How To Write: Chaos Manor with Jerry Pournelle (reprise)



ED: Jerry Pournelle is reprising the View from Chaos Manor here at aNewDomain.net. This is an all-time favorite Pournelle column we thought we’d post for the long holiday weekend. A version of it ran in the late 1990s and he’s been revising it ever since, an age-old habit of writers the world over. Enjoy!


The question I get most often is, “How do I get your job?”

Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: How do you become an author?

I always give the same answer. It’s easy to be an author. And it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software. And we play with new stuff until we tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer. And while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to write badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong. A good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful. But he had a point. There aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing, by all means do it. But do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

Of course, it helps if your million words are done in good English, which brings us to the main point: With few exceptions, beginning writers are appallingly bad. I don’t mean that they can’t organize their material, although that’s true enough. I mean something more basic: Their grammar is atrocious. And their spelling is abysmal. What’s worse, they don’t know it. Worst of all, they defend their mistakes. And if someone corrects them, they want to argue about it.

I once tried to help a dear friend learn to write, and it was sheer hell. We fought over every correction I made, and if I won an argument, I lost some friendship.

If you’re arguing, you’re not writing. If you’re defending bad grammar, you aren’t learning good grammar. If you’re trying to prove that good writers break the rules, you’re not learning the rules — and believe me, until you have the rules down pat, you shouldn’t break any of them. Time to be creative after you learn to write.

What saved our friendship way back then was an old grammar software program. It ruthlessly corrected every error, no matter how trivial — and it wouldn’t argue. You wrote your essay, letter, or whatever, and aimed that program — it was Grammatik IV — at it. The program told you what you did wrong. It ruthlessly pointed out passive voice, needlessly complex sentences, silly clichés, too many adjectives and repetition.

Now of course, good writing will contain some passive voice, complex sentences, a few clichés and unneccessary adverbs and adjectives. But it won’t contain a lot of that. And until you’re aware of just how much gubbage you routinely throw into your writing, you won’t get a feel for just what good writing is.

Here endeth the essay as originally written. Now a few words of advice on organization:

Once you have learned to write good sentences, sit down and write. When my sons began to write essays — term papers, originally I suppose — I told each in turn the same thing. Write everything you can think of about the subject. Everything.

Now go through and list the topic sentence of each paragraph. If you find paragraphs that don’t have a topic sentence, you have a problem: fix that. If you don’t know what a paragraph is, and have no notion of topic sentences, get that corrected at once. (Just read on.) Once you have that list of topic sentences, decide if that’s really the order you want to present the information in. It probably won’t be. Organize the way you want it.

Fill in the gaps, expand points that need expanding, and do one final rewrite pass. Voila. If this is a term paper you will probably get an A if you knew anything at all about the subject. If you’re writing for sale, you probably need more feel for how such things are organized in the publication you are aiming for. Study your market. But recall the technique: it will serve you well for a long time.

On Paragraphs: I once had to tell a co-author (Not Niven) what a paragraph was. He kept handing me material that was dramatic but paragraphed horribly. Finally I asked what he thought he was doing, and he confessed that no one had ever taught him what a paragraph is.

“A paragraph,” I said, “is a group of sentences organized around one complete thought which is stated in the topic sentence.”

It was as if a light had appeared his head. He now paragraphs well. Of course in fiction, characters don’t always speak in paragraphs, nor do they organize what they are saying very coherently; still, you will find that characters in fiction do and must speak a lot more coherently than people do in real life. Real conversation transcribed is sometimes incomprehensible, usually ungrammatical, and often boring.

The main point of this is that the secret of success in becoming a writer is you must write; you must finish what you write; and you must write a lot more. The other points are things to keep in mind while you do that.

-30-

Addendum:

My writing routine consists of retiring to the monk’s cell, a place where there’s nothing to do but write; working for a couple of hours until I am tired; then doing the Five Tibetan Rituals, preferably 21 repetitions but as few as five will have a beneficial effect.

That frees up enough energy that I can work for another hour or so. They also have the beneficial effect of pretty well eliminating back problems. I still do some of the Anderson stretches as well, but the Tibetan Rituals are an excellent source of energy and a remedy to arthritis.

And when you are done with all that, look at Orwell on effective writing.

A version of this column originally appeared in Jerry’s View from Chaos Manor column in BYTE back in the late 1990s. The full version of this column is available here at Jerry’s site.

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  • http://aNewDomain.net Gina Smith

    Jerry, I read this piece early in my career, i believe, or an early rendition of it and it made such an impression on me. If you argue you are not writing. And if you are not writing and learning, you are not getting published. Such simple thoughts — but elegant and influential. Thanks again for this.

    So glad to have you on our team, Jerry. Happy Easter.

    Of course you know it’s the full moon after the equinox. I’d love to know the origins of that. Sounds Pagan, but I recently heard otherwise … bet you know!

  • Erlend Edward Hansen

    The thought of writing 10 pieces, and one is published, isn’t a happy thought. But keep on writing I do!

    Writing for children (as I do – one book out, my language is Norwegian) is rewarding, because of the acute need of a simple language. Every adjective must be placed with thought. Yeah, the adjective part is funny!

    And I especially liked “Five Tibetan Rituals”. After hours on a chair, I need movement! :-)

  • Jose G.

    Mr. Pournelle,

    Thank you so very much for this article. I will definitely have to return to college to get my writing skills whipped into shape. I definitely know my grammar and usage skills need to be retrained. It is better to read it from a pro and internalize the rules from the start. Later, I can avoid making those mistakes & learn to accept criticism gracefully.

  • http://yetanothertechshow.com Ant Pruitt

    So I’ve gotten to this early paragraph and i could probably stop reading after this quote:

    “To be an author, you must first be a writer. And while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.”

    POWERFUL, Mr. Pournelle. Yeah I will continue to read this post, but that quote alone is enough to open eyes. I’m so honored to be a part of this team.

    -RAP, II

    • http://yetanothertechshow.com Ant Pruitt

      Maybe I’m oddly emotional right now, but this is the FIRST TIME I’ve ever read an article on a tech site that damn near made me tear up.

      Mr. Pournelle, thank you so much for this legacy piece. How many people can say that their writing has a legacy? This was originally written by you in the late 1990’s and it is still powerful TODAY.

      Wow.

      Thank you.

      -RAP, II

  • http://aNewDomain.net Gina Smith

    I love that Jerry Pournelle can make our +Ant Pruitt cry : ) He’s been doing it to me for years! It’s anewdomain.net. Wouldn’t be the same without Jerry, would it?

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