How I Developed My Writing Style
Even though I have been writing for a while, I still have a lot to learn. I picked up far too many tips that I didn’t already know from a new book by Jack Hart of the Portland Oregonian. Pantheon Books published A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work last year.
For example, I was dismayed to find that in some of my recent articles I used several phrases that he considers hackneyed. For that I offer my apologies to you, promises to do better, and thanks to him.
More than half a century ago I started writing for print. I still have my first by-lined article, “Beaumont Edges Banning 6 to 5” in the March 16, 1951, issue of The Banning Record, the weekly newspaper in the small California town where I grew up on the edge of the Colorado Desert.
I always loved to write, but I never was any good at it until I read a book that has influenced my writing style to this day. The writer who influenced me the most seems almost forgotten now. But I still clearly remember how much that one book changed the way I write.
In those days I was an editor and feature writer for a business magazine. I started there in 1980 and left in 1999, when I began to write entirely about diabetes. Somewhere about half way through my tenure at that magazine I read a book by Rudolph Flesch.
Now, I’m not even sure which one of his many books it was that hit me so hard. But it was probably The Art of Readable Writing. That book is apparently out of print, and I don’t have a copy of it.
But I still try as hard as I can to follow what I learned there. The main point is to keep my writing as clear and as simple as possible, no matter how complex the subject matter.
The other style rules are few – short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Active voice. Few adjectives. Colloquial style.
Two more books influence the way I write. A huge influence on my writing is William E. Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing (New York: New American Library, 1988). I know of no better guide to structuring an article than this book, which has guided feature writing at The Wall Street Journal for years.
For the basics of good writing there is still nothing to compare with the old classic that people call Strunk and White. Formally, it’s William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (New York, The Penguin Press, 2005) and many other editions.
I read the best writing I can find. These are my day-to-day mentors. The best newspapers –The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The best magazine – The New Yorker, which has many of the best writers in the English language. They include Atul Gawande, the best medical writer now practicing his craft. He is also a surgeon and Harvard Medical School professor.
Other great New Yorker writers, whose articles and books I make sure to read, are Malcolm Gladwell and John McPhee. More favorite writers are Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Michal Pollan and Tom Wolfe.
I love the research of learning about a new article. So I spent a lot more time on research than I do on the actual writing and rewriting. Probably too much time for my own good.
I write what I know, which is the most basic advice to writers – from my first magazine article to my forthcoming book. “Mountain Fighters” in the March 1958 issue of War Story was about the exploits of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. I wrote that article in my spare time when I served as historian of the 10th Division during my Army tour in Wuerzburg, Germany.
My next book builds on my weight loss while taking Byetta. The publisher says he will call it Losing Weight with Your Diabetes Medication: How Byetta and Other Drugs Can Help You Lose More Weight than You Ever Thought Possible.
In my website and my “Diabetes Update” newsletter I apply both the principles of simplicity of style and simplicity of design. The design of a website isn’t as important as its content. But crowded and confusing design can render good content almost invisible.
No one taught me more about web design than Jakob Nielsen. His book is Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity .
I’m no computer programmer, but I design and code all of my Web pages. I taught myself HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) entirely from a couple of books and a lot of websites.
I learned CSS because I wanted my site to have more white space than HTML could give me. It’s given me a lot more than that, specifically the ability to make one change that will automatically effect all 800 of my web pages.
Finally, my friend John Dodson suggested this piece. I based my article, “When Byetta Fails,” on his experience. I’m happy to report that he is still losing weight on Byetta.
Recently, he visited me in Boulder. When I mentioned some of my principles of style, he suggested that I write about it here. Thanks John!