T Nation

Let's Talk Writing

Everyone who participates in this forum is a writer. Aside from linked videos and such, writing is how we communicate on this platform. I also write extensively at work, as I’m sure many others do. I sometimes write in private for no purpose other than to practice writing and collect my thoughts. Like many others, I was ruthlessly forced to write when I was a student, but a couple of decades later I’m finding that I actually enjoy writing.

Despite my best efforts at becoming a better writer over the years, I feel like I too frequently fail at communicating my thoughts in a clear and concise manner. If taken today, I would probably fail every 8th grade grammar test I somehow managed to pass back then. I recently read technical material I wrote 10 years ago and wonder how anyone ever made use of the verbose dumpster fire I put my name on. I’ve gotten better since then, but I feel like my writing is something I can dramatically improve on. I’d like to start a thread to share our thoughts on how we write and how we improve at our writing.

I’ll start by tagging some of the people whose writing I admire.

@T3hPwnisher I find your writing to be extremely clear and concise. I’m not sure any other poster is better at conveying ideas in as few words as you consistently manage, especially when it comes to training.

@ActivitiesGuy I find your writing to be very clear, especially when you weigh in on complex issues you deal with at work. You are very good at condensing complex statistical and epidemiological concepts down to a form where a layman like me can follow along.

@jewbacca You write exactly how I expect a lawyer to write, which is something I cannot say about all of the lawyers I know.

I’m sure I’m forgetting many other posters whose writing I’ve enjoyed and admired, but I’d also like to tag @mufasa, @polo77j, @dt79, @TheMyth, @emilyq, @Aragorn, @loppar. The list ends there because I guess THE MAN only lets you tag 10 people per post. There are too many people for me to tag. We have a lot of people on here who use the written word very effectively. I really appreciate the long-format discussions that take place here. Taking part in my small slice of these discussions has helped my writing tremendously. My sincere thanks goes out to everyone who takes the time to share their thoughts with their writing.

I suppose I should also thank everyone who has tolerated my tasteless jokes on these forums over the years. I now understand why my words may have been poorly-chosen. I promise it won’t happen again.

Back on-topic…

Speaking for my own writing, I’m trying to improve on a few things right now. In my professional writing, I’m striving for clarity and simplicity. I need to convey the necessary information, give appropriate context and spend my words carefully so I can keep the attention of my audience. I have a tendency to explore rabbit holes that can sometimes be useful, but can often be skipped altogether.

In my casual writing on this forum, I feel like I should probably hit that little trashcan button more often. That’s just the beginning of how my writing on T-Nation can improve.

I’d be very pleased to hear other people’s thoughts on how they approach writing. What has been helpful to you? Authors, techniques, mindsets, I’d like to hear about whatever has worked for you to make you a better writer.

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Thanks for the shout out. I think this is a great idea, and it’s funny that you mentioned me because A) I have been working on improving my writing as well and B) I feel much the same as you seem to about my own writing. I’ll tag @Legalsteel as well, Brits are famous for using the English language like a fine set of surgical tools…

For what it’s worth I think you write well in this casual environment. I also love the long form discussions I’ve had on here over the past many years. I am not keen on any medium that restricts the ability to add context (cough twitter), and somehow there have been a very large number of excellent posters on this site.

That said, I feel that long form discussions are an inherently difficult place to work on brevity. I suffer the same verbose tendencies, and I put it down largely to my technical and long-form professional writing (biochemistry), as well as my former hobbies with philosophy and debate. For me, the most difficult hurdle is determining what is necessary context and what is superfluous. I believe that is probably true for most people interested in long form writing.

The best advice I’ve found is to be absolutely RUTHLESS when editing your own emails, pages, etc., and then to put your time in. Like powerlifting, there’s no shortcut to time under the bar. I also heard this “no shortcut” concept from several Grammy winning guitarists when they talk about song writing skill. It’s universal. I don’t count forums because it’s more to blow off steam for me, but it could be an excellent place if one were inclined. I’m not, I usually just hit the post button on my 1st draft.

I find @ActivitiesGuy to be EXTREMELY good at clarity in technical writing. He is able to communicate complex subject matter in a way that I wish all my colleagues were capable of. Strangely, I find reading non-fiction pop writing venues such as T-Nation help in determining how to handle simplicity. Pop writing, to me, is writing to explain a somewhat complex subject to laypeople. This could be anything from fitness to business to art or science (like ActivitiesGuy).

Reading an expert who is adept at teaching his subject to the uninitiated is my favorite way to pick up effective communication. Notable people in the fitness industry are Jon Goodman of the PTDC, Lou Schuler the long-time fitness journalist and editor, and TC Luoma’s old stuff (his old Atomic Dog work made me cry laughing). Many others could be named of course, but I find the above to be distinct within their niches.

They all communicate clearly, with different styles, and with relative efficiency. None of them, however, sound terse. I enjoyed aspects of the novelist Lee Childs early books as well in terms of pace and efficiency, but found after several volumes that I grew tired of the style. Still, I picked up some interesting things.

I don’t really have any exercises other than simply writing and reading though. Reading to pick up writing tips is a bit like listening to an album in order to write a review - I find it takes a sort of separation. I have to draw myself back and actively analyze the page or chapter construction rather than just enjoying the piece. I think this is more difficult than it seems, although it can be enjoyable.

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No. We need to thank you for those. You have some of the best bad taste around!

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I think this is something we could all do a little more often. It is interesting that you raise the question of writing and writing styles as a forum topic. My own approach to responses on the forum tends to be to limit the amount of detail or in my case often waffle that I write. I feel that it is important to write to the audience or at least to what I think the audience expects. For me this leads me to limit the length of my responses and to try to summarise wherever possible. This tends to work well for those threads that are lighter in nature, like most of the off topic threads, but it can mean writing effective responses on more detailed topics a little more difficult. I have lost count if the amount of times I have penned a response on here only to either delete the entire response or to delete large chunks of it.

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I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter. -Blaise Pascal

I found this looking for a quote I vaguely remember, maybe from Hemingway but who knows, about a book being overlong because the author lacked time to make it shorter. The struggle is real!

I do edit to reduce length almost always, but even still things are crazily long. Time is definitely an issue - often I have to hit “post” because my screw-around-over-coffee time is up. The best thing I ever did was to take a romance novel I’d written to a writing critique group. Having my work critiqued and doing so for others’ was a great learning experience, and I loved doing it. If I pulled that book out today I’d happily fall into editing it. I think awareness is 9/10 of the challenge, which is simply bringing a critical (not negative, just assessing) eye to your work as well as to the stuff you’re reading.

I tend to view posts uncritically in terms of writing quality unless someone has really gotten on my nerves, and @twojarslave you are on my list of people about whom I think “oh good!” when I see a post coming. I admire succinct writing, but I also enjoy ramblers unless they’re really a mess. You can see that they’re processing as they write, which I can appreciate because I also process best in writing. It’s one of the things I particularly like about forums, that people are evolving their views and positions as they write, and we all get to take part in it. I think of Twitter and Facebook as being like reading a series of Christmas card greetings in terms of information imparted. I guess I see forums as a place to think aloud, so to speak.

Lastly, I can so relate to feeling anguished over stuff I wrote when I was younger, but to be fair to my young self I was rewarded for my ridiculous overwriting, and I made something of a career as a student of pompously restating myself to meet length requirements on papers - and I pretty much always got A’s. (Blame THEM for your suffering as you slog through my posts.)

Interesting topic!

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Appreciate the tag dude.

For my story, I had just finished my masters in something that was pretty writing extensive (political science, specifically with an emphasis on social contract theory) and my writing skills had been pretty finely tuned as a result of it. After I was done with that, I rested for a few months before it dawned on me that writing like that is very much a perishable skill, and I wanted to maintain the skillset I had developed through the program. So I made a blog and told myself I would write an entry a week. That was 7 years ago, and I’m still averaging 1000 words a week.

Not only has it maintained my writing skill, but I feel it’s honestly improved it. It can’t just be a diary though (although on occasion those posts can be fun): I need to be able to provide refutation and counter-points to my own ideas and then be able to argue against those arguments in turn.

Something “fun” about the blog compared to academic writing is I don’t have to cite sources, I can make whatever grammatical “mistakes” I want (I like starting sentences and paragraphs with “and” and “but”, and I refuse to include punctuation inside quotation marks unless it’s actually part of the quote), and I can use colloquial expressions, random capitalization, etc.

Pretty sure the whole “set a deadline and wordcount for yourself” thing is something I got from Steven King. It doesn’t have to be 1000 words of greatness: just 1000 words of SOMETHING once a week. Keep up the repetition and it eventually becomes decent.

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I loved On Writing, and believe I may have referenced it just yesterday.

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Most kind of you. I consider my skills meagre, however, I shall contribute what I can.

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Hey man, thanks for the mention. I must say that writing in this forum has helped me tremendously. It’s very difficult to frame a complex and coherent argument in a debate writing in a foreign language while simultaneously trying to keep a tight writing style.

I have to say that my writing style has greatly improved, although I still frequently succumb to rambling and a “stream of consciousness” flow.

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I’m surprised that you’re so harsh on yourself here, because I think your writing (what I see on the forum, anyway) is quite good.

Despite the compliments from yourself and @Aragorn in this thread, I feel that I’m a better oral communicator than written communicator. At work, I much prefer to get my collaborators in the same room for a meeting so we can speak directly about issues; otherwise, it takes 45 minutes to write an email to explain things that would’ve taken 15 minutes to explain directly

The Blaise Pascal quote @EmilyQ cited above made me chuckle (I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter), because it’s just how I feel writing much of my work correspondence. As a statistician working with physicians on medical papers, here is a common situation:

We have recently completed a clinical trial, and the time has come to prepare the results for submission to a medical journal. I have performed the data analysis and compiled the results into a summary packet. The packet might be 25-30 pages of data, with six or seven “Tables” and three or four “Figures” - often beginning with some descriptive characteristics of the study population, then illustrations that somehow describe the study outcomes (e.g. a Figure showing the survival rate over time in the two treatment groups), with some statistical models estimating the difference between treatment groups and probability calculations to accompany the results.

To accompany this packet, I will type some text in the email to describe the contents, then spend an extra 20 minutes paring it down until the final communication includes just enough details to remain technically accurate without omitting important information. My hope with this email is to give the physician enough information to write up our findings accurately, but not so much detail that they “tune out” and miss important details.

I think I’m an okay writer, but not a great one. I have some bad habits that I know I lapse into - the overuse of things like “however” and “also” and other similar words. I throw “et cetera” out there way too often when I’m not sure how to end a sentence (a work colleague of mine does the same with the phrase “and so forth” - we joke about it sometimes).

If I have one potentially useful message here, it’s that in scientific writing (manuscripts intended for publication in medical journals) I try to adhere to a quote from Ocean’s Eleven: “Don’t use seven words when four will do.” For example:

Wordy: “Overall, there were 162 study participants. Of those, 46 (28%) were rehospitalized within 30 days.”

Direct: “46 of the 162 study participants (28%) were rehospitalized within 30 days.”

(admittedly, sometimes the above is in reaction to a “rule” that I personally dislike - some say that you should never start a sentence with a number)

Wordy: “At 16 hospital sites, we recruited over from January 2016 to March 2018, and finished with 162 participants.”

Direct: “We recruited 162 participants at 16 hospital sites from January 2016 to March 2018.”

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Curious if you had any idea on what exactly your blog would be about, or do you just go with current events/things that interest you with no real structure? I journal but mostly for my own memory and recall ability (which before taking active steps to improve was getting shittier by the day). I’ve been thinking of starting a blog for the points you outlined and just wondering what your approach was when starting it…

To Everyone: I’d say my writing has improved but I do find myself having trouble effectively communicating abstract ideas succinctly. I know it has to do with not having the vocabulary, which is something I try to actively improve - mainly through reading challenging works, both prose and poetry, to be exposed to different syntax styles and word choices. Right now I’m reading The Histories by Herodotus and a collection of Kipling’s poems.

On writing, I approach it depending on the goal. On here, depending on the topic, and how intellectually and emotionally invested I am, depends on my tone. I try to work on conveying my ideas and perspective as directly as I think it calls for and I try to put an emphasis on using words as precisely as I can muster.

Professionally, I’ve improved immensely over the last few years - mainly because I have to write quite a bit for my job. There are different approaches depending on the task, for instance, I write a lot of emails communicating with folks from different business functions (i.e. accounting/finance, operations, developers, executives, IT, 3rd party partners, etc.) coordinating efforts and processes, requesting documents, asking people to do stuff, dictating what a process will be/how a task will be performed, communicating suggestions for change, etc. I also write technical documentation for technicians. I also write reports and presentation deck slides/bullet points conveying highly technical ideas and converting them to the business people in both communicative and persuasive measures.

I review and edit a lot of what I write for work - sometimes on here I’ll do the same but a lot of the time I just don’t have the time to really do that here and it’s not as important as it is for work - i.e. y’all aren’t going to fire me if I misread something and fire off at the hip nor will I get passed over for a promotion of w/e if I’m being a snarky dickhead and just don’t give a fuck about it. But for work, if I get an email that illicits an emotional reaction and I write out my feelings - I’ll edit that down to an acceptably professional tenor that still conveys the same ideas but appropriate so to maximize the probability of cooperation with whoever just pissed me off. Catch more flys with honey than vinegar, and yada yada yada.

@twojarslave - fantastic topic; thank you for starting it man.

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When it first started, my idea was to take all the common dumb arguments I heard online and write out the counter argument, along with the counter to the counter argument. The idea being, when I encountered it online, I’d just link them to the post and be like “I’ve already had this conversation: here you go.”

From there, it just grew into something for me to take thoughts that were rattling around in my head and put them down on paper. Sometimes, I’ll stew on something for a week and finally get it out, sometimes, it’ll be Sunday and alluva sudden an idea will hit me while I’m driving or taking a shower or between sets and it’ll just pour out of my head.

I write “without a net”, by not allowing myself to proofread or edit once I’ve written. The idea is to take what was in my head at that EXACT moment and get it down. In turn, sometimes I go back and say “what the Hell was I thinking”, but it’s pretty cool to get that snapshot down.

I DO occasionally develop a backlog of topics to come back to if I just can’t think of something for the week, but for the most part, my time on forums gives me enough inspiration to tackle some subject.

If nothing else, a fun strategy is to try to (in good faith) argue FOR something you absolutely don’t support.

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Not sure about your technical writing skills but, your creative writing is on point. The Deer Antler Velvet reply was priceless!

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Thank you.

But I am not sure saying someone “write[s] exactly how I expect a lawyer to write” is a compliment. We don’t have the best reputation.

In reality, I do not have a writing style of my own. I have nothing original to offer you.

Which brings us to your “what has been helpful to you” question: I cannot recommend any instruction any more than reading The Elements of Syle ---- the original, fuddy-duddy, 1959 version, no less.

I am an unapologetic monkey of the rules set forth in William J Strunck’s The Elements of Style. The same, used, paperback copy I bought for Harvard law school writing class is laying on my desk. It has lots of tape on it, most rather yellowed with age.

And I do mean the 1959 version. Lesser editors of later versions started injecting needless politics into Elements. They’ve junked up the book. Internalize the original rules. Break the rules only after you’ve mastered them.

Some quick cheats:

Use the active voice.

Limit your sentences to 15 words in length, if possible. Shorter is better.

Favor a smaller, easier-to-understand, word over a big word, unless the big word replaces two small words.

Each sentence should refer to the end of the one before it. Each paragraph to the one before, as well. Someone should be able to outline your writing with Roman numerals.

And finally, it’s OK to start a sentence with “And” or “But”. Your 7th grade English teacher was an idiot.

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Fair point. I’ll rephrase it by saying that you write exactly how I expect a good lawyer to write. I know a few lawyers who I suspect work at Lionel Hutz’s firm,

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But he offers expert shoe repair! We do not. And his business card turns into a sponge!

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As a professional writer this is a wonderful thread to find. I can’t really weigh in with expertise in threads full of people who deadlift 300lbs more than me, but I might actually know a thing or two in this one.

I would like my first contribution to this thread to be this fantastic article:

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Interesting article, although coming from the lawyer’s perspective (and thus generally “prescriptive”) there are some quibbles. For example:

Lawyers clamp down on ad guys because we don’t want the company to get sued or get a bad reputation. Frustrating, yes. Pedantic, even. But not “insane”. We have our reasons. It all has to work together.

I’d also disagree that good legal writing uses too much punctuation. No, lazy legal writing uses too much punctuation. Again, 15 words is my max.

And finally, while language constantly changes, contracts and the like (if well written) should read the same 30 years ago and 30 years from now. They are interpreted using old cases 30 years in the future. Hence why quality legal writing classes still drag out the 1959 Struck and White and a mid-1970s Chicago Manual of Style.

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Being a polyglot can and in most cases destroy good writing practice. I am only fluent in three languages and can get by in two others but that is enough. I look for a word in one language and find the best word is in another and is often untranslateable! As for grammar that sometimes is a joke, especially in German. Having had a “classics” education sometimes they are the best option for thought but of course nowadays nobody learns them (Latin, ancient Greek).

I know that some of you are also polyglots and even use non-Latin characters. I have worked for Japanese, Korean and Chinese companies and had to correct their translations which sometimes were incredibly amusing!

AI translation has continued to improve but I believe it will never have the nuance of human thought. AI content generation is already here (what would Turing think I wonder?) and is dangerous in my opinion. The best way to learn to write well is to get someone else to read it and critique. My old Prof said “ if you can explain a complex subject in terms that anyone reading it has understood then you know it is good.”

Sorry for the rambling (AI generated, ha ha!).

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Jesus, don’t I know it!