History Writing

Winston Churchill’s memo on brevity

I’m reading Erik Larson’s latest book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz and appreciated his spotlighting a memo Churchill sent out to his cabinet with the title “Brevity.” Highlights:

To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.

I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their Reports are shorter. …

Let us have an end of such phrases as these: “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…”, or “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”. Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.

Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.

Despite being a fan of all things typewritten, I don’t envy all the poor secretaries who had to bang out said “woolly phrases” in countless memos and copies of memos and replies to memos—all of which would have required a lot more physical exertion than whipping out an email does today.

The full memo:

Design Technology Writing

My favorite notetaking apps

C.J. Chilvers wrote about the pros and cons of popular notetaking tools. Out of the four he features—Apple Notes, Evernote, Ulysses, and Bear—I have used two previously, and none currently. So, having already examined my favored podcasts and newsletters, here’s a look at the tools I do use and why I use them.


The once and future king of all notetaking apps. I keep a plain, pocket-sized Moleskine in my backpack for odds and ends, a larger journal as a daily diary and scrapbook (previously a Moleskine classic hardcover and currently a Zequenz 360), and a good ol’ composition notebook for my filmlog.


Dynamic, lightweight list-making with blessed few bells and whistles. Perfect for hierarchical thinking, tasks, and anything else you can put into a list. It’s built for marking tasks complete, but I use it mostly as an archive for reference, split between Work and Personal. Plus a To Do list at top for quick capture of tasks.


Good for taking quick notes in plain text. I often use it for first drafts of blog posts, taking book notes, and whatever else I need a basic text editor for. Helpful when trying to remove formatting from text you want to paste cleanly elsewhere—”text laundering” as I call it. Clean, simple, works well on the web and mobile.

Google Drive

For when Simplenote isn’t enough. Good for collaboration and as a document repository. Among other things my Logbook spreadsheet is there, as are lots of work-related docs, random files shared with my wife, my archive of book reviews, and my Book Notes doc filled with (at present) 121 single-spaced pages of notes and quotes from 108 books.

Apple Reminders

Used mostly for sharing shopping lists with my wife, because it’s easy to regenerate lists from completed items. Unfortunately it doesn’t sync well between devices without WiFi, which is a bummer when we’re out shopping.

Google Calendar

Google, don’t you ever get rid of Calendar. I mean it. Some former Google products had it coming, but you’re gonna ride or die with Gmail and Calendar, ya hear?


Essential for quick and easy file backup. Through referrals and other incentives over the years I’ve accumulated 5.63 GB in free storage on top of the 2 GB default. I’m using over 95% of it.

Arts Writing

Lynda Barry: ‘Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act’

Artist Lynda Barry writes:

Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act. Reading a physical book is becoming a revolutionary act. Protecting the books in our libraries, the arts and humanities in our colleges and universities is becoming a revolutionary act. Doing things with warm hand to warm hand, face to face, without photographing them, posting them, is becoming a revolutionary act.

Those two original digital devices you have at the end of your forearms are the means of resistance. As is eye-contact with the world instead of staring at your phone.

She begins her post with screenshots from someone’s downloaded Facebook archive, which showed that Facebook had extensive records of phone calls and other communications that were unrelated to Facebook.

She concludes:

The most valuable thing you have is your attention. It’s also the most valuable condition for survival of the non-digital world.


Three Oatmeal Truths

Today at the library, I read Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, an extended version of his original web comic about ultra-running. It’s of a piece with his usual ardent and absurdist takes on varying topics. In the book he illustrates a few tips for becoming a runner, which I have decided to paraphrase into three core principles for life:

1. Shut up and run.
2. Running sucks.
3. Suck in the present.

(The first one is a direct quote from the book, but the latter two are my own condensations, which also happen to create a delightful anadiplosis.)

I am not much of a runner—though I’m certainly inspired to be after reading this book—but I quickly saw the wide-ranging value of these aphorisms. Replace “running” with any activity, but especially an arduous or creative one, and the phrases still work. For me, it’s writing.

The first step is the hardest, but everything hinges on it. Ignoring the compelling excuses our inner demons conjure is key to achieving even a modicum of success. Just doing the thing, whatever it is, is the beginning and end of it. It’s the permission-to-play value, the minimum qualification for entry.

If we accomplish the first step, then the second one gets real on the quick. The initial burst of enthusiasm fades and we’re left with the undeniable notion that we’ve made a mistake in starting at all, that our muscles ache and that life would be easier if we stopped. But this, damn those pesky demons, is a lie. On the contrary: “Life is difficult,” writes M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Running/writing/painting/cobbling/[insert activity here] sucks. It’s beautiful, and we love it, but it sucks to do. It definitely doesn’t suck to have done something, but getting to that point means getting through the suck.

Which brings us to the third great Oatmeal Truth™: be present in the suck. Whatever we’re doing we’re doing it for a reason, and that probably is because we want to, or even need to. It might feel terrible or wonderful, as the book’s title asserts, or somewhere in-between. Either way, it’s something important to us. To honor that, then, we need to give it our attention. We need to live with it as it lives in us, even when it sucks. Even if we just want to get it over with to make the pain or frustration stop.

I think I’ll put these up on my wall.

Nature Writing

Fishing for Failure: On Writing’s Pain and Gain

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“Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.” So says Nick Ripatrazone in a wonderful essay at The Millions. I’m inclined to disagree. Writing and fishing, though art forms indeed, feel more often like science projects built for masochists.

Writing and fishing are laborious. They take a lot of time, most of which is spent on the vast empty spaces between brief moments of glory. Often they reward great pains with very little reward, and yield results so infrequently and inadequately that they make their doers question the worth of doing them altogether. Writers and fishers have to be optimistic in order to sit down at the computer, to get into the boat, but they also have to, at the minimum, be ready for pain, and at the maximum derive something of value from it.

I know Ripatrazone knows this, so I’m not trying to criticize something he didn’t say; but as a professional amateur in writing and fishing, I’m much more familiar with the daily, taxing grind of trying not to fail too often than with the exhilaration of encountering true success and beauty.

On the yearly summer fishing trip I take with my dad, we get into the boat every morning and afternoon hoping that it will be a successful day, but knowing it’s possible to strike out completely. We know because it has happened. We pick the perfect bait, motor to the perfect spot, at the perfect time of day, and then—nothing. A ghost lake. We putter along the shore hoping to stir something up, and still—nothing. Cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, but people who fish call that Thursday.

And yet, we go out again. And the next day. We’re not exactly doing the same thing over and over again since we continually adjust, but we’re still out on the boat, roasting in the sun, throwing out cast after cast after cast ad infinitum. Why? Because we love it, and we have to do it. We don’t expect to haul in huge walleyes with every cast. To do so would rob us of the joy of the experience itself. The joy comes in the hope, the anticipation of the subtle nibble on the leech, which becomes a hooked fish, which becomes a battle to the boat.

But failure can arrive at any time. The fish might not nibble at all, or they might nibble but never bite (or worse, steal the bait). A hooked fish might get tangled in the weeds. A fish being reeled to the boat, fighting for freedom, might snap the line. A fish at the boat and about to be netted might wriggle off its hook and disappear into the water.

Failure, failure, failure. And yet, we do it again.

Kinda sounds like writing. Every sentence can fail. In fact, almost every sentence does fail at some point, deleted or rewritten or slightly adjusted for grammar or effect. And yet we write another sentence and another and another ad infinitum, hoping in the midst of constant defeat that the pain and boredom of these failures will eventually yield something good. A great phrase becomes a sentence. A good sentence leads to another one. A few good ones in a row form a solid paragraph. Cast, cast, cast; write, write, write.

I write because I love it, but I also hate it. It’s hard to fail and fail often, just as it is to cast often and into nothing. But I write because I have to, because as a means of self-expression and self-discovery it comes more naturally to me than most anything else. Because hands on the keyboard for me is as smooth as a paintbrush on canvas for others. And because I’m just enough of a masochist to enjoy it.

(Photo: my longtime fishing lake in northern Wisconsin)