How to Write Good

Break rules. That is the first principle of good writing. Conventional style and predictable prose will bore your audience. There is no greater sin.

You think I don’t know the difference between good and well, and this blog will be a train wreck. Or you think the headline is a joke, and this blog will be fun to read. Either way, you’re reading this blog and not something else. Which proves my point.

In a different medium, Beethoven understood the principle. His Eroica Symphony begins with a simple tune in the key of E-flat. It’s the sort of tune that, in the hands of Beethoven’s contemporaries, such as Bocklet, GänsbacherHüttenbrenner, or Schenk, would remain firmly in the key of E-flat. That’s the rule. You begin in one key, you stay in that key. At least until you prepare a modulation and introduce a new tune in B-flat.

Seven bars in, however, Beethoven breaks the rule. The music veers into…something strange. Definitely not in the key of E-flat:

German musicologists try to explain this gaffe. “It’s an unprepared modulation!” “It’s a chromatic passing tone!”

I’d insert a joke about German musicologists here, but I don’t want to offend my friends at KNIME and RapidMiner.

There is a simpler explanation. Beethoven broke the rules

He broke them deliberately. Imagine the surprised faces when Beethoven premiered the work at the Palais Lobkowitz in 1804. Vienna’s petty aristocrats did not like revolutionary thought, flies in the strudel, or wrong notes in symphonies. They preferred the music of Bocklet, Gänsbacher, Hüttenbrenner, or Schenk, composers who eschewed wrong notes.

You never heard of Bocklet, Gänsbacher, Hüttenbrenner, or Schenk? I rest my case.

By the way, if “Beethoven” evokes nothing other than a large St. Bernard dog, you need to get out more.

Beethoven also demonstrates the second principle of good writing: break rules sparingly.

If you break rules too often, people assume that you don’t know the rules. Or they figure you’re a loon. Most of Beethoven’s work conforms to classical style; his “wrong” notes stand out. Anton von Webern, on the other hand, wrote nothing but wrong notes, which is why you’ve never heard of Anton von Webern.

The third principle: use a &^%$# grammar checker. People send me writing samples, blog posts, press releases, white papers, and so forth. I drop the text into Grammarly and oops. Overused words, passive voice, unclear antecedents, you name it.

This is what happens to those writing samples.

What to do with bad writing.

When a writing sample fails the Grammarly test, it means the author is too lazy to check their work.

It reminds me of the story about the executive who went to a Mercedes dealer to check out a new S560. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) The exec admires the car in the showroom and chats with the sales rep.

“Can I take it for a test drive?” she asks.

“Certainly!” says the rep. “Wait here, I’ll bring one around.”

After a few minutes, the rep pulls up out front in a Mercedes S560 that is completely covered with bird shit.

The executive recoils. “This car is filthy!”

The rep shrugs. “It’s just bird shit. Isn’t this a beautiful car?

Don’t expect me to appreciate your ideas if your text is covered with bird shit grammar and style issues.

For the record, Grammarly does not pay me to shill for them. But they should.

The next principle: omit needless words. Yeah, I know. It’s not original. Strunk and White #13:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

That paragraph is a thing of beauty.

So what? you say. Strunk wrote that a hundred years ago. Don’t you have any new suggestions?

If Strunk and White #13 is obvious, why do we see so much bloated and tumescent business prose?

Think of words as a tax on the reader’s brain. Every syllable needs a neuron. More syllables –> more neurons –> more work for the reader. Your reader has other things to do, like trolling people or binging on Netflix. Tax your reader’s brain too much and you lose them.

You know who really knew how to omit needless words? The Spartans.

According to Herodotus (The Histories, Book 3, Section 46), a delegation from Samos traveled to Sparta to seek food. There, before the magistrates, they delivered a long and passionate plea for help.

The magistrates turned them down flat. “We can no longer remember the first half of your speech, and thus can make nothing of the remainder.”

Regrouping, the Samians secured another audience. This time, they made a shorter speech.

Again, the magistrates dismissed them. “Too many words.”

Desperate, the Samians returned for a final audience. This time, instead of a speech, they held out an empty bag with a sign: this bag wants bread.

The Spartans agreed to help the Samians but admonished them: they could have omitted the words ‘this bag’.

Learn to write like a fucking Spartan.

That bit about the Spartans demonstrates the next principle: tell stories.

If you lack confidence in your story-telling abilities, cheer up: in business, there is only one story. It goes like this.

  1. There is a shining city on the hill, where everything is perfect. Let’s go there.
  2. Oops, there’s a dragon under the bridge who eats people.
  3. Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that could kill dragons?
  4. Fortunately, (product) kills dragons.
  5. Here’s proof.
  6. You can kill dragons and go to the shining city. All you need is (product). Here’s how to learn more.

Forget outlining. No battle plan ever survived the first shot, said Napoleon. I say: no outline ever survived the first sentence. Just keep your story in mind while you write. Works every time.

The penultimate(*) principle: revise, revise, revise, revise. You want to write good? You have to revise and rewrite, rewrite and revise. Until you have something good enough to publish.

I’ve revised this post 25 times. It’s brilliant, right? Greatest blog post ever. But if I look at it again tomorrow, I’ll find something else to revise. It’s like detailing your car. There’s always one more spot that needs a buff.

What’s that? You have no time to revise because you’re on deadline?

Fuck your deadline. There are very few real emergencies in business. In Six-Sigma factories, anyone who spots a defect can stop the assembly line. More often than not, the “deadline” comes from some asshat who wants to juke the monthly eyeballs and needs you to create “content” on the spot. Plan ahead, and you will have time to revise all you want.

Good writing tomorrow is better than shitty writing today. If anyone tells you otherwise, find another platform.

(*) look it up, dummy.

The last principle of good writing: close with a bang. Don’t write like Wagner. Wagner dragged everything out.

You’ve heard the expression: it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. It’s not true. In Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen, the fat lady is Brünnhilde. When she starts singing in Act II of Die Walküre, she doesn’t stop for sixteen hours. Except for a few short breaks, like when Wotan puts her to sleep and surrounds her with a ring of fire.

Even when she’s done singing, it’s not over. There’s another last gasp of Wagnerian mush while the Rhine overflows, Valhalla burns, Hagen tries to grab the Ring, the RhineMaidens stop him, they grab the Ring, Hagen drowns, and Brünnhilde burns to a crisp. You waited ten years and paid a couple grand for the lamest seats in Bayreuth. You’re not going to run for the parking lot as soon as the fat lady stops singing. You’re going to wait to see the whole sorry mess collapse.

Stravinsky, on the other hand, knew how to close.

In the final section of Le Sacre du Printemps, after an ecstatic dance, the Chosen One collapses, dead. The orchestra delivers an enormous splat. Now that is an ending.

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6 comments

  • Charles R Berger

    It read good. Thanks!

  • Michael Helbraun

    Staying up to date on the state of the industry is something I enjoy, but it can also be a lot of the work – think digesting half baked documentation, translating marketing speak, or reading paid shill reporting. One of the reasons that I enjoy your blog so much, is the quality of the writing (the quality of the content and snark are right up there too). It’s nice seeing you branch out to some other topics, and this was equally useful.

  • Wise advice! If only more data science people thought about communicating as much as they do calculating, they might actually have more impact. And as for those writing-by-numbers posts that clog up KDnuggets, R-bloggers etc, ugh! Give me strength. I can’t imagine that anyone ever secured a great Silicon Valley job on the basis of one of those. I appreciate people who think for themselves, and that’s why I consistently enjoy your blog.

    Some prince wrote to Beethoven and ordered him to come and be court composer. This was like getting a headhunting call from Tim Cook himself. No, thank you, wrote Ludwig Van. The prince wrote back: you don’t understand, I am ze Prince. This had zero effect: “The world has many princes, but only one BEETHOVEN.”

    • Thanks for reading!

      The prince was Karl Alois Johann-Nepomuk Vinzenz Leonhard, Fürst Lichnowsky, also known as Carl Alois, Fürst von Lichnowsky-Woschütz. It was a friendly exchange. Beethoven dedicated to Lichnowsky the Opus 1 piano trios, the Opus 13 and Opus 26 piano sonatas, and the Second Symphony.

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