Reverse engineer your favorite writing.

I don’t in any way think of myself as a master of the written word, but I have gotten pretty good at penning nonfiction. There are a million ways to create better prose, but the one I am going to talk about is a species of very active, almost meditative reading.

Basically, I zoom in on any sentence or passage that captures my attention and try to figure out why, then I try to generate the sentence using contents from my own mind.

For example, one of my favorite authors is Sam Harris, whose writing is often sprinkled with gems like this:

” Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. ”

Now he could’ve just said “talking about stuff online is bad for your reputation”. But instead his phrasing planted a vivid image in my mind of a little girl traversing a minefield, surrounded by smoke and ruin and silence. Even though he’s only talking about how people perceive him on the internet, it’s nuances like this that breathe life into writing that would otherwise be dry and of little interest to most people.

So I opened a word document and typed these two sentences from memory. Then I erased them, trying to imagine what mental state I would’ve had to have been in just prior to having composed them. What thoughts and images would I have needed to have penned those words myself?

Of course, Sam would’ve most likely been in a totally different state of mind, and I can’t ever know. But the point is not to mimic his mind, but to engage in a bit of mental ventriloquism, in effect casting my pen in his voice. How can I arrange the contents of my own mind such that the output is of as high a quality as his?

Put another way, it’s the opposite of paraphrasing; rather than taking thoughts and putting them in different words, I’m starting with different thoughts and trying to make the same words.

I did this with about half of his blog one night while drinking wine, and in one of my own essays I  wrote:

“The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now”.

It’s safe to say that my writing has absorbed some of the style and strength of Harris’s.


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