply by giving them a glimpse of life through their characters’ eyes. They can transport readers to places they’ve never been, catapult them into situations they’ve only dreamed of, and reveal subtle universal truths that just might alter their entire perception of reality. In ways large and small, writers help people make it through the night. And that’s not too shabby. But there’s a catch. For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet his or her hardwired expectations. This is no doubt what prompted Jorge Luis Borges to note, “Art is fire plus algebra.” Let me explain. Fire is absolutely crucial to writing; it’s the very first ingredient of every story. Passion is what drives us to write, filling us with the exhilarating sense that we have something to say, something that will make a difference.

What’s the “algebra” part then?

But to write a story capable of instantly engaging readers, passion alone isn’t enough. Writers often mistakenly believe that all they need to craft a successful story is the fire—the burning desire, the creative spark, the killer idea that startles you awake in the middle of the night. They dive into their story with gusto, not realizing that every word they write is most likely doomed to failure because they forgot to factor in the second half of the equation: the algebra…It’s only by stopping to analyze what we’re unconsciously responding to when we read a story—what has actually snagged our brain’s mention—that we can then write a story that will grab the reader’s brain. This is true whether you’re writing a literary novel, hard-boiled mystery, or supernatural teen romance. Although readers have their own personal taste when it comes to the type of novel they’re drawn to, unless that story meets their hardwired expectations, it stays on the shelf.

How can we learn the “algebra” component of the equation? This is where this book comes into play:

To make sure that doesn’t happen to your story, this book is organized into twelve chapters, each zeroing in on an aspect of how the brain works, its corresponding revelation about story, and the nuts and bolts of how to actualize it in your work. Each chapter ends with a checklist you can apply to your work at any stage: before you begin writing, at the end of every writing day, at the end of a scene or a chapter, or at 2:00 a.m. when you wake up in a cold sweat, convinced that your story may be the worst thing anyone has written, ever. (It’s not; trust me.) Do this, and I guarantee your work will stay on track and have an excellent chance of making people who aren’t even related to you want to read it.

BUT, there is a caveat:

The only caveat is that you have to be as honest about your story as you would be about a novel you pick up in a bookstore, or a movie you begin watching with one finger still poised on the remote. The idea is to pinpoint where each trouble spot lies and then remedy it before it spreads like a weed, undermining your entire narrative. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, because there’s nothing more exhilarating than watching your work improve until your readers are so engrossed in it that they forget that it’s a story at all.

So What are the secrets?

Secret #1: How to Hook the Reader: From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next. Secret

#2: How to Zero in on Your Point…To hold the brain’s attention, everything in a story must he there on a need-to-know basis.

Secret #3: I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling…All story is emotion based – if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Secret #4: What does your Protagonist Really Want?…A protagonist without a clear goal has nothing to figure out and nowhere to go.

Secret #5: Digging Up Your Protagonist’s Inner Issue…You must know precisely when, and why, your protagonist’s worldview was knocked out of alignment.

Secret #6: The story is in the specifics…Anything conceptual, abstract, or general must be made tangible in the protagonist’s specific struggle.

Secret #7: Courting Conflict. The Agent Of Change…Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.

Secret #8: Cause of Effect…A story follows a cause-and-effect trajectory from start to finish.

Secret #9: What Can Go Wrong And Then Some…A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass.

Secret #10: The Road from Setup to Payoff…Readers are always on the lookout for patterns; to your reader, everything is either a setup, a payoff. or the road in between.

Secret #11: Meanwhile Back at the Ranch…Foreshadowing, flashbacks, and subplots must instantly give readers insight into what’s happening in the main storyline, even if the meaning shifts as the story unfolds.

Secret #12: The Writer’s Brain On Story…There’s no writing; there’s only rewriting.

Other highlights from the book, include:

So, What Is a Story? “What happens” is the plot. “Someone” is the protagonist. The “goal” is what’s known as the story question. And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about.

What Is This Story About? 1. Whose story is it? 2. What’s happening here? 3. What’s at stake?

Don’t Bury Your Story in an Empty Plot…A Story Is About How the Plot Affects the Protagonist

Knowing what the focus of your story is allows you to do for your story what your cognitive unconscious does for you: filter out everything extraneous, everything that doesn’t matter. You can use it to test each proposed twist, turn, and character reaction for story relevance.

That’s what readers come for. Their unspoken hardwired question is. If something like this happens to me, what would it feel like? How should I best react? Your protagonist might even be showing them how not to react, which is a pretty handy answer as well.

Adding External Problems Adds Drama Only If They’re Something the Protagonist Must Confront to Overcome Her Issue That’s why, when writing your protagonist’s bio, the goal is to pinpoint two things: the event in his past that knocked his worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps him from achieving his goal; and the inception of his desire for the goal itself. Sometimes they’re one and the same.

Six Places Where the “Specific” Often Goes Missing: 1. The specific reason a character does something…2. The specific thing a metaphor is meant to illuminate…3. The specific memory that a situation invokes in the protagonist…4. The specific reaction a character has to a significant event…5. The specific possibilities that run through the protagonist’s mind as she struggles to make sense of what’s happening…6. The specific rationale behind a character’s change of heart.

Unless They Convey Necessary Information, Sensory Details Clog a Story’s Arteries.

There are three main reasons for any sensory detail to be in a story: 1. It’s part of a cause-and-effect trajectory that relates to the plot—Lucy drinks the shake, she passes out. 2. It gives us insight into the character—Lucy’s an unapologetic hedonist headed for trouble. 3. It’s a metaphor—Lucy’s flavor choice represents how she sees the world. And that, my friends, is what makes stories so deeply satisfying. We get to try on trouble, pretty much risk-free.

Withholding Information Very Often Robs the Story of What Really Hooks Readers

The Importance of the Highway between Setup and Payoff: Three Rules of the Road…Rule One: There must actually be a road…Rule Two: The reader must be able to see the road unfold…Rule Three: The intended payoff must not be patently impossible.

On a concluding note:

Here’s a secret: when you’ve tapped into what it is we’re wired to respond to in a story, what we’re hungry for from the very first sentence, it is your truth we hear. As neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.” What emerges is your vision, seen through the eyes of your readers, experienced by your readers. So what are you waiting for? Write! Although they may not know it yet, your public is eager to find out what happens next.

A must read book on story-telling and writing. For another recommendation within this subject area, I suggest Storycatcher, and The Story Factor.

On How To Read A Book

I just finished reading How To Read A Book – The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to. and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.”

2- “Thinking is only one part of the activity of learning. One must also use one’s senses and imagination. One must observe, and remember, and construct imaginatively what cannot be observed. There is, again, a tendency to stress the role of these activities in the process of unaided discovery and to forget or minimize their place in the process of being taught through reading or listening. For example, many people assume that though a poet must use his imagination in writing a poem they do not have to use their imagination in reading it. The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection. The reason for this is that reading in this sense is discovery, too— although with help instead of without it.”

3- “The first level of reading we will call Elementary Reading. Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills. We prefer the name elementary reading, however, because this level of reading is ordinarily learned in elementary school…At this level of reading, the question asked of the reader is “What does the sentence say?” That could be conceived as a complex and difficult question, of course. We mean it here, however, in its simplest sense.”

4- “The second level of reading we will call Inspectional Reading. It is characterized by its special emphasis on time When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading. He might be allowed fifteen minutes to read this book, for instance or even a book twice as long…Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book or “What are its parts?””

5- “The third level of reading we will call Analytical Reading. It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. Depending on the difficulty of the text to be read, it makes more or less heavy demands on the reader. Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading. or good reading—the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time…On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book—the metaphor is apt—and works at it until the book becomes his own. Francis Bacon once remarked that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it.”

6- “The fourth and highest level of reading we will call Syntopical Reading. It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. Syntopical reading involves more. With the help of the books read, the svntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of he hooks. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.”

7- “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension. In any event, the speed at which they read, be it fast or slow, is but a fractional part of most people’s problem with reading. Skimming or pre-reading a book is always a good idea; it is necessary when you do not know, as is often the case, whether the book you have in hand is worth reading carefully. You will find that out by skimming it. It is generally desirable to skim even a book that you intend to read carefully, to get some idea of its form and structure.”

8- “The first stage of inspectional reading-the stage we have called systematic skimming—serves to prepare the analytical reader to answer the questions that must be asked during the first stage of that level. Systematic skimming, in other words. anticipates the comprehension of a book’s structure. And the second stage of inspectional reading—the stage we have called superficial reading—serves the reader when he comes to the second stage of reading at the analytical level. Superficial reading is the first necessary step in the interpretation of a book’s contents.”

9- “The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order. There are four main questions you must ask about any book. 1. What is the book about as a whole?…2. What is being said in detail, and how?…Is the book true, in whole or part? WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information. you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.”

10- “It is hard to learn to read well. Not only is reading, especially analytical reading, a very complex activity-much more complex than skiing; it is also much more of a mental activity. The beginning skier must think of physical acts that he can later forget and perform almost automatically. It is relatively easy to think of and be conscious of physical acts. It is much harder to think of mental acts, as the beginning analytical reader must do; in a sense, he is thinking about his own thoughts. Most of us are unaccustomed to doing this. Nevertheless, it can be done, and a person who does it cannot help learning to read much better.”

11- “Teachability is often confused with subservience. A person is wrongly thought to be teachable if he is passive and pliable. On the contrary, teachability is an extremely active virtue. No one is really teachable who does not freely exercise his power of independent judgment. He can be trained, perhaps, but not taught. The most teachable reader is, therefore, the most critical. He is the reader who finally responds to a book by the greatest effort to make up his own mind on the matters the author has discussed.”

12- “The First Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Finding What a Book Is About 1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter. 2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity. 3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. 4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve. The Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Interpreting a Book’s Contents 5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words. 6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with ^is most important sentences. 7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences. 8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved. and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve. The Third Stage of Analytical Reading: Rules for Criticizing a Book as a Communication of Knowledge A. General Maxims of Intellectual Etiquette 9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment, until you can say 1 understand.”) 10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously. 11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make. B. Special Criteria for Points of Criticism 12. Show wherein the author is uninformed. 13. Show wherein the author is misinformed. 14. Show wherein the author is illogical. 15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete. Note: Of these last four, the first three are criteria for disagreement. Failing in all of these, you must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole, in the light of the last point.”

13- ” Few people have ever read any book in this ideal manner, and those who have, probably read very few books this way. The ideal remains, however, the measure of achievement. You are a good reader to the degree in which you approximate it.”

14- “The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most of our colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to become authorities in their own right. In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good reader becomes an author. Our intention here is not to lead you from reading to writing. It is rather to remind you that one approaches the ideal of good reading by applying the rules we have described in the reading of a single book, and not by trying? to become superficially acquainted with a larger number. There are, of course, many books worth reading well. There is a much larger number that should be only inspected. To become well-read, in every sense of the word, one must know how to use whatever skill one possesses with discrimination—by reading every book according to its merits.”

15- “History is the story of what led up to now. It is the present that interests us—that and the future. The future will be partly determined by the present. Thus, you can learn something about the future, too, from a historian, even from one who like Thucydides lived more than two thousand years ago. Let us sum up these two suggestions for reading history. The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now.”

16- “Thus the most important thing to know, when reading any report of current happenings, is who is writing the report. What is involved here is not so much an acquaintance with the reporter himself as with the kind of mind he has. The various sorts of filter-reporters fall into groups. To  understand what kind of filter our reporter’s mind is, we must ask a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about it. This amounts to asking a series of questions about any material dealing  with current events. The questions are these:  1. What does the author want to prove? 2. Whom does he want to convince? 3. What special knowledge does he assume? 4. What Special language does he use? 5. Does he really know what he is talking about?”

17- “A curious paradox is involved in any project of syntopical reading. Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books  on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a s sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it. In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works before you could decide what you were reading about. And when you had done that, you might have to conclude that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.”

18- “As we have seen, there are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is preparatory, and the other is syntopical reading proper. Let us write out all of these steps for review.

I. Surveying the Field Preparatory to Syntopical Reading 1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library, catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books. 2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject. These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.

II. Syntopical Reading of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I 1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages. 2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not. 3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not. 4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern. 5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated. Note: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally. be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.”

19- “If the book belongs to the second class of books to which we referred before, you find, on returning to it, that there was less there than you remembered. The reason, of course, is that yourself have grown in the meantime. Your mind is fuller. your understanding greater. The book has not changed, but you have. Such a return is inevitably disappointing. But ff the book belongs to the highest class—the very small number of inexhaustible books-you discover on returning that the hook seems to have grown with you. You see new things in it-whole sets of new things—that you did not see before. Your previous understanding of the book is not invalidated (assuming that you read it well the first time); it is just as true as it ever was, and in the same ways that it was true before. But now it is true in still other ways, too.”

20- “Reading well, which means reading actively, is thus not only a good in itself, nor is it merely a means to advancement in our work or career. It also serves to keep our minds alive and growing.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

How to Read a Book

On Writing Well

I just finished reading the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser. As the title hints this book is a guide to writing nonfiction. This book is NOT a how-to write recipe book, rather one on fundamentals and principles. William structures his work into four sections through which he addresses the craft of writing.

The first section is one on principles (The Transaction, Simplicity, Clutter, Style, The Audience, Words and Usage). These principles according to the author can be learned through experience, but require effort as writing is hard. The call of this section is one for uttermost simplicity and clarity.

The second section is on methods (Unity, The Lead and the Ending, and Bits & Pieces). Theses methods address the structure of one’s written piece, the importance of flow, and consistency. In addition, the fundamental concept of rewriting – being the essence of writing well – is also discussed.

The third section discusses the different forms of writing (Nonfiction as Literature, The Interview, The Travel Article, The Memoir, Science and Technology, Business Writing, Sports, Writing About the Arts, and Humor). This section focuses on the nuances of each of the mentioned forms, and the associated considerations. I found the section on business writing particularly interesting and applicable.

Finally the fourth and last section is on attitudes (The Sound of Your Voice, Enjoyment, Fear and Confidence, The Tyranny of the Final Product, A Writer’s Decision, Write as Well as You Can). In this section the author exposes the human side of writing with all the emotions, hardships and successes that come with it. He aims to instill confidence into writers and promotes them to trust their instinct and take action.

Overall, a very insightful book on the topic of writing non-fiction. What I particularly enjoyed is the plethora of examples and excerpts through which the author presented the concepts. This made the book very practical. On the critical side, given the breadth inherent in such a topic (writing), the book did not have a lot of depth in the areas presented.

Below are some excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1-On email: “Just because they are writing with ease and enjoyment doesn’t mean they are writing well.”

2-On interviewing people: “Writing is a public trust…When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.”

3-“The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself. Give yourself permission to write about yourself, and have a good time doing it.”

4-On writing class: “In short, our class began by striving first for humor and hoping to wing a few truths along the way. We ended by striving for truth and hoping to add humor along the way. Ultimately we realized that the two are intertwined.”

5-“Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with your intention.”

6-“If you like to write better than everybody else, you have to want to write better than everybody else. You must take pride in the smallest details of your craft. And you must be willing to defend what you’ve written against the various middlemen – editors, agents and publishers – whose sights may be different from yours, whose standards not as high.”

7-On attitude: “A reporter once asked him (Joe DiMaggio) how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said – “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.”

Regards,

Omar Halabieh

On Writing Well

On Writing Well