Category Archives: Writing

The Ending Should Oppose the Beginning

In episode 44 of Scriptnotes (transcript), John August and Craig Mazin talked about how the ending of a movie should relate to the beginning. One thing Mazin said made this clear:

… if you’re writing and you don’t know how the movie ends, you’re writing the wrong beginning. Because to me, the whole point of the beginning is to be somehow poetically opposite the end. That’s the point. If you don’t know what you’re opposing here, I’m not really sure how you know what you’re supposed to be writing at all.

In my post about The James Bond Opening to a software demo, I recommended starting with something exciting about how another customer is getting value. This should be short and sweet and gets the prospect to lean forward.

But next, talk about the problems the prospect is having right now, which you learned about in discovery. Remind them of this as you start their story—the one you are about to tell, which will take them from their life now to a new life after they buy your software. By the end of the demo they should be convinced to take the next step.

If you want to learn how to tell stories like this, I recommend learning how screenwriters do it. Scriptnotes is a great place to do that. They know how to tell a story where a protagonist makes a decision that inevitably leads them to a changed life. This is like the story you want your prospect to feel they are in.

Sweep Edit for Adverbs

I use Joanna Wiebe’s technique of editing in sweeps, which means that I edit written work in multiple 2-pass sweeps that each address one problem. In each first pass, I highlight the text that I should fix in this sweep, and then I do a second pass to fix them. This is in contrast to fixing different problems in a single read-through of the work.

For example, right after I finish a first draft of a blog post, I do a sweep edit to make the piece about one specific message to one kind of audience. I highlight anything that isn’t part of that message, and then I go through those parts and either remove them or make sure they are short enough to not distract the reader. While I am doing this, I am not fixing grammar or tone because I will do that later—each sweep is focussed.

After reading Writing Down the Bones, I finally have a better way to make my writing use fewer adverbs and adjectives. I have always tried to find and remove adverbs, but now I also find better nouns and verbs for the sentence I just edited. This lets me gorge on as many adverbs and adjectives as I want in the first draft, because I can trust myself to fix them later.

The extra adjectives and adverbs actually help me. They are a wordy description of the better noun and verb for that sentence. I can use Goldberg’s noun and verb game or a thesaurus to find them.

I’ll be elaborating on this in tomorrow’s episode of the Write While True podcast.

Writing Down the Bones is a Playable Book

After I wrote yesterday’s review of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, I went to my copies of The Golden Book on Writing and The Elements of Style to find out what they had to say about verbs.

As expected, they also recommend that you avoid adverbs and pick out more specific verbs. I’ve heard this advice many times and all it has resulted in is that I remove most “very”, “really” and “pretty” intensifiers before I publish. I don’t take the second step, which should have been to find better nouns and verbs. This leaves my sentences imprecise and boring. The advice failed me because it didn’t come with any instructions. They just dropped a few examples and figured you’d get the idea.

Natalie Goldberg uses one sentence to say that you should use better verbs and then spends the next few pages showing you exactly how to do that. She gives you an exercise that will train you to think up more precise verbs. More importantly, it’s kind of fun. Like a game.

It’s play.

Review: Writing Down the Bones

My memories of reading Writing Down the Bones will always be tied to the beach. I read the book over several mornings on the Gulf Coast of Sarasota. It was early enough in the morning to beat the Florida-in-August heat, but late enough to let the truck rake the sand at the shoreline. I walked to the edge of the water, put my chair in the sand with my back to the sunrise, and settled in to read the wisdom of Natalie Goldberg. When I had about 50 pages left and didn’t have enough time to go out, I put my AirPods in and played some ocean sounds while I finished it.

Writing Down the Bones is a book about writing. It’s also a book about meditation. And, like many writing books, it’s a memoir. The three themes are intertwined in short, practical chapters that will get you writing.

It was written around the same time as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, more than 30 years ago. Like Cameron, Goldberg recommends that you “practice” writing. Her timed writing exercise is a lot like Cameron’s morning pages, and since Cameron wrote a foreword for this book, I’ve imagined them as lifelong friends and cross-influencers.

The main difference in their daily practice is that Goldberg recommends that the writing be directed. Like Goldberg, I have come to the conclusion that I should try to guide my pages a little more. She has a chapter with some suggested prompts. My favorite is to start with “I remember” and then just write what comes to mind. Whenever you get stuck, just repeat “I remember” and start again. I have used this idea often since I read it.

Goldberg uses the name “writing practice” for her timed writing exercise to evoke the “practice” of meditation. She draws comparisons between writing and meditation throughout the book. A through line of work is her accepting her guru’s attempts to convince her that writing was meditation. She is a much more serious practitioner than I am, but I have meditated regularly for more than five years, so these comparisons made sense to me. I consider my morning pages a kind-of meditation.

Another chapter, “The Action of a Sentence,” is a practical way to find good verbs. First she lists 10 random nouns. Then, she picks a vocation (in this case a Chef) and lists all the verb associated with it (chop, mince, slice, cut, taste, etc). Then she matches a noun, a verb and completes the thought. As a poet, these serendipitous combinations might go right into her work. For me, just expanding the list of verbs in my mind makes it possible to avoid adverbs and make verbs exert themselves to describe the scene.

I reread books like this every so often, so I am sure I’ll read it again in a few years. But, right now, I’m going through the book again and trying to figure out how I will keep it fresh in my mind as I continue to write. I was too enthralled to take good notes the first time.

Perhaps it’s a book I just need to consult more often. Pulling it off the shelf when I need a boost. Or maybe it will be my perennial beach read—with me when the waves remind me to flip through it again.

July 2023 Blog Roundup

This month I kept up with my Podcast, mainly because I banked five episodes and then took a break

Based on my podcast, I wrote

I also used the Hacker News OPML file to add a bunch of blogs to my feed. This resulted in a bunch of posts

Having a Blog Makes Me Do Things

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded an OPML file of 1,000+ blogs to follow, which I only did because I thought I might get ideas of things to write about. I ended up writing about minimal blog feeds, how NetNewsWire handled the OPML file, raylib, linear algebra in game dev, and then I worked on a game in raylib (which I only did to write about).

A few years ago I started reading books about writing including Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, On Writing by Stephen King, Art & Fear by Orland and Bayles, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and most recently, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These books have been the backbone of my podcast about writing and have generated a lot of posts on this blog (Here’s a mashup of the ideas of Lamott and Cameron). If I didn’t blog, I would not have read them, which would have been a shame, because they are great and very applicable to writing code.

Obviously, not everything I do is just for this blog. Most of what I do is not. But, having this blog has made some use of the exhaust I spew by wanting to try things out. I used to stop myself by saying that I should focus on fewer things (which I did, and that was good), but now the thing I am focussed on is writing, and this blog is making it beneficial to do things that don’t seem to have much point.

Rewrite of Blogging follows doing based on Old, Flawed Work is the Jumping Off Point

Old, Flawed Work is the Jumping Off Point

In my podcast yesterday, I shared my final lesson-learned from Art & Fear, which was that flaws are useful in making art. I always end the podcast with a writing tip, so you to look over your early work and find pieces where you didn’t live up to your intention.

This blog is nearly 20 years old, so I have a lot of old, flawed posts. For the rest of the week, I’m going to look for posts that had a good idea, but didn’t do a good job of expressing it.

Here is the process that I’m going to apply:

  1. Find a post that feels like it has no point, just a bunch of related ideas. (I have a lot of these)
  2. Figure out the single message or takeaway I wanted to convey.
  3. Remove everything that isn’t part of that message.
  4. Reorder the text to make it clear what the point of the post is as soon as possible.
  5. Title it to support that message.
  6. Add whatever else it might need to convey that single message.
  7. Make it more specific to my intended audience: software developers and managers.

It’s what I try to do now in new posts. I outlined this approach in Write While True Episode 5: Audience and Message.

Notice What You Notice

In my podcast, I am doing a four part series on lessons I learned from Art & Fear by Bayles and Orland. Tomorrow, I’ll release part 3, but today I want to share a passage that I think of often, but didn’t make the series (emphasis mine).

It’s all a matter of balance, and making art helps achieve that balance. For the artist, a sketchpad or a notebook is a license to explore — it becomes entirely acceptable to stand there, for minutes on end, staring at a tree stump. Sometimes you need to scan the forest, sometimes you need to touch a single tree — if you can’t apprehend both, you’ll never entirely comprehend either. To see things is to enhance your sense of wonder both for the singular pattern of your own experience, and for the meta-patterns that shape all experience. All this suggests a useful working approach to making art: notice the objects you notice.

When I am reading, when I am working, I am trying to be aware of when I smile and feel a rush of insight or understanding. I am trying to realize that I am noticing something. Notice my notice. I don’t know what to do with it yet, but what I am doing is making some kind of mark—taking down a note or a photo—just to remember the moment so I can deal with it later.

Minimum Blog Feed Criteria

There was a post on HackerNews recently asking for everyone to post their personal blog. A few days later, some people had hacked up projects based on that data, including this OPML file, which you can import into a feed reader to follow all of the blogs.

I imported it and realized immediately that there were way too many to follow, so I started to cull them. I still have a long way to go, but I noticed a few things that made me want to delete feeds from my list immediately.

Here’s my list of things your feed should have:

  1. A title. For some reason, there are a bunch of untitled feeds. The <link> tag has a title attribute, and I’m pretty sure that if you leave it blank, most readers will pick up the site’s <title> tag.
  2. The full post. I don’t know if it’s intentional or just a default of some blog software. If you have a feed, I recommend putting the full post in it.
  3. A recentish post. I know it’s hard to keep a blog up-to-date, but if you are going to add your site to a list, go put up a new post if your latest is very old. Even if it’s just a short intro and a few links to your best posts.
  4. Not too many posts. I possibly post too much, but there were a few blogs with several posts each day. They were short posts, but I still found that they dominated my unread list too much, so I ended up deleting them.

There were other reasons I deleted blogs, but most of them had to do with the general topics of the blog, which were just not interesting to me personally.

Writing by Speaking

A few weeks ago I wrote about the tools and materials of writing and concluded that using clauses to make interesting, well-ordered, complex sentences was a core skill.

I got this idea from David Lambuth’s book, The Golden Book on Writing. This is a book a lot like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Like Strunk, he was an Ivy League University English professor and turned his class notes into a pamphlet sized book.

Here’s another gem from the book:

Write down your idea as you would in speech, swiftly and un-selfconsciously without stopping to think about the form of it at all. Revise it afterwards.

I can’t easily write “as you would in speech”, so I’ve been trying to learn by speaking my writing. To be fair, extemporaneous speaking is also difficult, but it does feel like something that I can improve with practice. I talked more about the details in Write While True Episode 20: Extemporaneous Writing.