What My Favourite Quotes on Writing Taught Me about Writing

What My Favourite Quotes on Writing Taught Me about Writing

– Suyog Ketkar

Of the many good things, a quality book lends, is a chance to introspect. It makes you think. Now and then, you come across content that you and I want to remember, quote, and—in the proper context—apply in our everyday writing. For this post, I look at the five quotes that impacted and improved my nonfiction writing.

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote, “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions:

What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

He put forth what we, as content designers, have always strived for. What he said reminds me of the principles of minimalism and maximalism—of reducing and expanding the content based on readers’ needs—amongst other principles. He motivates me to create crisp content, which is neither more nor less. He also helps me shift my focus from sharing information to empowering my readers. Of the many hats we don as content designers, my favorite one is that of a problem solver. I solve my readers’ problems by empowering them with the correct information.

His questions make me introspect if what I create is good enough for my readers. Would the content be clearer if I used videos? Or how about a walkthrough? Should we share the topic with our enablement colleagues for curating a training course? “What image,” as he put it, “or idiom will make it clearer?”

He also put forth the idea that language is an ever-evolving faculty of expression, a shifting target. It evolves even as I write this sentence. I have rarely liked what I wrote in the past. Any writer who grows up thinking that their language is an immortal set of words will fail to “personalize” this private conversation with their dear readers. For example, the word “personalize” was not considered an honorable verb to use about a century back. Today, it is a part of our everyday content-design language.

Rudyard Kipling in his poem 6 Serving Men of Creativity, said,

“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

These questions—5Ws and 1H—have helped me understand the core of writing. When we write, it is about how our readers would use what we write. It is not about us; it is about them. After I realized this, I no longer focused only on describing product features, but wrote about the underlying benefits as well. It is not as simple as telling the readers what the product does for them. It is about showing them what they can do with the product. What appears as a feature-based description to us, serves as a key to solving everyday problems for our readers. And that key lies in asking questions using the 5Ws and 1H.

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser said, “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

As a human race, we are experts at selecting the most daunting tasks for us, regardless of whether those challenges come at the cost of thinking clearly. We often complicate explanations, whereas what we pursue is clarity and simplicity. We can blame the educational institutions that trained us to select pompous phrases or words over straightforward ones, or where we are evaluated based on the weight of our answer sheets. Call it human evolution, but our natural selection processes are biased toward complication.

More than our love for the flowery language, it is our assumed respect for the involuntary camouflage that creates longer sentences. Lengthier sentences and longer words are the problems. We should consider replacing a long word with a short one, using a word instead of a phrase if they convey the same meaning, and changing a long sentence to its compact form. I am not an enemy of the lengthier, flowery language. Neither do I have a personal dislike for heavy, professional words. However, if our thoughts lack clarity, so will our actions.

The truth that we often fail to acknowledge is that readers are not fools. Our readers are blessed with the superpower to deduce interpretations from our content (when it is available) or devise workarounds (when it isn’t). They are also blessed with careful ears and keen eyes to spot the lack of information. Let us not teach them; let us enable them.

Steven Pinker, in his book, The Sense of Style, says, “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.”

He states, “It takes cognitive toil and literary dexterity to pare an argument to its essentials, narrate it in an orderly sequence, and illustrate it with analogies that are both familiar and accurate.”

I am yet to read a better sentence that summarizes our everyday responsibilities. But, of course, he forgot to emphasize the importance of peer reviews (on a serious note) and the frustration that births out of last-minute changes (on a funnier note). Throughout this article, we underpin minimalism. Whether we say “pare an argument to its essentials” or “strip every sentence to its cleanest components” we emphasize the same thing.

The other thing that Steven attributes comprehension to is literary dexterity—the choice of words and the ability to share information in a palatable manner. Back from my days in space-selling and journalism, I have learned that we all understand anything in either of the following two ways:

  • When the most critical information is shared first, and the remaining (supporting) content is built upon it
  • Building context before sharing the most important titbit

You cannot go wrong either way as long as you follow the same approach throughout your document.

Ray Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing, said, “Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers.” 

I love this quote. It works across numerous levels of interpretations from the logical to the psychological. Among the ones that suit the context, the scope to consider what I am doing for my team, appeals to me the most. It also tells me that I must reserve some mental space for myself.

The technical communicator that resides within us, is forever busy creating meaningful, usable instructions for those who, in most cases, might never use those instructions. What we fail to do is match the pace at which our lives go. We get so bogged down by the processes that we forget to live the results. Not every time will the mundane life give way to something special, unless we remind ourselves.

Ideas, thoughts, and words are intangible resources that help connect the dots for our readers. And shaping these intangible entities takes time. After all, they are the medium through which the readers travel from the figurative point A—of comprehending our products to point B—assuming that point B is a spot with a better view. Give yourself the time you deserve. Your creativity will start flowing even before you usher readers along their journeys. Set aside some time for yourself. Write every single day. Run fast when you can. But don’t forget to stand still.

Well, so say the masters. They make us evoke our superpower of judgement and choice. Let us choose our words wisely.

About the Author

Suyog Ketkar is a certified technical writer who specializes in content-design interoperability. He has authored two books, The Dogfight and the Lone Peacekeeper in 2021 and The Write Stride—A Conversation with Your Writing Self in 2017. His articles and poems have appeared in national and international books, poetry anthologies, and magazines. He is eager to share his enthusiasm for collecting and using fountain pens. When working, he is buried in books and information. Outside of work, he is an award-winning dad. He has been active on his website (http://suyogketkar.com) since 2007. On Quora, he has provided over 400 answers.

Current Role: Content Designer
Company: IBM
City: Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Connect at LinkedIn

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