Adapted from the essay “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One.
The following are just my personal pieces of advice. They won’t be the same as someone else’s, and they may not fit your life or practice, but maybe you’ll pick up something useful.
Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability. A productive feedback loop is established: Through the habit of taking notes, you will inevitably come to observe more; observing more, you will have more to note down. Here are some examples from my own notebooks and also from the Austrian fiction writer Peter Handke’s notebook selection entitled The Weight of the World. Other notebooks that might serve as useful models are Kafka’s and the painter Delacroix’s.
Observe your own activity:
From my notebook:
a. “I keep hoping for a new and interesting email, and for hours now it has been the same subject line: ‘Used Kubota tractor for sale’.”
b. “I kept smelling a smell of cat pee but could not find where it was coming from, until I found the cat pee—on the tip of my very own nose!”
From Peter Handke’s notebook:
c. “Someone [a stranger] drops something and I pull my hand out of my pocket, but that’s all I do.”
Observe your own feelings (but not at tiresome length):
From Peter Handke’s notebook:
a. “At the sight of a woman with enormously protuberant eyes, my irritation vanished”
From my notebook:
b. The feeling of love, it seems, in my response to Peter Bichsel’s stories—they are loving stories. They awaken in me a feeling (love) that I am then quicker to feel in response to other things.
Observe the behavior of others, both animal and human:
From my notebook:
a. Little kitty crouches down and flattens her ears (in the entryway, in front of the glass door) so that she won’t be seen by the dead leaves whirling around outside.
b. Grandpa is over there under the tree working on his retractable umbrella.
c. That very handsome dark-haired and dark-eyed young man walks up and down the aisle of the train so many times to show us how nice he looks in his cream-colored summer suit and white shirt. He will continue to walk up and down until he is sure we have all seen him.
(In this case, the observation has already turned into something a little more, even as I write it, because I am adding something to it that I imagine, or can pretend I imagine, about the man.)
Observe the weather, and be specific:
From my notebook:
a. High wind yesterday blew women’s long hair, women’s long skirts, crowns of trees, at dinner outdoors napkins off laps, lettuce off plates, flakes of pastry off plates onto sidewalk.
Apropos of weather and precision, here is Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s chart of the Beaufort scale—a scale in which the force of the wind is indicated by numbers from 0 to 17. This source is “just” a dictionary, but the images are vivid because of their specificity and the good clear writing in the dictionary, and because the increasing strength of the wind on the scale becomes, despite the dry, factual account, dramatic.
|0||Calm||Less than 1||Calm: smoke rises vertically|
|1||Light air||1–3||Direction of wind shown by smoke but not by wind vanes|
|2||Light breeze||4–7||Wind felt on face; leaves rustle; ordinary vane moved by wind|
|3||Gentle breeze||8–12||Leaves and small twigs in constant motion; wind extends light flag|
|4||Moderate breeze||13–18||Raises dust and loose paper; small branches are moved|
|5||Fresh breeze||19–24||Small trees in leaf begin to sway; crested wavelets form on inland waters|
|6||Strong breeze||25–31||Large branches in motion; telegraph wires whistle; umbrellas used with difficulty|
|7||Moderate gale||32–38||Whole trees in motion; inconvenience in walking against wind|
|8||Fresh gale||39–46||Breaks twigs off trees; generally impedes progress|
|9||Strong gale||47–54||Slight structural damage occurs; chimney pots and slates removed|
|10||Whole gale||55–63||Trees uprooted; considerable structural damage occurs|
|11||Storm||64–72||Very rarely experienced; accompanied by widespread damage|
I have to say, as an aside, that I’m sure I learned something about writing clear and exact prose from the very precise definitions in this same dictionary, which I acquired at age 25 and consulted constantly.
Observe other types of behavior, including that of municipalities:
From my notebook, while traveling:
a. To commemorate the St.-Cyprieux victims of the flood of 1875, the city erected . . . a fountain.
(I revised this, in the notebook: I changed the order a little to avoid a succession of prepositional phrases. My sentence originally read: To commemorate the victims in St. Cyprieux of the flood of 1875, the city erected . . . a fountain. That version may, after all, be perfectly all right, or even better.)
As a writer, whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, you must be responsible for accurate factual information about how a thing works, if you’re writing about it. You will have to be well informed about such things as the weather, biology, botany, human nature, history, technology, such matters as color spectrums and the behavior of light waves etc. etc. This means that, over time, you will learn a good deal. Here’s an example of a piece of knowledge acquired while traveling:
Question: can you figure out three reasons why trees were planted along this canal in a French city?
My answer, noted in notebook:
a. trees planted along canal for three reasons: shade for boatmen, help slow evaporation of water, hold earth in banks. Often planted at exactly equal intervals.
Note technical/historical facts:
Here are some notes I took in the Cluny Museum in Paris, about construction methods in Ancient Rome:
a. “Courses of limestone (rows) intersected by leveling courses (bands) of horizontal bricks forming a construction named opus vittatum mixtum, [banded mixed materials], a reference to the layering techniques and to the mixing of different materials.”
b. “The floor . . . is made of Roman concrete, opus caementicium, a mix of stones and lime mortar . . . probably covered in stone slabs or mosaics.”
Important: Take notes at the time, because you will forget so much, if not everything, later—you will inevitably either forget the moment entirely, or forget a part of it, so that won’t be as complete or interesting when you do note it down.
a. Here is Samuel Johnson on the subject of travel writing: “He who has not made the experiment will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from accuracy of knowledge.”
On the subject of taking notes, I want to add one last thing, and that is about public transportation: I do a lot of writing and note-taking on trips: in airports, on airplanes, on trains. I recommend taking public transportation whenever possible. There are many good reasons to do this (one’s carbon footprint, safety, productive use of time, support of public transportation, etc.), but for a writer, here are two in particular: 1) you will write a good deal more waiting for a bus or sitting on a train than you will driving a car, or as a passenger in a car; and (2) you will be thrown in with strangers—people not of your choosing. Although I pass strangers when I’m walking on a city street, it is only while traveling on public transportation that I sit thigh to thigh with them on a subway, stare at the back of their heads waiting in line, and overhear sometimes extended conversations. It takes me out of my own limited, chosen world. Sometimes I have good, enlightening conversations with them.
Always work (note, write) from your own interest, never from what you think you should be noting, or writing. Trust your own interest. I have a strong interest, at the moment, in Roman building techniques, thus my notation above, taken down in the Cluny Museum in Paris. My interest may pass. But for the moment I follow it and enjoy it, not knowing where it will go.
Let your interest, and particularly what you want to write about, be tested by time, not by other people—either real other people or imagined other people.
This is why writing workshops can be a little dangerous, it should be said; even the teachers or leaders of such workshops can be a little dangerous; this is why most of your learning should be on your own. Other people are often very sure that their opinions and their judgments are correct.
Be mostly self-taught.
There is a great deal to be learned from programs, courses, and teachers. But I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.
Revise notes constantly—try to develop the ability to read them as though you had never seen them before, to see how well they communicate. Constant revision, whether or not you’re going to “do” anything with what you’ve written, also teaches you to write better in the first place, when you first write something down.
I have already given some examples of revision, since it is an inveterate habit when I reread anything I’ve written. I will give more examples as I go along and explain more about the importance of this later.
If you take notes regularly, sitting in an airport, for example, you can “grow” a story right then and there. Revising it, you can give it a good shape and pace. Here are some notes I took sitting in an airport lounge at a table near a Starbuck’s:
a. First I copy down some dialog I hear that strikes me:
“Caramel syrup or caramel drizzle?”
“Caramel syrup or caramel drizzle?” (I look up; it is a tall slim woman with a ponytail buying the drink. She’s an airline employee in the Starbuck’s line.)
Long pause for deliberation.
“I’ll take the drizzle.”
(I see her now from behind, over there, her blond ponytail and sticking-out ears, drinking her caramel drizzle. As she deliberated, I was deciding that drizzle was a smaller amount of caramel than “syrup” even though “syrup” must be involved in the “drizzle.”)
Later, she walks away with another airline employee, the empty cup in her hand, the caramel drizzle inside her.
And then she turns out to be the attendant on our flight—her name is Shannon—so her caramel drizzle will also be going to Chicago with us.
In between my observations of the flight attendant, there were other notes, first a comment about something I had experienced trying to learn Dutch, and then another people observation, as follows:
b. Stout, cheerful, rather dandyish man dressed in preppy clothes—tweed jacket, bow tie, loafers, etc.—starts off down the airport corridor in pursuit of a boy of six or seven in camouflage clothes who was galloping away. Stout man calls cheerfully back to woman at table, who is evidently boy’s mother: “James and I are going potty!”
Then I go back to observing the stewardess.
Taking notes as you sit outside at a cafe table, you can also begin to develop a poem. This is the same wind as before, at the same cafe table. I did not write it to be a poem, but later I look at it, and it almost reads as one:
a. In the wind, the grass is bowing and the Queen Anne’s lace is nodding.
Now, as though blown by the wind, come the runners in the footrace.
Here is how the revision worked: originally I did not have “In the wind” at the beginning. I was sitting there in the wind, I knew it was windy, I knew why the grass and the Queen Anne’s lace were bowing and nodding. But when I read it over with fresh eyes, I could see that I needed to say the wind was blowing, otherwise the reader might hesitate or take time figuring out why the grass and flowers were moving. You want the impact of what you write to be unobstructed; you don’t want confusion or hesitation in the reader’s mind.
I say “the reader” for convenience, by the way. The fact is that when I revise in my notebook, I’m revising for the sake of the piece itself, to make it work. I’m not thinking about any reader. I may never do any more with it than leave it in the notebook.
Another advantage of revising constantly, regardless of whether you’re ever going to “use” what you’ve written, is that you practice, constantly, reading with fresh eyes, reading as the person coming fresh to this, never having seen it before. This is a very important skill to develop, and one that probably develops only with time and practice (although some people recommend various tricks, such as printing different drafts of your work in different fonts).
Another way to see your work freshly is to leave it alone and come back to it after time has passed. I will quite often begin a piece of writing, even hastily, getting a few lines or sentences down, with a title, and then leave it and work on other things, and sometimes I leave it for so long—weeks or months—that when I see the title again I wonder what it is, and even when I read it I don’t recognize it, having completely forgotten it existed.
Sentences or ideas reported from reality out of context can be wonderful. But then, when and if you use them in a piece of finished writing, beware of how much context you give them.
Context can mean explanation, exposition. And too much of it can take away all the interest that the material originally had. Here are some more notes, effective alone, without context, less effective with context:
More notebook entries:
a: “When he was in his sixties, he often seemed tired of life.” (from Wikipedia article about the Dutch painter Willem Maris)
b. “Another of Tennyson’s brothers, Edward Tennyson, was institutionalized at a private asylum, where he was deemed dead.” (from Wikipedia article on Tennyson)
c. Alas I’m in Denver” (email)
d: “I can always get someone to open a window in Paris.” (email from schoolmate about learning French)
e. “The children at The Children’s Center are interested in building a castle.” (email)
In this last example, part of the vividness of the entry is the language: the repetition of “children”and then the word “interested”, which somehow seems incongruous to the behavior of children. And then the picture conjured up by children building a (real) castle. This would not have been as striking if the situation as a whole had been more fully explained and the language had been slightly changed, thus: “The children at the daycare center want to build a castle out of blocks.”)
f. “I need a plumber.” (email)
Go to primary sources and go to the great works to learn technique. This was the advice of Matsuo Basho, the 17th-c. Japanese master of the haiku.
Read the best writers: maybe it would help to set a goal of one classic per year at least. Classics have stood the test of time, as we say. Keep trying them, if you don’t like them at first—come back to them. I tried Joyce’s Ulysses three times before I read it all the way through. (It helped that I was living in Ireland at the time, where I saw Joycean and Beckettian characters all around me.) I haven’t yet read Don Quixote, but I think I’ll actually enjoy it.
How should you read? What should the diet of your reading be? Read the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion—you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.
Adapted from the essay “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One by Lydia Davis. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2019 by Lydia Davis.