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The Grit of Writing, Writing Like You Talk, and The Reality of Mastery

Resource: David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are


Word-readers are not mind readers. The people you’re writing for belong to the former group. Keep them in mind when you write.

Interestingness is not the product of what’s going on in your mind. It’s the product of what you do with it. Your thoughts become interesting because of the way you express them, illuminate them, connect them with other things. Interestingness takes creative effort.

It takes grit and giftedness to be a good writer. You can’t rely on talent and good imagination alone. Beautiful writing is the outcome of an ugly process that takes a tremendous amount of effort to get through.

There’s no limit to how much you can improve as a writer. And the way to improve is to write. The more you write, the more easy you will see your need to improve.

Read. And when you read, don’t just focus on the story and concepts, Pay attention to how the words are presented and related to one another. Make yourself a student of other people’s sentence structure and phrasing.

Writing reveals gaps in your understanding. We all have areas in our thinking that need tidying up. These areas often lie in our blind spots. Writing brings them to the light. When you write, you become disturbed by a great many things you would have otherwise been quite comfortable with.

A person’s sense of purpose can move through cycles. An older who person who doesn’t know what they’re passionate may be immature, but they also might be in the process of reinventing themselves.


Wallace on makes good writing:

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.”

Your reader is a word-reader, not a mind-reader:

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one. ”

On paying attention to the way language shapes/structures thoughts when reading:

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

On writing as a tool for self-improvement and how it signals more than what you’re trying to say:

“One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

On the work that must be done to make one’s thoughts interesting:

““I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

On how writing takes grit, not just giftedness:

“There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .”

Writing is art and science:

“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

How writing makes you a better thinker about language:

“A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.”

The more you write the more you see your need to improve:

“Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . . ”

How certain writers have the ability to turn our brains on:

“If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul. And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.”

On how our sense of purpose may go through cycles:

“It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . . But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.”

Resource: Write Like You Talk

“If you simply manage to write in spoken language, you’ll be ahead of 95% of writers. And it’s so easy to do: just don’t let a sentence through unless it’s the way you’d say it to a friend.”


Using fancier words doesn’t add substance to your thoughts. Writing creates the illusion that our thoughts will go further if we use big words or pretty words, but that’s not true. Our thoughts go furthest when they’re understood. And we’re more likely to be understood when we write like we talk.

Write your first draft like you usually do, but then explain what you wrote to a friend. Afterwards, replace what you wrote with what you said to your friend. Your writing will likely be much better.

Simple language is to big ideas what workout clothes are to the athlete. The harder the work you’re doing, the more important it is to wear clothes that makes it easy to move. When you’re thinking about hard stuff, simple language is the attire that makes it easier for you to move your thoughts around.


How writing makes us sound odd:

“Here’s a simple trick for getting more people to read what you write: write in spoken language. Something comes over most people when they start writing. They write in a different language than they’d use if they were talking to a friend. The sentence structure and even the words are different. No one uses “pen” as a verb in spoken English. You’d feel like an idiot using “pen” instead of “write” in a conversation with a friend.”

How writing fools us:

“the complex sentences and fancy words give you, the writer, the false impression that you’re saying more than you actually are.”

Hard ideas demand simple speak:

“You don’t need complex sentences to express complex ideas. When specialists in some abstruse topic talk to one another about ideas in their field, they don’t use sentences any more complex than they do when talking about what to have for lunch. They use different words, certainly. But even those they use no more than necessary. And in my experience, the harder the subject, the more informally experts speak. Partly, I think, because they have less to prove, and partly because the harder the ideas you’re talking about, the less you can afford to let language get in the way. Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas.”

A simple way to simplify your writing:

“It seems to be hard for most people to write in spoken language. So perhaps the best solution is to write your first draft the way you usually would, then afterward look at each sentence and ask “Is this the way I’d say this if I were talking to a friend?” If it isn’t, imagine what you would say, and use that instead. After a while this filter will start to operate as you write. When you write something you wouldn’t say, you’ll hear the clank as it hits the page.”

Resource: Getting Things Done


GTD mastery, like all forms of mastery, is a continual process. As we move through life, our goals change, our environments change, and our ability to perform certain kinds of tasks change. The key to applying the principles effectively lies in our willingness to be sensitive to the evolving themes that define our lives and our patience with ourselves as we make adjustments.

“Mind like water” does not mean “water undisturbed.” “Mind like water” is the ability to deal with turbulence and transition with composure even when you may be dealing with other difficult emotions and distracting thoughts at the same time.

GTD master will make you a more optimistic person. Building a reliable system for getting things done makes you more confident in your ability to achieve your goals.


How GTD improves optimism and self-esteem:

“Adopting GTD sets people up for greater optimism because it enables them to draw connections between the successful completion of projects and their own purposeful and goal-directed efforts. Individuals identify meaningful projects, articulate the next steps needed to complete them, and then ideally follow through the process until the project is completed. As each “win” is achieved, it produces greater capacity for making more positive commitments. ”

GTD as lifelong practice:

“GTD IS ACTUALLY a lifelong practice with multiple levels of mastery. It is very similar to playing an instrument like the violin, a sport like tennis, or a game like chess. It’s like mathematics, pottery, art history, or even parenting. All of these endeavors involve learning and applying a particular set of moves and techniques, and there’s no end to how good you can become at them, or how many subtleties there are to explore. ”

The versatile reality of mastery

“Mastery does not refer to some final end state of a Zen-like peacefulness and enlightenment on a mountaintop (though that could be an optional nice expression of it). Rather, it’s the demonstrated ability to consistently engage in productive behaviors as a means to achieve clarity, stability, and focus when it’s desired or required—no matter what the challenge. ”

What the mind like water state is really like:

How well you have developed that ability will be tested when you’re confronted with things that are unclear, unstable, and distracting, which are natural and normal symptoms of any change in your world. The idea of “mind like water” doesn’t assume that water is always undisturbed.

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