The Art of Writing

Still, the beautiful can be distinguished

   from the common,

   the good from the mediocre.


Only through writing and then revising

   and revising

   may one gain the necessary insight.


… verbosity indicates lack of virtue.


from Wen Fu by Lu Chi (261-303)

Socrates Was Right—And So Was Plato

The way the brain handles language brings up an interesting question that I’ve heard students ask in the age of Google and Wikipedia: Why should I memorize or even read something when I can look it up in four seconds? The answer is this: Memorizing stores knowledge permanently inside of you. What you remember is knowledge. What you have to look up is not. Knowledge is an essential tool of the writer.


New knowledge immediately begins to integrate with all your other knowledge, effortlessly and unconsciously. That is process that you can think of as “simmering,” a term many writers have used. To steal from Auden, this takes place while you’re eating or opening a window or simply walking dully along.


Great currents of knowledge, all laced over and under with emotions and sensory feelings, glide together and make new associations that can produce unheard of ways of thinking or fabulous combinations of words. Everything that you’ve stored in memory will inform and enrich your writing in a way that simply can’t happen if you store everything outside of your brain. The more you put into your brain, the more you get out of it. 


Memorization is an essential task if you want to write. For one thing, you need to know the meanings of a lot of words. For another, remembering things gives the brain something to work on during the process of simmering. You need to know what you wrote on page one when you’re writing page 100. The struggle for coherence and meaning, the quest for a narrative line, is a continuous task of holding more and more in your head.


It involves writing something, then going back to read it so that you can go forward. And then you have to go back and re-read everything once more so that you can proceed a bit further. By the time you’ve finished 100 or 400 pages, you will have read it many times, but you will also have had the physical experience of creating the words with your hands many times as well. Through this process, will come to possess much of the text internally. It’s no longer just on the page. It’s inside of you, if not word for word, then at least in a fairly detailed form. Because brain and body work together so intimately, you then know your work both by heart and mind. The Chinese word for this is hsin.


That doesn’t mean that you literally have to memorize great chunks of text, although that is a good idea. But it does mean at the very least, that you have to read a great deal and remember much of what you read. And it also means that you have to read and write and then read more and rewrite many, many times. Your brain will do the rest beyond the reach of conscious effort.


Socrates argued against writing as a means of storing and conveying knowledge. He was a hard-ass. He called writing “dead discourse,” because it lacked the dynamics of speech. The text, once written, could not answer back when questioned. Moreover, he felt that writing would, “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”


He said that writing was, “an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence,” and did not convey “truth, but only the semblance of truth.” He believed that writing would turn people into “hearers of many things [but they] will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” He could easily have been talking about the Internet. Google can make the generally ignorant look omniscient.


Without prodigious memory and active debate, Socrates argued, without the deep and complex structure of learning that the oral tradition engenders, we would come to skim over texts and receive a false sense of knowledge. Writing, he feared, would create a culture of people who not only couldn’t remember but who thought that they were educated when in reality they were ignorant. Their knowledge would be superficial, and in the end, we’d lose all control over knowledge. Yet without Plato, we would know none of this. He was a student of Socrates. He rebelled against his teacher and wrote it all down.


Socrates was right. Writing did decrease the need for memory. And as he predicted, the written word has been the tool of much mischief and misinformation. Socrates could see that writing would profoundly change the way the human brain works. But in exchange for our memory and the inevitable spread of pernicious nonsense through writing, we gained the ability to consult books on every conceivable subject. We have a much broader range of information available to us than even the best human memory can hold. Indeed, what we can’t remember, we can always look up. 


The trouble with being able to look everything up is that less and less resides inside of us. The brain is constantly working on what it knows, whether that knowledge is conscious or unconscious. As we put more and more diverse knowledge into our brains, we have more and more insights and original ideas. That process won’t work if we never learn anything deeply and instead rely on looking everything up. We are less likely to make imaginative leaps. Our words will not combine in those rich and lustrous ways that can make writing such a pleasure to read. People who want Ph.D.s still have to take oral exams. Like the students of Socrates, they must know their subject “by heart.”

Like a Bug!

“Keller and others accuse the impacters of trying to squash deliberation before alternate ideas can get a fair hearing.”


– The Atlantic, “The Nastiest Fued in Science,” Bianca Bosker, September 2018.


Journalists often misunderstand the word “quash.” It’s a legal term that means to overturn or to suppress, as you would “quash a move to dismiss the charges” or “quash a revolt.” The word “squash” means to compress something by squeezing, such as “I squashed the grape.” You can quash a motion in a court of law. You cannot squash it, as it has no physical body.


Gerta Keller, a scientist, would never put up with squashing other scientists. See her here:


The offending sentence, which was presumably read by the illustrious editors of The Atlantic and perhaps even by its author herself, contains the additional ugly error of using the word “alternate” where the word “alternative” is needed. “Alternate” ideas are ones that switch back and forth. “Alternative” is meant to describe a situation in which more than one choice exists.


As for the word “impacters,” your guess is as good as mine. Norman Mailer once said that letting journalists have access to the printed word was like giving a loaded gun to a three-year-old.

Don’t Make Me Gag

Andrea Wulf wrote a brilliant and moving book called The Invention of Nature about the science of Alexander von Humboldt. I started to read it and could not stop. 


However, she had a few tics that a keen editor should have caught. She could not seem to place the word “only” in its proper place.


And she wrote this sentence, describing the difficult ascent of a high river valley by von Humboldt and his partner, Aim√© Bonpland: 


“Bonpland was struggling with thin air–feeling nauseous and feverish.”


The word she’s looking for is “nauseated.” The word “nauseous” describes the substance that is the cause of nausea. Hence: “The filthy toilet was nauseous.” Or: “I was nauseated upon seeing how filthy the toilet was.” Or: “The sight of the dead man’s brains on the sidewalk made me nauseated.” 


The brains were nauseous. The narrator was nauseated. As was Bonpland.


For the use of “only” see the entry on “only.”

Don’t Tell Me What to Think

“One of the most remarkable aspects of T cells and B cells is that once an innate cell presents them with antigen, they can remember it for the rest of your life.”

David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature, W.W. Norton, 2016.


The authors are telling me that I must regard this fact as remarkable. If the fact is remarkable, they ought to convey it in such a way that I find it remarkable on my own. 


Also, the construction “aspect… is that…” is clumsy and serves no purpose. The word “aspect” is less than satisfactory for what is meant. “Aspect” is more appropriate for architecture. “Characteristics” would be better here. But not even that word is needed.


Better: “Innate cells present antigens to T and B cells. Then the T and B cells remember those antigens for the rest of your life.”


Is that remarkable? You tell me.

Junk Words

“The research is hazy, if not totally silent, about exactly where the amber finds come from.”

“Blood Amber”

New Scientist, Graham Lawton 4 May, 2019


Don’t use words that you don’t need. How is “totally silent” different from “silent”? If something is silent, it makes no noise. Totally making no noise does not increase its silence. Likewise, “exactly where” is no different from “where.” 


In many cases, you may find that adverbs can be safely removed from your sentences without doing harm.


This sentence also suffers from the crime of using a noun as an adjective and a verb as a noun. This leads to a confusing construction. The phrase “where the amber finds” leads the brain to expect the word “amber” to be a subject and “finds” to be a verb. Encountering the phrase “finds come” or “come from” sets up a dissonance that causes us to double back to see what the writer intended. 


Better: “The research is hazy, if not silent, about where the amber comes from.”

Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives

In December, 2019, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Heidi Julavits called “What I Learned in Avalanche School.” In it, Heidi repeatedly used awkward constructions that could easily have been fixed by the use of prepositions or the elimination of a word. She is not only an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, she has published several novels and won a PEN New England Fiction Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 


One sentence she wrote said, “In many nonavalanche-terrain scenarios, if a person falls into a heuristic trap, the outcome isn’t death.” It is permissible to put the prefix non before any word. But nonavalanche stretches the point and is awkward. But to create an adjective by adding a hyphen and the word terrain produces an unpleasant effect that cries out for revision. The vogue word scenario has no place in good writing.


Further on: “We noted the resistance variation between the layers.” Better: “variation in resistance between…” But we don’t really know if the original sentence meant that they were noting the resistance or noting the variation. She could also say, “We noted the difference in resistance between the layers.” 


All of this can be avoided by not trying to use nouns as adjectives.


She also wrote, “survival strategy,” “many-feet-deep snow,” “avalanche autopsy,” and “tree bough.” 

A Tainted Word

“The crow’s nest, where a lookout once shouted an infamous warning–‘Iceberg right ahead!’–has vanished.”


“Where the Titanic Shipwreck Rests, New Photos Reveal Extensive Decay”

– New York Times, William J. Broad, August 21, 2019



The word “infamous” is meant to convey something intentionally evil. The sailor quoted here was simply pointing out an obstacle in the path of the ship. Kingsley Amis wrote in his book The King’s English, “The adjective weakened in severity to something on the level of ‘notorious’…infamous is now unusable through ambiguity.”


Don’t say “infamous.” Don’t say “famous.” 

What it is is… And Other Paths of Doom

“What we are getting is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding what went on in the past.”


Whenever you see this construction, get rid of it. It’s quite simple: “We are getting a powerful tool for understanding what went on in past.” No need for “what we are,” etc. and especially no need for “incredibly.”



Since “We are getting” is inept, why not say “We have a powerful tool….”? They are already using that tool, so they must have it. No “getting” required.


Another example from the same article:

“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites.What they found was that the farmers brought their pigs with them, but that over three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”



“They looked at ancient and modern DNA of wild and domestic pigs, including specimens from the Iron Gates sites. They found that the farmers [had] brought their pigs with them. During the next three thousand years, those pigs interbred with European wild boar.”


Even better:

“They analyzed ancient and modern DNA of pigs, both wild and domestic…”


Variations on the phrase “looked at” represent a common crime of carelessness against the language. Radio announcers often say, “Looking at the weather, it should be sunny today….” It is a verbal tic that has no place in good writing.


The phrasing “DNA of wild and domestic pigs…” might suggest that the scientists studied one group of pigs that was both wild and domestic. The writer means to say that they studied DNA from two groups, one wild, the other domestic.


“An Archaeological Puzzle on the Danube”

– James Gorman, The New York Times, August 20, 2019