The Elements of Style

This little book, the Elements of Style, originally by William Strunk and later revised and expanded by Elwyn Brooks White. Strunk taught an English course with the original version of this book as the required textbook at Cornell University in 1919. White was one of the students took that class. Decades later, White was asked to revise and contribute to a new edition of this book, after Professor Strunk passed away.

The version I am holding in hand now is the fourth edition from 1999. Multiple sources have informed me that this book has been broadly adopted as one of the required readings for certain college classes in the USA. In my opinion, anyone who communicates in English would benefit greatly from this book.

It is my general observation that in the business setting we generate and circulate far too many badly written, confusing at best, and often misleading notes and documents. We do so on the grounds that we do not have spare time to improve our writings or the luxury to do so in a fast-paced work environment. Bad writing unfortunately often leads to a great loss of productivity. Unwillingness to improve one’s language skill and laziness to communicate with clarity is evil, as it adds a great burden on the readers. I highly recommend reading this book. I envisage myself revisiting it many times again in future.

The process of reading this book was filled with both delight and anxiety. I have been frightened and ashamed that many errors and bad practices of written English listed here were committed by me previously. I have also discovered many jewels of good practices.

Chapter one covers the elementary rules of use of the English language. I spotted one misuse often made immediately. It is “Charles’s friend”, not “Charles’ friend”. That is the first rule: form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. People also often confuse “it’s” the contraction of “it is” with “its”, the possessive. Another mis-use I committed often many years ago and Daniel Rueckert helped me to overcome is: do not join independent clauses with a comma when forming a single compound sentence from multiple clauses that are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction. The correct punctuation is a semicolon.

Chapter two focuses on principles of compositions. The book suggests:

    • Choose a suitable design and hold to it;
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition;
    • Use the active voice;
    • Put statements in positive form;
    • Use definite, specific, concrete language;
    • Omit needless words;
    • Avoid a succession of loose sentences;
    • Express coordinate ideas in similar form;
    • Keep related words together;
    • In summaries, keep to one tense;
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

At the level of composing a sentence in English, I must have violated the last rule here many times before, as I was blindly unaware of this, despite my knowledge and practice of placing the most prominent sentences at the beginning and end of a paragraph. One pair of examples given in the book:

  1. Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  2. Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The second option clearly places more emphasis on the “hardly advanced in fortitude” part of the message.

I strongly disagree of shorthand spelling of some English words, for example, writing through as thru. It is bad practice and unforgivable, even on road signs. Laziness of spelling should not be tolerated. If we choose to be lazy with words used to describe our thoughts, we would inevitably end up in a downhill spiral and find ourselves eventually becoming too lazy with clear thinking.

White added a new chapter on An Approach to Style to this little book. White describes:

Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation – it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.

White’s advice on what style is not about:

Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is non-detachable, unfilterable.

On how to approach style:

The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.

Further, White gives us a list of suggestions to help us find our way to the desired style:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a way that comes naturally.
  • Work from a suitable design.
  • Write with nouns and verbs. (Not with adjectives and adverbs.)
  • Revise and rewrite.
  • Do not overwrite.
  • Do not overstate.
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers.
  • Do not affect a breezy manner.
  • Use orthodox spelling.
  • Do not explain too much.
  • Do not construct awkward adverbs. (for example, tiredly, tangledly.)
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
  • Avoid fancy words. (I observe that technical writings from non-native English speakers often tend to use fancy words, which in turn hurts the readability of the papers. Better to use the simple ones.)
  • Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
  • Be clear. (Clarity is the top priority, regardless of the form of communication, speaking or writing, in my view.)
  • Do not inject opinion. (This is very challenging.)
  • Use figures of speech sparingly.
  • Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
  • Avid foreign languages.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

I am grateful that teachers like Strunk and writers like White pass their knowledge on the usage of English language to us in a meticulously concise and precise writing style conveyed in this book. Without it, I might stay much longer ignorant of the errors I made and would not be able to progress.

The Founder’s Dilemmas

In the last a few years, multiple friends recommended The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman to me. I did not pick it up till my recent trip returning from Canada. One evening, a friend, A.J., compared the startup environment in Canada with that in Silicon Valley. He commented on how this environmental difference affects the success and failure of startups, besides many other factors. That conversation reminded me to read this book.

The subtitle of this book tells the gist of it: anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls that can sink a startup. It consists of three major parts followed by a conclusion. The first part talks about the pre-founding career dilemmas faced by the entrepreneurs. Part two presents the founding team dilemmas over multiple chapters: the solo-versus-team dilemma; relationship dilemmas – flocking together and playing with fire; role dilemmas – positions and decision making; reward dilemmas – equity splits and cash compensation; the three Rs system – alignment and equilibrium. Part three covers dilemmas beyond the founding team, specifically hires and investors: hiring dilemmas – the right hires at the right time; investor dilemmas – adding value, adding risks; failure, success and founder-CEO succession. Finally, the last but one of the most distinctive points I learned from this book: the wealth versus control dilemmas.

Some messages presented in this book read familiarly, as I previously read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One and various others, and the Creative Entrepreneur: Innovation Through Design Thinking programme I attended at Stanford referenced the Founder’s Dilemmas extensively. Taking an extensive research approach adds great credibility to the findings and arguments presented this book. I realize there could be many flaws in these studies. But the essence of reading a book like this is not to follow its prescription, but to establish a certain amount of awareness of the unknown based on others’ experiences, and when appropriate to integrate those options into our knowledge set to be called upon when the time comes. To be fair to the author, there is no trace of intention of prescribing any rules for the entrepreneurs-to-be in the book. Furthermore, as the author put it: we know amazingly little about the chief perils that beset the entrepreneurial activity we so often acclaim as the very heart and soul of the economy. So for the scarcity reason alone, this book is worth a read.

My takeaway from the book is: know yourself and your options at each stage of founding a startup, the potential consequences following each of your options, whether and how you can adapt yourself to match with the varying demand from each growth stage assuming you have not failed yet, the inevitable influence from being wealth-driven or control-driven, ways to adjust your approaches and mitigate the danger of failure.

A number of passages are fresh and educational to me. They either break down my old belief or broaden my view by providing arguments from new angles. Here are some examples.

Each of these founders aspired to build a high-impact startup, but “impact” meant very different things to each; to the financially motivated, it tended to mean a large gain in wealth, but to the control motivated, it tended to mean that the startup would bring to the world the product or service they envisioned.

Accumulating more experience is far less valuable if that experience does not shape the mental model in relevant ways (or, worse, if it shapes the mental model in counterproductive ways)….A broad range of work and educational experiences is indeed associated with a significantly higher willingness to become self-employed.

Among the founders in my dataset, only 18% had management experience before founding their startups, including 19% of technology founders and 15% of life science founders. (This is consistent with another study that found that technical founders tend to lack prior managerial experience and may even lack interest in developing managerial skills.)

Founding a startup requires the knitting together of all of the functions required to make an organization run effectively, from product development to marketing to sales to finance to human resources. Having prior experience in those functions arms the founder with the ability to understand how each one operates on its own and as part of the larger whole.

Prioritization is even more important in a startup than in a stable business. I realized that I needed people to not only prioritize what to do, I needed them to create not-to-do lists. It was easy for people to find new products for us to bring to market, new pieces to add, new customer segments to go after… when you are smaller, if you go after something, it takes precious resources. You are also moving a lot faster, so you can harm the organization…There’s much more at risk, much more damage you can do.

One hears a lot about “following your passion.” Potential founders should avoid the mistake of thinking that their passion excuses them from a rational assessment of their circumstances…. The heart is forever making the head its fool.

I learned that leadership is all about taking in information and making a decision – shared information but not shared decisions. Make decisions yourself and live with them. Another key is speed. I want a single decision maker, even below me. If I have a VP of operations, he makes the call about operations.

There are three recurring categories of founding-team decisions: relationships, roles and rewards – each involving trade-offs and tensions.

Researchers have already observed that specific founding experience is more valuable for startup growth than are overall work experience and educational human capital.

Knowing for sure that someone has to go is hard, but I have learned that if I start thinking someone needs to go, they need to go. It is always the right call to upgrade when you realize someone can’t or isn’t succeeding.

One of the most critical inflection points in the evolution of a startup: the “succession” from a founder-CEO to a “professional” (nonfounding) CEO.

Managing a technical team is quite different from managing multiple functions that must interact and with most of which the CEO has little direct experience. At this point, the startup’s finances and metrics also become much more complex, requiring a level of financial sophistication possessed by few founder-CEOs. The leap from leading product development to leading a multifunction startup challenges not only the founder’s skills, but – perhaps even more profoundly – his or her values.

Founders who refuse to give up ownership and control in either or both of these ways will be less likely to attract the resources they need and thus not be able to fully pursue the opportunities they envision. It appears, then, that each of our founding dilemmas is also a dilemma of what resources to acquire at what cost in ownership and control. This is the dilemma behind all the other dilemmas.

My analyses also suggest that founders who keep control personally give up a significant amount financially. Such founders tend to build a less valuable startup while keeping a larger share of equity in it, but it turns out that the value-seeking founder’s “smaller slice of a larger pie” is generally greater than the control-seeking founder’s “larger slice of a smaller pie.”

The hardest decision a founder, inventor, or entrepreneur needs to make is “when do I give up some control to grow the company”.

Hegarty on Creativity – There Are No Rules

Rule number one of traveling to a new place is to visit its museums. I wish some museums offer lodging service, for example, one could happily spend three days and nights of a long weekend in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rule No. 2 is its independent or secondhand bookstores. I have a very soft spot for secondhand book shops. Sadly it seems that I have not come across many of them outside London. Rule No. 3 is to see its cemeteries. One I visited recently is the Mountain Cemetery and its adjacent Veteran Memorial in Sonoma. I was struck by sadness when I saw the empty space left for future names on the memorial stone. It is indeed practical to plan for further additions, nevertheless upsetting to think about the inevitable. These are the rules to be exercised with flexibility and a priority ordering given the circumstances.

I wandered into Ben McNally Books in Toronto one late afternoon last week. The bookshop was beautiful and private. There were very few people there probably because it was a workday. Exploring its collections felt like being spoiled in a private library of one’s own, although I would remove probably three quarters of novels from the shelves and replace them with science and engineering books, but leave the other categories untouched, if it is my library. There I was browsing randomly. A small book with lemon yellow cover and neat design caught my eyes. Hegarty on Creativity – There are No Rules, I picked it up without any hesitation. Judge me if you wish. I cannot resist a book as elegantly presented as this and especially one with such a title. I must find out what is inside and who is Hegarty.

The interior design of this book is as beautiful as its cover, if not more so. Many drawings and compositions fit appropriately with the content. The writing itself is witty and humorous. A subject like creativity that could potentially be very dry and abstract is discussed in a delightful way.

The author states clearly at the beginning: this book is about how you get started, how you keep going. Not what you want to create. It contains 50 provocations on creativity, on nurturing it, sustaining it, and harnessing it. Hegarty gives the definition of creativity as: the expression of self. This is true in the art profession. Perhaps in the science and engineering world, it is the expression of self (into which the intuition acquired through experience falls into) and knowledge. I suppose having certain knowledge is a state of being, so it could be part of the self too. If we interpret self broadly, I would agree with this definition.

Whatever you’re creating, simplicity is the ultimate goal. The power of reduction, as we say in advertising, means taking a complex thought and reducing it down to a simple, powerful message.

Stop thinking. Start feeling. Creativity is an intellectual process, but it is also one driven by the heart. Irish writer James Stephens summed it up perfectly when he wrote: What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.

Words are a barrier to communication. If it’s a race to get into minds and stay there, then it’s the artists who make their points faster, smarter, and more thought-provoking that will be the ones to succeed. I particularly like the example Hegarty quoted to show the power of pithy phrases: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

I like the visual simplicity and profound impact of the Levi ads that Hegarty and his team designed, with the phrase “when the world zigs, zag.” You must see the sheep visually yourself to see its beauty. Here it is in the BBH website. As Hegarty pointed out: that single line of text was added to reinforce the point made visually in this image.

Hegarty wrote about the relation of technology and creativity: Technology is not an idea. It’s the means to express an idea. So under no circumstances should you become overawed by it. No matter what piece of technology has been invented, from the camera to the computer, or will be invented, and no matter what value it claims to deliver, if it can’t in some shape or another deliver the full impact of a well-told story its worth will eventually diminish. I suspect there are not many computer scientists who are afraid of technology. On the other hand, would technologists be fearful of exploring art domains leveraging their technology expertise? My belief is that profession or expertise could be as fluid as we want it to be, or as rigid.

Hegarty’s writings on cynicism, collaboration, mixing with the best and respecting but not revering echos my experience at AMD Research. Creativity grows in a nurturing and positive environment. No idea is stupid, no question is silly. We can extend, build upon, mix with each other’s ideas. The complementary skillsets and diversified views allow us to bridge the gaps and generate the best as a team. Even someone like me raising far more questions than most people never felt that I have gone too far. In that kind of positive environment, creativity thrives organically. I cannot help sharing the quote by H. L. Mencken: A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. The contrary is true too, the right place for creativity is where we smell compost, we think how delightful and fragrant the roses will be, once we use the compost as fertilizer.

One more “provocation” from this book that I was drawn to: good is the enemy of great. Within this maelstrom of thoughts veering all over the place, it can be easy to settle on something that feels right. Something that seems to make sense of all the confusion. You’ll feel relief when you get to this point. You’ll think you’ve cracked it. You’ll feel good. But then you have to take a step back from what feels really good and ask: But is it great?…Park that good idea and keep going. Trust in inspiration to come up with a great idea – that idea that’s going to put everything else in the shade. 

When Hegarty was in a life-drawing class at art school, his teacher pronounced: “When a drawing’s going wrong, what you don’t do is turn over the page and start again. You keep working on that drawing until it’s right. Only then do you turn the page over. That’s how you learn. I suppose I’m talking about life as well.Never move on until you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.

Without elaborating in length, a few more arguments I like in this book are common sense at the surface but great to be reminded of in an artistic and playful storytelling way by Hegarty:

  • Keep your focus!
  • Practice only makes perfect if you make progress.
  • The importance of editing. In creative work it really is hard to be both subjective and objective. A great idea comes from a subjective point of view but then it has to be reviewed objectively to see whether or not it will work. This second objective stage is called editing.
  • Creativity has to be nurtured, cared for, invested in. Money just wants to exploit your career, without any concern for its longevity or future.

At one point in the book, Hegarty wrote “Yes, we’re all artists. But some of us shouldn’t exhibit…Just because technology has made it easier to create and express yourself does not mean you’re any good at it. Every day I’m inundated with badly written, poorly structured, uninformed blogs. Please. STOP. Do us all a favor and find something useful to do.” What about this blog and all previous ones that I wrote? I wonder. On the bright side, at least the large amount of quotes that I relayed to you from the great works that I read are not badly written.

 

Story Craft

Up and in my home office. It is 3:12am. Again around 3am. Here I am with the book Story Craft – The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. Am I eternally cursed by some dark magic force of 3am? I first fell victim to this probably in autumn 2005, living in Paddington, just north of Hyde Park in London. The frequency of early wakings varied, with far more in some periods than others for either external or internal reasons. I am happy to remain so though and to continue exercising the freedom to naturally wake up early and work on what interests me. Knowing that I have this choice, I am very grateful. It is wonderful to have taken great pleasure in reading or working on a subject of interest before the dawn; by the time the dawn cracks, hitting the road for a jog and seeing the world around me slowly wake up to a new day, I secretly think to myself that I am ready for this new day. One benefit of starting the day early is that it helps to direct attention to truly important topics during the day. To think that I have been very much immersed in certain subject a few hours before the typical start of the day, it would be insane to waste the rest of the precious day on any trivial matters. It is the third 3am over a week time that I have been accompanied by this book. It is not a hard read. But it is far away from my area of expertise that so much of it feels very fresh to me such that I like re-reading some passages.

 

You may find this very encouraging, if you are concerned about the lack of experience and talent for narrative nonfiction writing: One of the other things I discovered during a quarter-century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize….The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft.

 

In talking about what this book is about:

The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to combine print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them. Those principles are what Storycraft is all about….to share what I learned in the trenches….

Speaking of the wide application of storytelling:

Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much. When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The story and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities.

Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action heads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.

To support that narrative is part of our fundamental nature, the author quoted Barbara Hardy:

We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

This scientific evidence included in the book suggests that mastering storytelling would be great for non-literature, for example, in our case, the discussion of technology and leadership topics too:

Most human beings have a better grasp of narrative than other forms, that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. Research also demonstrates that we remember facts more accurately if we’re exposed to them in a story, rather than a list, and that we’re more likely to buy the arguments that lawyers make in a trial if they present them as part of a narrative. We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too, which may explain why we’re so fascinated by the narratives of others. Psychologists have studied the way we picture our own life stories. They’ve found, according to the New York Times, that each of us has a kind of internal screenplay, and that “the way we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave.”

 

To write a good piece of narrative nonfiction, the first step would be to identify and choose a story to tell. So what are the roots of a story?

At its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions – the actual story structure – to overcome them. That’s a succinct expression of what’s generally known as the protagonist-complication-resolution model for story…a story follows when “a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences.”

In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin defined narrative nonfiction as:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.  

 

After reading this book, my understanding is that the key ingredients of a good story are its characters (or protagonists), a sequence of actions (including narrative and plot), complications and resolutions.

  1. The protagonist is the person who makes things happen. Jack Hart advises us to choose a sympathetic character over a dark one, for the reason that it helps the readers to establish the connection with the protagonist. He also advises to not shift point of view too much and that it is better to stick with one through a single character.
  2. Narrative is about a chronology of events, whereas plot is about the cause and effect, or the force that supports the story to take certain trajectory.
  3. Complication is the trouble that our protagonist has to deal with. There is no story without a complication, on the other hand, complication alone does not make a story. To demystify the choice of complication: not every complication has to have life or death consequences…“The great dangers in life and in literature are not necessarily the most spectacular,” Janet Burroway says. “The profoundest impediments to our design most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family. Fewer people have cause to panic at the approach of a stranger with a gun than at the approach of mama with the curling iron.”
  4. Resolution: the ultimate aim of every story. The resolution releases the dramatic tension created as the protagonist struggles with the complication. It contains the lesson that the audience carries away, the insight that the story’s readers or viewers or listeners can apply to their own lives. It seems to me, we too often err on the side of dragging the resolution for too long when we should have put the final stop to the article or book. It is more appealing to hint the reader with a very succinct “telegram” that prompts the reader to do the thinking rather than spelling out the full message. When I read articles like that, we feel more involved in connecting with the story and contributing to the creation of that resolution.
 

In creating a story, one technique recommended is to list the plot points and use them to plan the story’s trajectory. To illustrate what a plot is and how it is different from mere narrative:

A plot emerges when a storyteller carefully selects and arranges material so that larger meanings can emerge. A plot, says Burroway, “is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” For Eudora Welty “Plot is the “Why?”” Or, as the novelist E.M. Forster famously put it: the narrative is that “the king died and then the queen died.” The plot is that “the king died and the queen died of grief.”

 

A lot of the messages in this book are larger than being guidance for writing narrative nonfiction. For example, “You can resolve a complication…by changing the world or changing yourself.” Is it not true in every aspect of the universe? “A compelling story must immerse readers in another world, carrying them away from their mundane daily cares.” This applies not only to written stories, but also to other forms of inputs, like technical writings, maths deductions, music, paintings, presentations and so on.

 

After educating us on the principles of story structure, Jack Hart dives into the practical specifics in the rest of the book. It teaches “how to convey character, action, and scene”, helps the readers to explore the point of view, find the voice and develop his/her own style of narrative writing through sharing a large amount of excellent examples and the author’s first-hand experiences.  

 

The last chapter of the book discusses ethics. Jack Hart leaves us with his fundamental principles: Be honest, get it right, keep everything transparent. Don’t fudge, ever, even if a tiny departure from reality produces a huge payoff in drama, clarity, or style.

 

This book challenged me, like a number others I have read this year. But then, what is the point of reading or doing anything, if it does not challenge us to be better?

I hear birds are singing. Time to get out for the fresh air of the beautiful dawn.

Reading as a Writer

This past week, I attended a one week Reading as a Writer program at Stanford, led by Jonah Willihnganz, Director of the Stanford Storytelling Project. There were about twenty of us, in a cosy seminar room up in the fourth floor of Sweet Hall, with gorgeous views of the campus. There are two beautiful windows, very large and round, taking up nearly two full walls of the room. Through the window to my right hand side, I could see the eastern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The architect who designed Sweet Hall must have planned the views for us. For one moment, I imagined myself like a kite flying out the window towards the mountains and having a grand tour of Filoli and Crystal Springs Lake from up in the air.

This is going to be a beautiful week”, I thought of that when I stepped into the seminar room on my first day there. After a round of self-introduction, agony and self-consciousness hit me briefly: “I have no idea whether I can survive this week. Look around, sitting around me are real real real writers….Well, if I am not good enough to be here, that means I would be able to learn a lot this week from the pros by being here. Is it not wonderful? Yes!” Sometimes, having a skin as thick as the Great Smog of London in 1952 is of great benefit to me. Jonah is a great teacher. He is very good at leading interesting discussions and encouraging us to discover and share freely, without any stifling atmosphere that one would imagine for courses on English or any other languages. To some extent, it is the exercise of one writing principle of “showing” without “telling”. I am grateful to Jonah’s detailed and insightful explanations in answer to my many questions. I am also thankful to my fellow classmates for their patience and their not throwing me out of the window like a kite without a string.

There were a number of reading assignments that I can safely say that I would never have read in my lifetime if not for this program. Take as an example Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle. No offense to T.C. Boyle though. Under ordinary circumstances, the old me (before this week) would not have liked a bit of Greasy Lake, for its coarse language and dark stories that I found very hard to relate to even using my imagination. I realise that fine and coarse, dark and bright are all relative. The old me would be thinking: get on with life, stop roaming around and squandering the invaluable and very limited youth you have, do something constructive. My judgement kicked in, limited my thought process and my capability of appreciating the work. It was wrong of me. After hearing a few people praising Greasy Lake highly and appreciating it so much, I had to confess to the room that I did not enjoy reading Greasy Lake but I was eager to hear their views and find its beauty. I realise “beauty” is a very over-loaded word. Again, my apology to T.C. Boyle. You see, I have to pick an example to make my argument concrete. On Thursday, Roxane asked me whether my opinion about Greasy Lake has changed. It had indeed and I explained to her why. However, the point is not what exactly I started to appreciate about Greasy Lake. It is through reading we experience what we never ever might come across, especially the works that are out of our comfort zone. I had too restrictive a set of criteria for selecting my reading materials before. Not only has this program made me realise that limitation, but it has also convinced me of the benefit of much broader reading, for the small set of reading materials this week have broadened my view tremendously. It felt like the improv exercise that Katie led us to do in Stanford while lying on the ground with eyes closed: imagine you are Stanford, now imagine you are Palo Alto, next you are California, now you are Northern America, now you are the earth…it keeps on going. Reading as a Writer program have sent me off to explore new territories.

We read a couple of dozen great works recommended by Jonah and had in-depth discussions about many of them. Through close reading some selections in the program, we focused on examining each piece for the five typical components of creative writing: the plot, setting or description, dialogue, interiority, exposition or summary. The plot or action typically include stasis, inciting incident, conflict, reversal, climax and resolution. Some writings may omit a couple of these elements.

Jonah also led us to analyse the texts according to three axis: architecture, tropes and prose. Prior to attending this program, I was mostly aware of the tropes and prose, but not seeing the architecture as a main thread, for non-technical writings. We typically take the architecture for granted. For the purpose of writing, it is instrumental to design the architecture before being trapped in the word choices. The architecture choice helps create the plots and develop the characters. It cover linear, modular or other design choices, time management, point of view, central intelligence, psychic distance, suspense and surprise, epiphany, kairosis and so on.

We read works by Peter Taylor, Ernest Hemingway, John Didion, Naomi Shihab Nye, Monica Wood, T.C. Boyle, Michael Pollan, David Quammen, E.B. White, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Sherman Alexie, Dave Eggers, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Grace Paley, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Cheryl Strayed, Pico Iyer, Alice Munro, Anthony Doerr, George Saunders, Ta Nehesi Coates, Tobias Wolff, Eula Biss, Jhumpa Lahiri. It is impossible that I would ever read great works by so many writers in so short timeframe, if not because of this Reading as a Writer program by Jonah. To say “thank you” is an awful understatement on my part.

You may find the textbook recommended by this program helpful. I only read the first two so far. But given what quoted by Jonah during the program from the latter two, I would like to read them too when I get a chance.  

Reading Like a Writer – by Francine Prose

Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction – by Jack Hart

Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction – by Catherine Brady

Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form – by Maddison Smartt Bell

I thought about what are my favorite readings of this program. It is very tough to rank them, if at all possible. Each one is very different from the others. I am glad my mind was opened up to appreciate the styles that I was not used to before. If I must leave you a couple readings for your leisurely consumption, I would choose these very short ones for you (in case you are a computer scientist as I am). The volume of the body absolutely does not correspond to its depth and impact though.

Am I Blue?  – by Alice Walker

Fiesta, 1980  – by Junot Diaz

Indian Camp – by Ernest Hemingway

Kindness – by Naomi Shihab Nye

Disappearing  – by Monica Wood

 

Will I ever be a writer, besides writing technical articles which I profoundly enjoy? I do not know the answer. This week has opened a new horizon though. None of us needs any qualification to be allowed to do what we would like to do, within reason and provided we do not harm others. Like the rose garden I created a couple years ago, it taught me that anyone can be a garden designer, you simply just do it and learn in the process. The outcome is beautiful rose bouquets, lighting up many households of neighbors and friends besides my own. Rose gardening is therapeutic. Reading and writing are too.