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10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco

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This post is in continuation to my review of Late Umberto Eco’s book How to write a thesis. The book acts a great reference manual for students aspiring to undertake their Ph.D. thesis or disseration as you might call it.

In the book, Eco speaks about a few rules that act as a guidepost for good writing. I found some of his advice on writing relevant to blogging as well. So I am sharing the 10 writing lessons from Umberto Eco below. You’d find them useful whether you are writing a serious essay or a blog post:

1. Do not write long sentences

Unless you think of yourself a reincarnation of Marcel Proust, do not write long sentences.

Yes, in case you don’t know, Proust’s writings constituted never-ending sentences – sometimes running to thousands of words – with no line breaks whatsoever.

The hallmark of Umberto Eco’s writing is simplicity.

It doesn’t matter what Eco wrote about – medievalism, media, astronomy or occult sciences – he would make the narrative a breeze to read. And, he used to do it with short sentences.

Here’s his $0.02:

“If long sentences come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice.”

Umberto Eco

2. You are not e.e. cummings

Just in case you are wondering if I forgot to capitalize the first letters of the great American poet’s name, well I did not.

Like Proust, Cummings had his own share of idiosyncrasies. He was known for signing his name with lower-case initials.

Eco says you are not an avant-garde poet. Even if you are writing about him, don’t write like him. Create your own style and follow it to the hilt.

3. Begin new paragraphs often

Yes. Do so when logically necessary and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better. It makes the reading a lot easier.

I hear it’s good from SEO perspective, too.

10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco
10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco

4. Never lose track of the center of your topic

Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft, remarks Eco. It so happens that many bloggers get carried away with your inspiration.

Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.

5. Do not insist on beginning with the first paragraph

Let your initial hypothesis guide you. The urge to write the first perfect paragraph can keep you stuck for the ages.

Start from anywhere. The more words you write, the more confidence you will gain. Throughout the whole time, keep your thoughts anchored around the central idea of your article or blog post.

6. Use referential language

Eco wants you to phrase everything in referential language.

A referential language is the one that is recognized by all. It is a language
whose primary function is to communicate ideas, facts and opinions in a comprehensive manner.

I will share with you an example that Eco shares in his book How to write a thesis:

[Figurative:] We are not convinced that Krasnapolsky is the sharpest critic of Danieli’s work. In reading his author, Krasnapolsky gives the impression that he is putting worlds into Danieli’s mouth.

[Referential:] Krasnapolsky is not a very sharp critic of Danieli’s work. His interpretation draws meaning from the author’s text that the author probably did not intend.

7. Avoid figure of speech

Eco warns against using figure of speech or rhetorical figures. You don’t want your reader to feel like an idiot.

The worst mistake many writers often make is using too much rhetoric in their writing and then explaining it to the reader.

If you use figurative speech and feel the need to explain it, you are essentially calling the reader an idiot.

8. Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points

Eco advises against the use of ellipsis (three consecutive periods…) and exclamation points (!).

He specifically points out the use of exclamation point to emphasize a statement. You don’t have to do that!

It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat. But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things, notes Eco.

9. Always define a term when you introduce it for the first time

Example: The building walls are fire-proof since they are made of ACBM.

Unless you are operating under the assumption that your reader knows a thing or two about buildings and construction, the statement can send anyone into a tizzy.

Eco says if you are not able to define an abbreviation or a complex term, avoid using it. If you know the definition, then share right away what the abbreviation or the complex scientific term stands for.

Ideally, the example above should read like: the building walls are fire-proof since they are made of Asbestos-containing building materials (ACBM).

10. I or we?

This is important from academic writing perspective. If you are writing an essay, don’t be confused. You are safe with both I and we.

I know more times than not, while speaking we introduce our opinions in first person. For example, I don’t think that he was telling the truth. However, if you are writing an essay, you can use ‘we’ to express opinions.

Why? Eco says, “Writing is a social act. I write so that you as the reader accept what I propose to you.” You can use ‘we’ under the presumption that your readers agree with what you are conveying. For example, the author we previously quoted.

If you still find it confusing, avoid pronouns altogether and settle for the super formal ‘one’ – one infers that, one should presume, etc.


I hope you liked the 10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco. Do you have any other writing tips to share? Please leave your comments in the box below.

10 Writing Lessons from Umberto Eco

2 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this! Lesson 8 is a tough one, and something I continuously struggle with (—dashing off now to delete ellipses from my website . . . 😆) Of course, Eco is right. The words should bear their own weight.

    1. Though I hold Eco’s suggestions in high regard, I also find it difficult to totally rid myself of using ellipsis and exclamation marks 🙂

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