Jerry Pournelle

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BOOK Reviews


This was originally published in the December 1996 BYTE as part of my regular column. I have added a few sentences here and there, but it's mostly unchanged. It was true when I wrote it and I have no reason to think differently now.

           July 1999

With some revisions and additions, February 2007.

There are two sections. The second is on how to write term papers and essays, and deals with organization. At the end there are a couple of notes and a link to Mr. Heinlein's speech on the same subject.


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The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, 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, whether of fiction or nonfiction, 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 play with the new stuff until they 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 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, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that 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 or attend a writers' workshop, 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, though, they're generally prepared to 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 was a program called Grammatik. It ruthlessly corrected every error, no matter how trivial -- and it wouldn't argue. You write your essay, letter, or whatever, and aim Grammatik IV at it. The program will tell you what you did wrong. It ruthlessly points 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 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.

Grammatik, plus a lot of hard work, made quite a good writer out of my friend. It may even have cut the million words by 5 percent. I unhesitatingly recommend it to new writers: use it on, say, the first hundred thousand words you're going to finish and put into the trunk. Use it until you're sick of it and then use it a bit longer. Make a game of it. Deliberately try to fool the program. You're trying to learn the wordsmith craft, and if you can't fool a stupid computer program, you probably aren't good enough.

[2007: there are a number of grammar programs. Grammatik is, I understand, incorporated into WordPerfect, which is part of the Corel word processing system and still for sale by Corel. I don't use WordPerfect, but I know writers who swear by it. I will have to admit that I pay so little attention to the grammar program built into Microsoft Word -- the text editor I use -- that I do not know whether it is any good for learning grammar. I do know that Grammatik was well worth its cost.]

Eventually, you won't need the program. Then for a while you'll write by the rules, and what you write will be correct, but not as interesting as it might be. Then you learn to break or bend the rules, and by the time you're an accomplished writer, you'll produce stuff that Grammatik will hate; but it won't be finding the same problems you had when you started.

Alas, Grammatik no longer exists; but it's been built into Corel Office Professional 7 &; 8. (It's also available with Microsoft Word for DOS and Novell's PerfectWorks.) The Corel suite competes very well with Microsoft Office. Quattro Pro is at least the equal of both Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel, and while I prefer Word to WordPerfect, that's as much a matter of what I'm used to as anything else. They're both plenty good enough for professional work, meaning that if you use Corel and Grammatik as learning tools, you'll be learning on a system you can use when you hit pay dirt. It's also not very hard to convert from one system to the other. Best of all, the Corel suite is dirt cheap.

Corel Office Professional 7 (& 8) will eat well over 100 MB if you install all of it; and you should. Disk space is cheap. You can get a gigabyte for less than what any component of Corel Office Professional 7 used to cost, and all the components work; if you're going to get a suite, take advantage of it. Learn to use it all, which means installing it all. If that requires you to get a new hard drive or an Iomega Zip removable drive, (or better yet a SyQuest SyJet removable cartridge drive: fast, reliable, and expandable) so be it. (Alas, SyQuest is no more. On the other hand, big hard disk drives cost about 10% of what they did when I wrote that, and they were cheap then. Disk space is cheap. Get a lot of it, and use it.)

Incidentally, Corel Office Professional 7 works just fine off a parallel-port Zip drive. It's not as fast as from a regular hard drive, of course, but once again, it's good enough; and a parallel-port Zip drive is a good tool to have in your kit. You can keep your million words on a Zip cartridge, and chances are they'll still be readable years from now. Most writers manage to rewrite and sell their early material. In the trade, it's known as selling your trunk. My standard advice to beginning writers is that if you do hit it big, the biggest favor you can do your readers is to burn your trunk; but in fact most writers don't, and some have made quite a bit of money off selling what couldn't be sold before they got famous.

[Of course Zip drives are no more. Now we write to DVD or use flash drives, and hard disks are enormous, and most of the above is beyond out dated. One day I'll revise it.]

Clearly, I make no guarantees; but in my judgment, if you're determined to get my job, the best way to start is to get a good enough computer -- any Pentium qualifies -- Windows 95, a Zip drive, and Corel Office Professional 7. Put them in a room with no telephone, be sure there's neither modem nor games on the machine, and spend several hours a day seated in front of the screen. A million words from now, you'll be ready to compete.

[Obviously things have changed; but my point then and is now that you don't need a lot of equipment and old computers will work quite well for writers. We don't need fancy to get words down.]

-30- (but continued)


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.


Addendum, July, 2006:

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:


Dr. Pournelle,

I have habitually saved copies of interesting written material and have recently began scanning into pdf format to save space. As I read on your site a repeat siting of how to get your job (writing), I recalled recently converting Robert Heinlein's treatise on how to write. You are undoubtedly familiar with it, but on the off chance it is no longer conveniently retrievable (and you have any interest), Click Here for a copy stored on-line <
InterestingDocuments/RobertHeinleinSpeechAtAnnapolis.pdf>  . (It's about 7 MB)

Regards, Bruce Quayle


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