Just before Christmas I stumbled on a most excellent little book: “100 Ways to Improve Your Writing” by Gary Provost. I wish I found it earlier, as it has been available for almost forty years. It is a little gem of good advice on how to write better (and how to communicate better general).
By the way, that way of using a statement in parenthesis is not recommended by Gary.
I found the book when I was researching resources for a presentation on “communications skills” for my colleagues at Intel. I stumbled on this quote from the book in another blog post, and it drew me in:
That recursive or self-referential way of writing obviously resonates with a computer scientist. I bought the book, in paper form, to read over the Christmas holidays.
“100 ways to improve your writing” was first published in 1984 – but that should not scare you off. The writing tips are still relevant today, forty years later, and would have been relevant forty years before that. The book feels a little bit dated in some early chapters about research and resources, but once through that the material is timeless. There is a story hiding behind those updates, which I get back to later.
The book is not just about writing well, but it is also very well-written. Seriously, would you trust a book about writing that was poorly written? Gary Provost, the author, was a really talented and skilled writer.
The introduction sets the tone and ambition:
If your writing does not improve after you have read this book, you have not failed. I have. It is the writer’s job, not the reader’s, to see that writing accomplishes whatever goal the writer has set for it.
You can rephrase this as “writing is a serious undertaking. Take it seriously.”
I would think that success is pretty much guaranteed. Even the most skilled and experienced writer will find something to learn. For me, for some reason the tips that I go back to most often are the ones about active and passive verbs and good use of adverbs and adjectives.
The book is packed with insights, expressed in what I find to be a tone and style that is just perfect. For example, speaking of style, consider the advice on style:
In any discussion of writing, the word style means the way in which an idea is expressed, not the idea itself. Style is form, not content. A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style. There is no subject that cannot be made fascinating by a well-informed and competent writer. And there is no subject that cannot be quickly turned into a literary sleeping pill by an incompetent writer.
Very insightful. Just having a very compelling message is not enough, the presentation also matters. However, the message is not of one of style over substance. Gary is very much concerned with getting correct information across. His whole approach is about writing text for the reader, not for yourself. That is the way to convey the message you need to get across or the story you want to tell.
Many tips are illustrated with contrasting blocks of text, showing what bad and better writing looks like. This example is nice and short:
There are multiple examples where concepts are illustrated by the text explaining them. Sometimes it is so subtle you might miss it. Sometimes, it is totally on the nose and impossible to miss, like this tip:
Clichés are a dime a dozen. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They’ve been used once too often. They’ve outlived their usefulness. Their familiarity breeds contempt.
They make the writer look as dumb as a doornail, and they cause the reader to sleep like a log. So be sly as a fox. Avoid clichés like the plague. If you start to use one, drop it like a hot potato. Instead, be smart as a whip. Write something that is fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack. Better safe than sorry.
Towards the end of the book there is a chapter of common grammar mistakes in the English language. It struck me as a bit on an odd inclusion, as it is not quite as universal as the rest of the book, which presents tips that would work equally well in most languages. Still, for those writing English, it is definitely a useful set of tips that will improve your writing in practice.
The physical paperback edition I received is honestly a bit on the small side. While it is nice with a book that does not feel the need to dominate its surroundings in the bookshelf, the layout feels cramped. The text ends very close to the spine, and it was rather painful to take the photos used to illustrate this blog. I would not have objected to paying an additional 50% to get something slightly more substantial with a better binding and bigger margins.
As shown in the picture, each chapter of the book covers a theme (like how to write a strong beginning) with a number of concrete numbered tips. Personally, I have read this book in small bites of a chapter or two at a time. After each chunk, I had to stop and digest and take notes. And update the aforementioned presentation on communications skills.
Putting Words on It
A recurring realization as I read through the book was that Gary put words on techniques and principles that I already knew but had never articulated as such.
Before you write, track down the bits of information are going to need. Get the prices you must quote, the names of people you will mention. Find out when it’s going to happen, where it will be, who’s going to be speaking, and whether or not dogs are allowed. You cannot write securely on any subject unless you have gathered far more information than you will use.
The last part is profound. This kind of over-learning seems natural to me. I don’t feel comfortable writing or presenting I am not prepared to handle follow-up questions. When I write, I try to proactively address possible questions or tangential discussions that a reader might have. All in order to make them perceive the text as solid, well-researched, and written by someone who knows what they are doing in general. A text that is written without this approach always seems unaware of its surroundings and narrow in scope, even if it is really solid on its core material.
Same goes for presentations – when presenting a topic, be prepared to handle questions on related topics and how the topic at hand fits the bigger picture. Not just precisely what you prepared.
That was a digression down a pet peeve. Sorry.
Never Stop Learning
Reading this book is a good example of something I have been trying to consciously apply in recent years – taking courses or getting training on things I already think I know fairly well. Even if you know half of what is presented, if a teacher is any good, you will still learn a lot. Even if you know almost all of it, getting a good structuring might still be worth it. Specifically for my job, even if you have used a software tool for years, there are surely things you will learn from a course. There are probably things you never knew existed and better ways to do what you know.
A good example is the weekend photo class I took last year – while I think I took decent enough photos before based on stuff I figured out on my own, having a knowledgeable teacher systematically go through concepts and controls really unlocked the hobby for me.
To loop back to the intro of book – Gary said that he failed if my writing did not improve. I think I failed by not finding and reading the book until now. I have had writing as an essential part of my job for 30+ years. And for most of this time, I have trusted my own instincts rather than actively search out distilled advice such as that provided by “100 ways to improve your writing”.
Book, Author, and Updates
The author of the original edition of the book, Gary Provost, died in 1995. For some reason, the book itself never really makes that clear. The introduction kind of assumes you know it. Or it makes more sense if you know it.
Before doing some minimal research, it seemed to me that he was still alive, just slow with updates to a classic. The edition I have is listed as having been updated in 2019. As far as I can tell, that update has been done by people at “Gail Provost Stockwell”, the company that cares for Gary Provost’s legacy.
The update is honestly quite nicely done, sneaking in occasional modern references to books published in the 2010s as well as reasonable recent pop-culture references like Beyonce. It stills feels just a tiny bit sneaky for some reason. Why not add the editors who made the updates as authors to the cover? Like “by Gary Provost, updated by NNN”? It just seems like the company is making it level best to keep the name alive and not really focus on the whole “author is long-since dead” aspect.
This last section could be seen as an illustration of the “learn more than you strictly need” quote above… It did change my perception of the book, and it did affect how this blog post ended up.
Recommended. Buy it.