On writing

I've always considered myself a decent writer, but this year, I plan on challenging myself, and holding my work to a higher standard.

Posted in #writing

The world is filled with bad writing. There's an endless stream of long, drawn out sentences filled with clichés and logical indicators trying desperately to convince the reader to the writer's way of thinking. Paragraph upon paragraph peppered with unnecessary transitions and rhetorical tics. I know I'm guilty of this. Not only in the past, but likely even within this very first paragraph.

I like to write, but I don't often make the time. I spend a far greater portion of my time reading. Unfortunately, professionally copy-edited, well-written books and articles from the likes of O'Reilly and the New York Times are only a small part. The vast majority consist of technical blog posts, likely half written by ChatGPT, or inane chatter on X without punctuation, proofreading, or purpose. I don't expect the latter to be polished. Fleeting thoughts rarely are.

Time is finite

When we're young, time seems infinite. One of my teenage daughters will sleep half the day away if you let her, the other will FaceTime or Snap for hours without ever thinking about time as a currency. As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that time is my most precious commodity. It's yours, too. Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps you're too young to realize it. Someday you will. Hopefully before it's too late.

Like all precious commodities, I hate wasting time. Even more so, I hate having time stolen from me. Two years ago I resolved to avoid watching commercials on TV and online as much as possible. I even went so far as to pay for YouTube Premium and start DVRing live sporting events and the news. The purpose wasn't to ruthlessly maximize every second, it was to recapture all those wasted minutes that rarely (if ever) added any value to my life. I take plenty of time to rest, exercise, and spend time with family and friends. That is never time wasted.

The reader is in control

I read well over 150 articles per week curating content for the Off-by-none Newsletter. Most are "readable", some are extraordinarily well-written, and all are appreciated. It takes a significant amount of time to write a post, plus a mustering of courage to put oneself out there to be judged. But I assume most of you neither have my motivation nor my acquired level of patience to filter through all the noise. Why would you?

As a consumer of content, you are ultimately in control. If the headline doesn't interest you, you don't click the link. If the first paragraph doesn't grab your attention, you hit the back button. If the prose is hard to follow and makes your head hurt, you rightfully abandon the article. You deserve good writing. Your time is valuable. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

The curse of AI

Despite what you may have heard, LLMs (Large Language Models) are not particularly good at writing compelling prose. Passable? Sure. The grammar is almost always spot on and much better than that of the average writer's. But read it again. It's most definitely not human.

I know you're not fooled by it. If you're anything like me, you certainly don't enjoy reading it. But this early fascination with "passable" prose has spread AI generated content across the Internet like a virus. It sits there, waiting to be read by both a new generation of humans and the next generation of AI that will train itself on its previous iteration's mediocrity.

I worry about the future of prose. I worry about teaching humans to write like machines. I worry that most, especially non-native speakers, will eventually not know the difference.

How I've approached writing

The first sentence I ever wrote was likely scribbled on a mimeographed piece of paper sometime during the mid 1980s. I still remember the comically large rulings with dashed midlines to properly proportion lowercase letters. Since then I've had over 16 years of formal education, reinforcing my writing skills at every level. I took both creative and formal business writing courses all through university when earning my degree. And over the last 20+ years of my professional career, I've written countless correspondence, business proposals, marketing copy, blog posts, and more.

Even after all that, I STILL WRITE BY INSTINCT.

Of course I copy edit my own work. I check my grammar. I always check my spelling. I usually even ask someone else to review my pieces and give feedback. Yet while I'm generally a perfectionist, I'm not overly critical of my own writing. If it sounds good and seems to flow well, then that's usually good enough for me. The question I've been asking myself lately: Is it good enough for you?

A higher personal standard

I spent some time rereading several of my old posts. The writing is mostly fine. Not great, but fine. Like most writing, nearly the entirety of my sentences are imperfect. Many are informative, but lazy. In some cases they form a string of volunteer sentences that do little more than fill space until I finally find something interesting to say. Even then I likely belabor the point as if the reader is incapable of rational thought. Most of my sentences are unnecessarily long, complicated, and hard to follow. Had I stated things clearly in the first place, some of these torturous restatements wouldn't be needed.

Perhaps I sound overly critical. After all, time is a finite, scarce resource. How much of it should be spent on meticulously crafting prose versus simply putting information out there? Maybe good enough writing is good enough? I certainly understand and appreciate the thinking behind that. I also don't want to discourage others from sharing their writing. I may challenge your ideas, but would never be so rude as to criticize your prose.

But I want to do better. I want to hold myself to a higher standard.

Honing the craft

I've never considered myself a writer. I've always just looked at myself as someone who writes because they have to. To me, there is a very real difference. While everyone should work to improve their writing and communication skills, a writer should dedicate themselves to honing their craft. They should embody their work. It should become part of their identity. It should be their purpose.

This is something I aspire to. The ability to write clear and compelling testimony of the world around us is a superpower. I envy those who can, and I want to challenge myself to do the same.

Lately I've been reading several books on writing while also restudying the nuances of English grammar. The grammar review is helpful in thinking more actively about concepts like balancing parallel ideas with the correct grammatical form and avoiding the subordination of major ideas. It also reminded me how often I've failed to use a semicolon when joining two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb. But I suppose I shouldn't lose sleep over that.

Books on writing are even more interesting. Analyzing sentence structure, not for grammatical correctness, but for rhythm, context, and understanding what's actually being said is fascinating. Even reading about things such as word choice, when to invert a sentence to add variety, and how to balance sentence length to keep readers engaged, provides a renewed awareness of how important these things are.

I have no illusions of writing a perfect sentence, let alone a perfect piece. All I can do is work everyday to make myself a better writer. I can be more critical of my own writing to ensure that it's worthy of your time and attention. I can't promise I'll become a better writer, but I have every intention of trying

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