Walt's Writing Style

Several people have asked me over the last couple years where I learned to write.

My writing style tends to be very approachable, blended with a touch of humor and illustrations. It wasn't always this way.

Had any one of these people seen a composition from highschool or college, there would be serious question as to whether my first amendment rights should be discontinued or not.

I hated reading. I hated writing even more. Frankly, I was impatient, kouldn't spel, and didn't know how to properly go back and proof my work.

All that changed in a very short period of time after graduating from college. I taught myself by example.

"I Can See you Naked" by Ron Hoff
ISBN 0-8362-7944-1   $17.95 US
My first experience with conversational tone came when I read the book "I Can See You Naked" by Ron Hoff. And I didn't notice it at the time.

In college and at work, I was being asked to give presentations but had this big fear of public speaking. You know the kind, where your stomach says to your brain, "Remember the last time I wanted chocolate and you were worried about your weight? Well, I'm going to make you pay for that now in front of all these people." And with that your stomach goes into knots and you can't focus on the task at hand.

I saw this book and figured it was about how to overcome fear. Also being into cartooning, I figured if the book was worthless, I could emulate its simplistic drawing style that appealed to me.

I read 254 pages in under 2 days. That was absolutely incredible for me at the time, as anyone who knew me then would attest.

The book explains that people give advice to imagine the audience naked. Well, this can backfire, especially when there are good looking people in the audience, and the book goes on to recommend never doing that.

Within the first two pages, the book completely dispelled what I thought it was going to discuss. Then it got illustrative. And conversational. And humorous.

By the time I reached the back cover, I was astonished at what the book had taught me.

By knowing your subject, learning how to organize your thoughts, and using trivial techniques to remind you in real-time as you're presenting, it is possible to establish a relationship with the audience and have fun at the same time.

I quickly found that I had applied structure to an undiscovered inate ability to teach and present.

Yet still, I was amazed that I read the book that fast and enjoyed it.

Meanwhile, I was now engrossed, by chance, in another I bought at roughly the same time.

The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll
ISBN 0-671-72688-9   $6.99 US
My next experience with conversational writing happened a bit later when I was reading The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll.

The book tells a real-life story of what happened to the author. Funding was cut, sending an innocent astronomer into our chaotic world of computer administration. Discovery of a 75 cent accounting error uncovered a mysterious hacker. The book lets you live the hunt with Cliff and explains many technical aspects that those who are interested in learning about the Internet would find fascinating.

What I found so incredible was that I poured through this 356 page paperback in approximately two days. This had only happened once to me before.

You have to understand, I despised reading novels, so I decided to figure out why reading this one was like skiing down a mountain rather than trudging through a muddy swamp.

Then I remembered my experience with "Write to the Point". I started to compare the two books and came to the conclusion that the authors were directly engaging me in a conversation (it just was never my turn to speak).

Cliff's writing was so conversational and entertaining compared to other paperbacks I had read, I wanted to write like that.

What makes the whole point interesting was apparently Cliff also had the same problem with writing that I did. In his acknowldgements he mentioned that a book called Write To The Point changed his way of writing.

It would be several months before I would come across that book.

On a lark, I decided to contact Cliff Stoll, primarily to find out the solution to a puzzle the NSA had presented him with when he visited their facilty.

Cliff responded very promptly, and he turned out in real-life (or as much as you can tell from reading an e-mail) to have the same laid-back style his book projected.

Write to the Point by Bill Stott
ISBN 0-231-07549-9   $10.95 US
Write to the Point turned out to be the most approachable technical manual to the English language I had ever seen.

It did something no other book on writing did. It explained why you should abide by the rules of English and what those rules were, but it also explained when you should break them.

Apparently, it's more important to have effective communication than to be technically on the mark and alienate your readers.

This is not to say doing things right is wrong, but rather that there are simple guidelines to forming a complete sentence that expresses exactly the thought you want. Then, you can develop a style, and breaking a rule deliberately (not from being lazy) can actually emphasize your point. Really.

Once I read this book, and had two glowing examples in recent memory, it became utterly simple to digest Strunk and White and the Harbrace College Handbook.

At this point, the next two readings are fairly dry and technical. I was going to omit them, but thought it better to include them for completeness.

The two books after them are more humane in their treatment of the reader, but they are definately aimed at the writer who wants to fine tune his handiwork or produce it in far less time.

Continue reading at your own risk... you've been warned.

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style
ISBN 0-02-418200-1   $3.25 US

Hodge's Harbrace College Handbook
ISBN 0-15-531851-9

Strunk and White discusses the elements of style, where the Hodge's Harbrace College Handbook goes into the technical detail of the English language.

Without a decent foundation, these books will seem dry and dull. But there are points of interest in there, providing you take the time to look.

Aside from just grammar, it's here that you learn things like:

  • 'he' is a genderless pronoun, so that 'someone left his pencil on the table' does not imply at all the owner is male. The 's/he' and 'their' are not correct English, despite the 1984ism of "Political Correctness."
  • There is a time to use "its" and a time to use "it's" -- it is not up to the writer's preference.
  • There is a big difference in meaning when a comma is used at the end of a list. The comma is not optional. For instance "red, white, and blue" means 33.3% of each color, while "red, white and blue" means 50% of red, and the other 50% consists of 25% white and 25% blue. So, be careful how you write you will, estates have been split accordingly and legally upheld due to this 'optional' comma.

Writing Under Pressure by Sanford Kaye
ISBN 0-19-506661-8   $8.95 US

Writing with Precision by Jefferson Bates
ISBN 87491-185-0   $6.95 US

I suppose I'm lucky because writing feels as natural to me as having a conversation, I don't procrastinate. But that doesn't solve the issue when I'm asked to prepare something on short notice.

Writing Under Pressure shows you how to prepare, schedule, draft, edit, and produce a production paper in a compressed timeframe by trimming the task's scope and focusing your point.

Writing with Precision helps you express exactly what you want to say. It really does pick up where Strunk and White left off.

Both books are valuable assests to add to your writing skills. They were insightful, but each reads as a how-to book.

This page last updated [MindPrint]