The writing secrets of Ayn Rand

October 28, 2009 |

Okay, the headline is a bit misleading. The five-step writing process Ayn Rand followed isn’t exactly a secret. Let’s remember that in addition to her legendary, mammoth novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she wrote the how-to books The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction, which gave detailed accounts of her writing tactics and viewpoints.

Rand obviously had something going for her. She didn’t lack for productive firepower. Her two best-known works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, weighed in at 750 pages and 1,200 pages, respectively. In total, she authored more than 15 books and many more were written by others about her career. There is even an Irvine, Calif.-based Ayn Rand Institute founded in her honor.

But here we boil down Rand’s best practices to her five-step writing process.

Step one: Limit your subject. Rand advised writers to ask three questions at the start of any project.

  1. What will I write about? Define the topic and be sure that you can cover it adequately within the parameters of the project.
  2. What do I want to say about this subject? Determine the theme of your project – the point of view that you want to communicate.
  3. Is what I have to say new? If not, then don’t put pen to paper at all.

Step two: Judge the audience. Most of us, and certainly all business writers, are writing to an audience. So, to write persuasively we need to identify the characteristics of our intended audience.

Step three: Create a plan of action. Like many experienced writers, Rand was a firm believer in the power of the outline and suggested two tests to measure an outline’s completeness. The first is the essence test: an outline is complete only when you can understand it as a unified whole. The second is the test of final causality. This test, which Rand adapted from Aristotelian philosophy, says that when your outline establishes and details a logical chain of cause-and-effect steps that lead to the established conclusion, it is complete.

Step four: Draft from the subconscious mind. Rand suggests that you write without stopping and, to the greatest extent possible, without consciously thinking out each sentence.

Step five: Edit objectively. Rand proposed a three-level approach to editing.

  1. Focus on the structure of the work. At this level, you need to ensure that it progresses logically and respects the reader’s intelligence.
  2. Focus on clarity. Make sure the writing is communicating exactly what you intend. Rand said writing’s purpose is to communicate exactly what you intend it to say. She warns writers to beware of “over-condensing” (cramming too much into a sentence or paragraph).
  3. Consider style. Her style tips include:
  • Don’t complicate a simple thought
  • The simpler the words the better
  • Don’t use sarcasm, pejorative adjectives or inappropriate humor
  • Don’t use bromides (i.e., trite sayings)
  • Don’t use unnecessary synonyms

This approach certainly worked miracles for Ayn Rand. Though the Russian-American novelist, playwright and screenwriter passed from this world in 1982, her most popular books remain mainstays in bookstores across America. No bookstore of any size or seriousness would be without The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Her books, almost 30 years after her death, are expected to sell 2 million copies this year.

We would certainly do well to follow her advice.

Many of you definitely have techniques of your own to share, and perhaps some opinions about Ayn Rand, who wasn’t a woman without controversy. I’m interested. Click the “comments” link under the above headline and let’s hear it.

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