Thoughts on Writing

by Philip Greenspun

Site Home : Writing : One Page

"No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing. ... It is now necessary to warn the writer that his concern for the reader must be pure: he must sympathize with the reader's plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know his wants. The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Let him start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead, although he may make a nice living."
-- last chapter of The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
Sometimes, it is good to read before you write. Here's a list of books that I've found rewarding.

Writing about Writing

Scripts in my cousin Harry's office at Sony Pictures.  These are some of those that didn't get dumped in the trash.  You feel pretty sorry for writers (and producers) after a few minutes in Hollywood. Authors often ask whether one should publish a work as a hardcopy book or a Web site. If the is maximum impact, the obvious answer is "both". For novels, hardcopy alone may be adequate. People expect to open a novel while settling into an airplane seat in Paris, finish it just before landing in Boston, and then give it to the flight attendant. The average reader does not expect to pull out isolated pages or sections to show others, though it is worth noting that the important works of literature are almost all available in electronic form from humanities sites to facilitate just this sort of usage (e.g., see Alex and

For technical books to be effective they need to be referred to repeatedly even by the original reader. Individual sections need to be emailed to others who are in the midst of design work. Drawings and examples from the book need to be projected to students in university classes. People with the most critical need for the information need to be able to find it by using an Internet search engine. None of this is practical when a book is only in hardcopy form. Especially laughable are the authors of book after book on improved usability and user interface for computer systems. By publishing only in hardcopy form these authors have produced works that are essentially unusable for the stated purpose!

In writing on technical topics you should think about your consumers. The place where you can have the most impact is with university students. This the largest group of people with the desire and time to read and learn. The trend in universities worldwide is away from hardcopy texts. Fewer and fewer courses have more than one assigned hardcopy book. Unless you write a hardcopy document that is comprehensive enough to be a one-semester text (and perfectly aligned with what universities want to teach in a one-semester course), it is very unlikely to be seen by students. Put yourself in the shoes of a professor. Is it easier to make 100 copies of a hardcopy document and lug them to class in a big Xerox box or to stick a hyperlink on the course Web site? Are you going to tell your cash-strapped students to go out and spend $50 per week on supplementary books out of each one of which they really only need to see a few dozen pages? Whenever an adequate Web source exists it will displace all hardcopy competitors, e.g., SQL for Web Nerds is used by many university courses on database programming. Faculty supplement the book with links to comprehensive online documentation for whatever database management system the students are using.


Here's a bit of literary activity at the Tsukiji Fish Market:

Tsukiji Fish Market.  Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market.  Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market.  Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market.  Tokyo


Photos: Copyright 1995-2009. Florence (top) and Venice (bottom) photos are from my Italy guidebook/photo exhibit.

Reader's Comments

Are there any other new hopefuls who are interested in writing...on the web, books, magazines, on graffiti? I'm interested in developing this new possibility and want to hear from any other hopefuls (or depressed, hopeless), or crusty, jaded, suave or (and I bow at this!) Published Authors (!!!) I know I'm waiting to hear....!

-- sharon j., April 2, 1998

I suppose it's the narcissism of these "Thoughts on Writing" I find so appealing. (Or maybe the naked--woman--obscuring--bookshelf photo under the link "a list of books I've found rewarding." Somehow I think the last line of this delicious narcissist's online resume may shed some light on the unintended metaphorical quality of this photo and his overall stance on the life of an artist/writer versus the life of a wealthy computer geek: "Never Married." Has this lack, and I'm being presumptuous here, of "good relations with the right woman," which D.H Lawrence noted as primary, caused philg to divorce himself from simple things, i.e. art and the "garret," and bury himself in pathetic (pathos being the root here) self adornment, i.e. Viking stove and Acura NSEX? Just a theory.) I think a quote is in order: "An enlightenment which requires to be authenticated, certified, recognized, congratulated, is a false, or at least an incomplete one." --Zen and Zen Classics, R.H. Blyth via Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters, J.D. Salinger. Well, in the case of philg all of this is NULL AND VOID! His strange and beautiful composits read like parsnip from the buttocks of Mother Theresa, (dead OR alive.) You go philg! Take us all for a ride in that fabulous car. Plant the Ars Digita Community System in the ass of the daily violence committed against children by parents lacking basic human skills and the world will truly be more profitable. (There may be a government grant here, not mention awards and statues.)Imagine, with the Ars Digita Community System planted in the ass of daily violence committed against children, not only will the world be a healthier place, but we'll have easily modified modules to keep track of the pain and suffering and send automated e-mails to social workers around the world informing them their jobs are no longer necessary AND we can use the chat module to pat each other on the back. What's more it's all OPEN SOURCE! The whole world can port the AD system into the asses of their daily violence committed against children absolutely FREE! If only Dostoevsky had forsaken the garret, the world would have had a technological fix planted in the ass of daily violence against children in the 19th century. Thanks philg, YOUR narcissism is inspirational.

-- Joe Short, February 8, 2000

"If you write for God, you will reach many people and bring them joy. If you write for people, you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish you were dead."

-- Thomas Merton

-- Max Ernst, March 21, 2000

Add a comment

Related Links

Add a link