The Book on Writing by Paula LaRocque: My Book Reading Notes

About This Book

Very practical book, with plenty of examples - it’s the examples that make this book worth buying. The book taught me how to edit my own writing, cut it short, say it more clearly.

Most importantly, this book taught me what it really means to “show, don’t tell” in writing - the book showed me, rather than told me.

What My Book Reading Notes Are About

I’m a compulsive note taker. I can’t read a non-fiction book without taking notes - that’s why it takes me so long to finish a book. Inspired by Derek Sivers’ Book Notes project, I decided to put my compulsion to good use, and publish my notes. The order of the notes more or less follows the order in the book. My notes are a mix of book content pieces and my own thoughts I jot down while I read the book. Buy the book if you like it - you learn the most by reading the original.

Book Parameters

Cover: The Book on Writing

  • Title: The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well / Goodreads profile
  • Author: Paula LaRocque
  • I read the book in: 2012

Book Reading Notes

General Rules

Keep sentences short.

  • safe length: 20 words per sentence
  • difficult sentences: the ones that contain parentheses, numbers… these elements disturb the natural flow!
  • write in questions: this allows you to answer with one simple YES or NO. if you have a good reason to write a long sentence, surround it with short sentences. This adds variety to the reader
  • use simple word order: subject - verb - object (actor - action - acted upon)

Lists

  • always look for the opportunity to use bulleted lists
  • if a list is well crafted, the reader will be able to follow, whatever the length
  • the list is an opportunity to remove repetitions, add visual interest, add white space

Two rules for lists:

  1. remove subject and verb from the list (keep them in the sentence leading into the list); the list is the object of the verb!
  2. keep list items parallel (the first word of each list item is the same part of the speech / sentence)
  • Don’t start the paragraph with a list, because it will seem as if the list floats in vacuum. Every list should begin with the leading sentence that explains what the list is.

Keep to one main idea per sentence

  • a long sentence can work only if it is centered around one simple and concrete idea
  • Don’t throw diverse ideas into one sentence. Break it up into several shorter sentences (maybe a list can help?)

Avoid pretensions, gobbledygook and euphemisms

  • precision is a literary virtue; once abandoned, you are left with vague generalizations and gibberish
  • write below 10th grade level! Stephen King writes for 7th grade level.
  • the way to credibility is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads.
  • example of euphemism: “project had an adverse impact on anticipated revenue” (the project lost money)
  • euphemisms don’t work, they make readers suspicious
  • a long word is the right word if it’s the best word
  • stop trying to impress, strive to communicate
  • There’s never just one way to rewrite the passage. it depends on the writer’s meaning.
  • short words are small, strong and suited for storytelling

Change long and difficult words to short and simple words

  • want to write clear, conversational, storytelling? write very fast. The result will be short simple words.
  • the stuff we know best has a simple short name. short, one-syllable words have certain beauty in them

Be vary of jargon, fad and cliche

good jargon:

  • brief words that say much
  • specialized words for specialized audience
  • buzz words: words that are understandable when alone, but in combination with other buzz words, become meaningless, they “buzz” (i.e. “leveraging customer experience”)
  • fad words: words that become famous, and later become dull and predictable (“duh”, “my two cents”…); fadspeak is the language from hell

Use the right word

  • use the dictionary, so that you don’t use the wrong word (you think it means one thing, and it might mean just the opposite)

Avoid beginning with long, dependent phrases

  • get to the point! the principle of inverse pyramid; start with the most important sentence first
  • backing into the sentence means we begin the sentence with something else, but the subject; it delays and hides the subject and fails to make a clear point
  • people don’t read backing-in phrases -> it’s especially bad in the first, opening paragraph
  • when to use backing-in?
    • later in the article, for transition and variety in the sentence structure
    • when you’ve considered the alternatives, and found that backing-in is the best choice
    • when you have a good reason to withhold the subject, when you want to create a punchline, when the subject is the punchline:
      • “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound: it’s Superman!”

Prefer active verbs and the active voice

  • passive voice is unclear and weakens the expression
  • passive voice withholds the actor, withholds vital information, prolongs the sentence
  • when to use passive voice?
    • when the actor is irrelevant
    • when the actor gets in the way of the main point

Cut wordiness

  • writing, as opposed to speech, offers the luxury of editing, so we should edit as much as we can
  • first write quickly and conversationally
  • then you “blow of the chaff”, i.e. recognize and delete wordiness and redundancies
    • prepositional phrases, like “in the vicinity of” -> near
    • near redundancies: past history -> history, personal friendship -> friendship, end result -> result, totally demolished -> demolished
    • imprecise or unnecessary adverbs: moved quickly -> rushed or hurried
    • noun-heavy: “give consideration to” -> consider
    • specifying the obvious: “past 10 years” -> of course those 10 years are past

Avoid vague qualifiers

  • = weasel words, empty of meaning
  • qualifiers = intensifiers, like “very”, totally, extremely, quite…
  • in speech it’s ok to use such words, because we cannot edit ourselves while talking, we use weasel words because we cannot find the right - the best - word fast
  • in print, we must find the best word that can stand alone, without weasel words
  • unnecessary qualifiers: those that do not add anything to the other word, the other word can stand alone and in fact be stronger alone; don’t give crutches to words that don’t need them
  • need to express someone was more than happy? don’t write “very happy”, find a more suitable standalone word, like “overjoyed” or “extatic”
  • good test whether we have used the right word: can the word stand alone?

Prune prepositions

  • they must be controlled and limited because in no time, they’ll allow the writer to fill the sentence with chaff and damage the flow of the sentence
  • no more than three prepositions per sentence (example: “of the people, by the people, for the people”)

Limit number and symbol

  • up to only three numbers in a sentence
  • numbers are confusing when they come in different forms, i.e. percentages, decimals, some written out, some in numeral form; and especially when combined with simbols like %, abbreviations
  • dates, especially years, are readable and are an exception to the rule of three

Get right to the point - quickly, and stay there

  • put the most important information first
  • when a story is dramatic, we make it stronger by telling it simply and swiftly
  • beware of anecdotes (a short story of an interesting or amusing biographical incident), especially at the beginning.
    • Anecdotes should open a way in to the story.
    • Choose the most powerful and most important anecdote.
    • Anecdotes delay the point. If you use them to spike curiosity and to create questions in readers’ minds, answer the questions immediately!
  • Frustration comes from not getting to the point, from unanswered questions.

Storytelling

  • the narrative = the story
  • it seeks to immediately create curiosity, not to satisfy it immediately
  • the more the writer knows about storytelling and its elements, the better writer he will be in any genre
  • necessary ingredients:
    • characters
    • conflict
  • main organizing elements:
    • chronology
    • point of view (who is telling the story?)
    • setting
  • most basic: a hero faces a difficulty that he either vanquishes, or is vanquished by
  • natural form is the narrative form
  • narrative is also suitable for factual writing when all the elements of the story resemble the elements of the narrative (characters, conflict, over-arching question that drives the reader towards the conclusion)
  • basic questions: what happened? will the hero live, die, win, lose? The reader must want to know “how it ends”
  • secret of a good narrative: it grips the reader by regenerating in the readers’ minds the same curiosity that first involved the writer
    • when you write a story, remember the same question that generated your story, it’s the chief organizing and focusing principle
    • in Twin Peaks, the question is “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
      • on a second thought: once the main question is answered, the story should probably end. No sequels, no prequels.
    • a story can have multiple questions, and as one of them gets answered, another can be weaved into the story

Don’t say everything, at least not right now

  • each segment ends when the reader’s interest is highest; suspended curiosity, “leave them wanting more” literary device
  • advice:
    • don’t wait too long to answer the question
    • don’t have too many questions working at once
    • the literary device should not be obvious
    • unresolved issue must seem significant, compelling

Let the Readers do some work

  • little well-planned withholding is good for reader’s curiosity
  • don’t explain everything, especially the information most readers already know
  • insert allusions, quotations (don’t explain them)
  • don’t annoy the reader with the unexplained: either it does not matter, or the allusion contains its own explanation
  • incorporate characterization and description into the narrative and dialogue: skip everything the reader would skip
  • saying just enough, showing (describing) just enough

Quick, get the camera

  • describe in such a way that the reader can see - create pictures with words carefully chosen words carry great force
  • word pictures, recreate reality

Description:

  • good: Fast, spare, specific and showing

    • active verbs are showing verbs
    • describe what you as the writer see, don’t offer your conclusion, let the reader make his own
  • bad: slow, wordy, vague, abstract, telling

    • telling = facts, conclusions
    • telling fails to create a vivid mental image, it simply offers a conclusion
      • example: try to describe popcorn.
      • use senses! they bring description to life
      • don’t say: the sunrise was extremely beautiful. say: the sun rose in red, violet and gold. The writer’s “extremely beautiful” and the reader’s may not be the same, and the writer must paint the picture
  • the best description combines the showing with the tellling: it records not only what the writer sees, but how he sees it - it’s a marvel of clarity

  • describing people: be imaginative, cut the cliches like “hair like gold”. instead of saying “brown eyes”, say “chestnut-colored eyes”; his skin was hollywood bronze

  • present the right details

    • every description must further theme and purpose
    • exclude irrelevant details, details that fight with each other
    • appeal to the senses: strong, dramatic, suggestive description
    • organized: from general to specific or vice versa (the method of organization is invisible to the reader, but he feels the organization)
  • word pictures are there to say something, not just to adorn. If you describe something, make every word count toward the plot

Write fast, edit slow

  • boredom is toxic, the deadliest sin of prose
  • slow is dull - fast is interesting - just test your work by reading aloud (it’s part of editing process)
  • tips for faster writing:
    • informational writing: gather all your information before you start writing
    • write one sentence that captures the essence of the piece (thesis statement, headline -> one nugget of pure meaning, meaning being the destination)
  • create an outline of the text, otherwise you will meander, consider alternate routes and get distracted. Have a roadmap: beginning, middle and end.
  • save rules and details for the editing process, first just remove all the distractions when you write, sit down and write like mad.

Speedbumps are bad

  • everything that slows the reader down
  • the worst place to find a speedbump: at the very beginning (especially if you start with a bad, long and unrelated anecdote)
  • wanna speed things up? get to the point, if not right away in the first sentence, then asap: simple, straightforward, declarative sentence is the best way to get to the point
  • one sentence per paragraph writing is very slow - every sentence is an orphan, it doesn’t look nor feel good

Logic and speedy reading

  • speedy reading is easy reading
    • conversational writing
    • getting right to the point
  • earmarks of speedy content:
    • precision
    • logic and sound reasoning
    • appropriateness
    • interest
    • excitement
    • stimulating
    • message is acceptable, or acceptably presented
  • before embroidery comes fabric - and the fabric of good writing is the tightly woven stuff of accuracy, clarity, brevity, precision and logic; first, the writer must master the basics (the mechanics of writing), and only then can he aim for the art
  • good writing = good speech = good thinking
  • non sequitur (does not follow) = the essence of illogic

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