The 4 Pillars of Good Writing

How to “deschool” your writing.

Which hard skill do recent college grads lack the most? In 2016, PayScale.com asked employers this question. The top response was “writing proficiency.”

Wow. Our education system teaches few practical skills, but it does emphasize writing. So what gives? Incompetent teachers? Unteachable students?

Actually, the problem for many college graduates is having absorbed their academic training all too well. The challenge for them is to unlearn the bad writing habits picked up from 16-plus years of school.

Doing so takes the right approach, but it also takes work. An article can’t teach you good writing. At best, it can teach you how to teach yourself to write well. So, I won’t offer much style advice. Instead, I’ll explain the mentalities and practices that are most fundamental for becoming a good writer, and that are also most missing among young writers, as I’ve found as an editor and writing coach.

As a student writer, your job was to perform according to specifications. A successful essay was one that jumped through the right hoops as defined by the assignment requirements and grading rubrics. It also demonstrated that you had done the reading and attended the lectures.

Real-world audiences are looking for a good experience, not a “correct” performance.

But as a real-world writer, you’re now in the experience business. Your job is to show your readers a good time: to intrigue and inspire, to enlighten and engross, to please and provoke. You’re a dealer in fascinating ideas and satisfying arguments, a purveyor of a-ha moments and epiphanies.

Now you’re writing for readers, not graders. Real-world audiences are looking for a good experience, not a “correct” performance.

But to offer a good experience, you must be able to recognize one. Every good chef is to some extent a connoisseur. Similarly, to be a good writer, you need to be a discriminating reader. To produce quality writing, you must be able to appreciate it when you read it and to distinguish it from mediocre or poor writing.

How does one become a connoisseur of food? Through practice: eating a lot of dishes, especially delicious ones. How does one become a connoisseur of words? Again, through practice: reading a lot of books and articles, especially ones you love. To be a good writer, you need to be an avid reader.

I myself only blossomed as a writer after I rediscovered my long-lost love of reading.

College students read a lot. Why doesn’t that make them good writers? The problem here is that it is mostly compulsory. There is no space to seek and discover what kind of reading experiences you love if all your reading time is taken up with stuff you are assigned. You cannot make someone a connoisseur by force-feeding them.

Your reading diet needs to be voluntary if it is going to help you figure out the kind of writing you love. Find a topic you are curious about, look for some well-reviewed titles on Amazon, and dive in.

I myself only blossomed as a writer after I rediscovered my long-lost love of reading. And that only happened after I graduated from college and was no longer tied down to a syllabus.

It was only after being able to recognize excellent history writing that I was able to produce it myself.

My first post-grad reading love affair was with books about history. I became obsessed with learning the story of human civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Through pursuing this passion, I developed a discriminating taste for history writing.

Later, I started writing historical vignettes of my own. These were published on a major website and garnered admiring comments from readers. This was my debut as a published writer.

It was only after being able to recognize excellent history writing that I was able to produce it myself.

In your first draft, when you are initially hammering out your sentences, good taste will be of some help. But where it really makes a difference is in self-editing.

Be picky with your own prose. Demand quality. Now that you know what you like, go back and edit your own writing until you enjoy reading it: ideally until you love it.

Take as many editing passes as needed to carve the piece into something you’re proud of.

Rearrange sections to ensure a logical flow. Reword awkward phrases. Add creative flourishes, like a vivid metaphor or a delightful turn of phrase. Make the wording musical to your mind’s ear. Tweak and fine-tune. Take as many editing passes as needed to carve the piece into something you’re proud of.

Above all, prune. If you’ve recently graduated from college, your writing is probably way too wordy. Minimum word counts have trained you to pad your prose.

Here’s a worthwhile exercise: next time you write something, try cutting its word count in half. Comb through every passage and ruthlessly delete anything that doesn’t clearly contribute value to the piece.

Is that paragraph a digression? Remove it. Would your meaning be clear without that adverb? Zap it. All that verbal foliage will only drag the reading experience down. Once you trim it away, your piece will be much more brisk and enjoyable.

The more frequently you write, the faster you’ll improve as a writer.

No amount of tips and tricks will make you a good writer. It is not a matter of adopting the right formula or following an expert’s dos and don’ts. Ultimately, it’s up to you to teach yourself how to write well through experience and self-evaluation. Most best practices can only be learned through actual practice.

And as with any form of training, you have to get your reps in. The more frequently you write, the faster you’ll improve as a writer. Start a blog with Medium.com or WordPress.com. Challenge yourself to write and click publish every day for a month.

Share your posts on social media. Occasionally review your older posts and notice how your writing has evolved. Identify flaws that seem to be persisting or virtues that seem to be missing. Push yourself to improve every week. If you do that for a month, you are certain to be a much better writer than when you began.

Why not start today?

Reprinted from the Praxis blog.

Dan Sanchez
Dan Sanchez

Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor of FEE.org.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

The Dystopian Novel that Foresaw the Nightmares of Socialism

By Bryan Caplan

Decades before the socialists gained power, Eugene Richter saw the writing on the wall.

n the mid-nineteenth century, a new political movement arose: socialism. Germany was its epicenter. The German Karl Marx was its leading thinker, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany its leading organization. The socialists denounced capitalist inequality and argued that the obvious solution was government ownership of the means of production.

From the outset, many questioned the practicality of the socialists’ solution. After you equalize incomes, who will take out the garbage? Yet almost no one questioned the socialists’ idealism. By 1961, however, the descendants of the radical wing of the Social Democratic Party had built the Berlin Wall—and were shooting anyone who tried to flee their “workers’ paradise.” A movement founded to liberate the worker turned its guns on the very people it vowed to save.

Who could have foreseen such a mythic transformation? Out of all the critics of socialism, one stands out as uniquely prescient: Eugene Richter (1838–1906).[1] During the last decades of the nineteenth century, he was the leading libertarian in the German Reichstag, as well as the chief editor of the Freisinnige Zeitung. Seventy years before the Wall, Richter’s dystopian novel, Pictures of the Socialistic Future, boldly predicted that victorious German socialism would inspire a mass exodus—and that the socialists would respond by banning emigration, and punishing violators with deadly force.

The mass exodus:

Useful people, and people who had really learnt something, went away in ever-increasing numbers to Switzerland, to England, to America, in which countries Socialism has not succeeded in getting itself established. Architects, engineers, chemists, doctors, teachers, managers of works and mills, and all kinds of skilled workmen, emigrated in shoals. The main cause of this would appear to be a certain exaltation of mind which is greatly to be regretted. These people imagine themselves to be something better, and they cannot bear the thought of getting only the same guerdon as the simple honest day laborer.

The emigration ban:

A decree has been issued against all emigration without the permission of the authorities.… Old persons who are beyond work, and infants, are at liberty to go away, but the right to emigrate cannot be conceded to robust people who are under obligations to the State for their education and culture, so long as they are of working age.

The deadly force:

Under these circumstances the Government is to be commended for stringently carrying out its measures to prevent emigration. In order to do so all the more effectually, it has been deemed expedient to send strong bodies of troops to the frontiers, and to the seaport towns. The frontiers towards Switzerland have received especial attention from the authorities. It is announced that the standing army will be increased by many battalions of infantry and squadrons of cavalry. The frontier patrols have strict instructions to unceremoniously shoot down all fugitives.

Lord Acton and F.A. Hayek have inspired the two most popular explanations for the crimes of actually existing socialism. While Acton never lived to see socialists gain power, their behavior seems to perfectly illustrate his aphorism that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2] For all their idealism, even socialists will do bad things if left unchecked. Hayek, with the benefit of hindsight, suggested a slightly different explanation: under socialism, “the worst get on top.”[3] On this theory, the idealistic founders of socialism were gradually pushed out by brutal cynics as their movement’s power increased.

Richter’s novel advances a very different explanation for socialism’s “moral decay”: the movement was born bad. While the early socialists were indeed “idealists,” their ideal was totalitarianism. Their overriding goals were to engineer a new society and a New Socialist Man. If this meant treating workers like slaves—depriving them of the freedom to choose their occupation or location, forbidding them to quit, splitting up families without their consent, and imposing draconian punishments on malcontents—so be it.

Richter admittedly presents some of the socialists’ uglier policies—increased work hours, stringent rationing, massive military spending, corporal punishment—as slippery-slope responses to deteriorating conditions. But many of their worst offenses happen early in the novel, and Mr. Schmidt, the book’s socialist narrator, happily supports them. In chapter 6, workers lose the freedom to choose their line of work. Schmidt’s reaction:

What has the Government to do in order to bring their scheme for organizing production and consumption into some sort of harmony with the entries made by the people? Should Government attempt a settlement by fixing a lower rate of wages for those branches which showed any over-crowding, and a higher rate for those labors which were not so coveted? This would be a subversion of the fundamental principles of Socialism.

In chapter 7, the government imposes internal passports to prevent farmers from moving to the greater comfort of the city. Schmidt’s reaction:

It would unquestionably have been better if those regulations which have only just been issued had been issued at the very first. According to these regulations no one can now temporarily leave his place of residence without first providing himself with a leave-of-absence ticket; and no one can make a permanent removal without receiving such directions from higher quarters.

In chapter 15, long before conditions become desperate, socialist Germany bans emigration—and threatens fugitives with death. Schmidt’s reaction:

Socialism is founded upon the principle that it is the duty of all persons alike to labor, just as under the old regime the duty to become a soldier was a universally recognized one. And just as in the old days young men who were ripe for military service were never allowed to emigrate without authority, so can our Government similarly not permit the emigration from our shores of such persons as are of the right age to labor.

What inspired Richter to make these grim—yet uncannily accurate—predictions about the “socialistic future”? The most plausible hypothesis is that Richter personally knew the leading socialists from the German Reichstag, and saw them for what they were.[4] I submit that he repeatedly peppered the socialists with unpleasant hypotheticals, from “Under socialism, who will take out the garbage?” to “What will you do if skilled workers flee the country?” When socialist politicians responded with hysteria and evasion, Richter drew the natural inference: “If this is how these ‘idealists’ deal with critical questions before they have power, just imagine how they’ll deal with critical actions after they have power!” As Richter’s proxy explains in the novel’s climactic speech,

In endeavoring to get rid of the disadvantages of the socialistic method of manufacture, you place such restrictions on the freedom of the person, and of commerce, that you turn Germany into one gigantic prison.… To those in jail there was, at least, the possibility of an act of pardon, which might some day open a path to liberty, even to those who had been condemned to life-long imprisonment. But those who are handed over to your socialistic prison are sentenced for life without hope of escape; the only escape thence is suicide.

Despite their intuitive appeal, the Actonian “power corrupts” and Hayekian “worst get on top” theories of socialist moral decay seem inferior to Richter’s “born bad” account. Power does indeed lead politicians to betray their ideals, but from the standpoint of nineteenth-century socialism, the real “sellouts” were the moderate Social Democrats who gradually made peace with the capitalist system. The worst do indeed get on top in totalitarian regimes. But if the early socialists had not intellectually justified extreme brutality, their movement probably wouldn’t have attracted the many sadists and sociopaths who came to run it. Only the Richterian theory can readily explain why the most devoted surviving child of German socialism grew up to be the prison state of East Germany: self-righteous brutality was the purists’ plan all along.

Decades before the socialists gained power, Eugene Richter saw the writing on the wall. The great tragedy of the twentieth century is that the world had to learn about totalitarian socialism from bitter experience, instead of Richter’s inspired novel. Many failed to see the truth until the Berlin Wall went up. By then, alas, it was too late.


[1] For excellent discussions of Richter’s life, thought, and influence, see Ralph Raico, “Eugen Richter and Late German Manchester Liberalism: A Reevaluation,” Review of Austrian Economics 4 (1990): pp. 3–25, and Ralph Raico, “Authentic German Liberalism of the 19th Century,” Mises Daily (2005).

[2] Acton-Creighton Correspondence, Letter 1.

[3] F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 148–67.

[4] Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws (1878–90) made life difficult for the Social Democratic Party of Germany, but never imposed an outright ban. The party bottomed out at nine seats in the Reichstag in 1878—and jumped up to thirty-five in 1890 when the Anti-Socialist Laws lapsed.


Published under Creative Commons. Attributed to Foundation for Economic Freedom

40 Ways to Exploit Facial Expressions in Your Writing

writing facial expressions

You’ve finally finished your first draft of the next magnificent, ground breaking novel. Give yourself some credit and congratulate yourself. Authoring a book isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it’s a task most people never achieve.

Unfortunately, getting the story down on the proverbial piece of paper is only half the battle. Your first draft will be crap—there’s no getting around it. And that’s okay. But it means your WIP requires a lot of editing, much re-reading, and a lot of dust collecting as it sits in a drawer for weeks to bake—you need to do this for a fresh editorial perspective.

If you’re doing the right thing by your work (and yourself as a writer), the time spent away from your completed draft is time you’ll spend researching. You’ll need to research basics like do I really capitalize that noun or not; what makes a verb an adverb; the oxford comma placement; and general narrative structure.

But most of all, you’ll want to scrutinize your writing faults.

THE EYES/BROWSMOUTH GESTURESFACIAL EXPRESSIONSTHE SKIN
He winkedHer jaw droppedHer expression dulledHer face flushed
Lines etched his browHis smile fadedHe scowledHe paled
Tears filled her eyesHis jaw clenchedShe cocked her headExcessive makeup
The lack of eye contactShe smiled half-heartedlyThe smile reached his eyesBeads of sweat formed on his face
He closed his eyes and sighedHe gave a Cheshire Cat grinHer puffy faceThe smile dimpled his skin

More common than not is the writer’s habit of conveying dull facial expressions for their characters. “He looked/she looked” isn’t satisfactory, I’m afraid. The odd raise of the eyebrow is okay, but it’s not telling me a lot about yourself other than you’re reading this with a slight pang of curiosity.

I want to read about scepticism, vindictiveness or anger, and have it used as a solid dialogue tag or descriptor for a larger scene. Show me the traits, their temperament, and their fears.

Make your characters human.

To catch and hold a reader’s attention, your characters need to experience the life you’ve placed them in. Show their embarrassment with the crimson colour of their skin. Did their face harden as a result? Did recognition dawn on their face as terror overtook their fleeting glance, while their side-kick’s face contorted and twisted in terror?

Or maybe their face simply went blank. [insert crickets chirping].

HAPPINESSHOSTILITYFEARSHAME
Broad smileVein throbbed in neckShaky smileBiting of lip
WhistlingSnarlingBlinking rapidlySwallowing hard
Sparkling eyesSideways glanceDarting glanceSweating
WinkingFlared nostrilsPale featuresGlancing away
LaughterSneeringTrembling featuresDownward gaze

Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King are masters of character expression (and great reads). Study the greats while you distance yourself from your draft. Get a fresh perspective for when you do your first line-by-line edit.

And remember, context is crucial for conveying expression; and writing is far from easy.

So, if you want your audience’s nose to flare with anticipation and not bore them with two-dimensional nonsense, then clench your jaw, nibble on your bottom lip and look heavenward as you contemplate the descriptors for your editing kick start.

A Beautiful Mess

The world of words is a scary place when laid on a platter for everyone to feast upon. Not only that, it’s unglamorous, lonely, and equates to a low level of pay for the rate of hours put in. Too much coffee is consumed, marriages end in divorce, and your kids end up in a strange haze of detesting you as they honestly sing your praises.

Sitting here at my desk, late at night, a single kind of co-parent – the kids are in bed and I’ve just hit the 31 thousand word limit I’ve set for myself this month – I’m contemplating a crossroad.

I’m surrounded in a chaos of books, strewn papers and incense; I love what I see. There’s a world map angled on the wall, two cats curled by the fire, and the candlelight flickers as I write. For two months I have confined myself to my desk, tasting for the first time the life of an uninterrupted writer. It is bliss.

In around 56 hours that two-month bliss will abruptly end. I am to return to the mundane; and although I can afford to live off my writing alone, I choose for the moment to return. I’ve never been good with uncertainty – growing up in poverty has that effect – but really, if I’m honest, it’s only in the last two weeks, you see, that I’ve accepted myself as a writer.

For three years I have been a paid writer, and technically if you count my first royalty cheque from Amazon, that takes me back seven years. But it’s only now that I can accept it as truth. And I ask why?

At the newly hit age of 40, maybe I’m having a midlife crisis. Or maybe I’ve just realised that if I’m on a good wicket, judging by maternal genetics, I’m already halfway through my ‘young’ life. That I’ve only realised it’s okay to be a ‘paid’ writer may have something to do with me opting for the misery that is ‘real’ and stressful work.

I’ve given myself a set deadline to resign from the ‘other’ soul-draining job. I think by then I can come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I beg myself, I will always . . . be . . . a writer.

Copyright © 2019

Diary of a Dystopian Writer

Dear Diary,

We’re strange creatures. We lock ourselves away, isolated from the real world, yet go a million miles per hour, delving into the pretend one. Rarely does the wordsmith receive understanding from the outside; only acceptance, tolerance . . . and the obligatory: but they’re a writer, as though it explains the obvious.

Writers, I think, are inherently hyperactive. Hyperactive with a splash of the neurotics. Those who aren’t writers will disagree. We resemble that of a sloth in the mornings, hunting out our first caffeine hit with the grace of a moss-covered creature. We then retreat to our cave, slowly experiencing the ritual metamorphosis, until we resemble something closer to a primate. By nightfall, the writer is a standoffish human form – a sight to behold; it’s a remarkable transformation—or so I’ve been told.

Let’s face it: writing, as a career, is one of the more mentally dystopian, draining, contemptuous acts a single person will ever embark on. It isn’t an easy career, and by all means not an easy choice. Much like our fellow tortured artists—painters, musicians, photographers—we’re outsiders looking into a world, desperate to understand the cogs and wheels turning beneath the madness. We clutch at what we know, with it sometimes slipping through our fingers. (Notebook, anyone?)

From this desperation we search every corner and every nook of our mind, trying to determine what it is to be human. Facial expressions, traits, environmental settings, secrets, how one speaks, mannerisms, stressors and reactions, suffering, misery, pain, excruciating death . . . to write is to be human. To create is divine.

And then the lone writer will constantly haggle with their inner being, nag at, doubt, accuse, and often hold such ridicule for oneself: Are we good enough? Are our thoughts worthy? Do we matter? The furball-so-called-writing companion on the desk is staring at me again . . . Am I talking out loud?! Am I paranoid? You examine the pros and cons, ins and outs of the world and then you doubt yourself even more.

And then there are those writers who routinely sit for 8 hours, produce their word count and sip iced water . . . really? [enter crickets chirping]

Then you edit, you censor, you rewrite—only to decide the original is more fitting—you pace your study, you publish, you retract, you publish again; you drink more coffee, pat the cat, and go to bed.

But you don’t sleep. Your mind wanders to your characters, your writing, your words, your day, and whether Good Charlotte will break up when they’re in their 70s? What moisturiser does Gerard Butler use and can I have some? Incessant randoms continue to haunt your Z’s until the alarm clock yells ‘Wake Up!’ only for the writer to start their day again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

A lot of writers are divorced, are hermits or have married other writers (or musicians—a strange co-existence in itself). Their children usually go on to other artistic ventures, only because they were forced in childhood to befriend their make believe worlds out of loneliness; rejected for the wordcount. That, or they practice accounting.

It is what it is, folks. But before you poke fun at the writer next time, spare a thought for their poor soul. The writer didn’t choose this wretched path. It chose them.

Now, do I hit publish or pat the cat instead?

Copyright © 2019