Lossless Writing

I stayed home over the past few days, as promised, to catch my solar breath, and feel better for having done so. But, it has meant less reading, since commutes are a golden time to read. I had only two chapters remaining in The Da Vinci Code, so I just checked out a block of time to finish it today—and, what an excellent, excellent book. My mouth gaped at the eloquence of description and the warm glowing aura Brown successfully describes in the last few chapters. I read over some of the descriptions multiple times, trying to figure out how it is humanly possible to chain words in such affecting order:

Neither of them spoke for a long time. Finally Sophie reached over and, taking his hand, led him out of the chapel. They walked to a small rise on the bluff. From here, the Scottish countryside spread out before them, suffused in a pale moonlight that sifted through the departing clouds. They stood in silence, holding hands, both of them fighting the descending shroud of exhaustion.

The stars were just now appearing, but to the east, a single point of light glowed brighter than any other. Langdon smiled when he saw it. It was Venus. The ancient Goddess shining down with her steady and patient light.

The night was growing cooler, a crisp breeze rolling up from the lowlands. After a while, Langdon looked over at Sophie. Her eyes were closed, her lips relaxed in a contented smile. Langdon could feel his own eyes growing heavy. Reluctantly, he squeezed her hand. “Sophie?”

Slowly, she opened her eyes and turned to him. Her face was beautiful in the moonlight. She gave him a sleepy smile. “Hi.”


Legend had always portrayed the Grail as a cruel mistress, dancing in the shadows just out of sight, whispering in your ear, luring you one more step and then evaporating into the mist.

Gazing out at the rustling trees of College Garden, Langdon sensed her playful presence. The signs were everywhere. Like a taunting silhouette emerging from the fog, the branches of Britain’s oldest apple tree burgeoned with five-petaled blossoms, all glistening like Venus. The goddess was in the garden now. She was dancing in the rain, singing songs of the ages, peeking out from behind the bud-filled branches as if to remind Langdon that the fruit of knowledge was growing just beyond his reach.

How? How? The trick, it seems, is easy enough: describe physical things in as few fitting words as possible.

In times like this I am both frustrated and inspired. I have no desire to write fiction, but writing is like programming is like Rocket League—you have everything you need to be as good as the pros right in front of you. You just have to put in the time. It's a mental muscle. And it can be exercised.

With writing, it would seem like all you need is a pen and paper, and some flexing of the imagination. It's translating thoughts into words with as little loss as possible. The "loss" ratio in conversion—that's where great writers are made. And mine is frustratingly high. It has improved slightly in that at least I know now what to be optimizing for; what to train. I soak myself in it the way I soak myself in getting better at playing a video game—not because I have any real ambitions in them, but because it's so damn fun teaching yourself new tricks.

Here are some other highlights I made on the book, presented without comment:

When an intelligence agency intercepted a code containing sensitive data, cryptographers each worked on a discrete section of the code. This way, when they broke it, no single cryptographer possessed the entire deciphered message.


“Maybe.” Her grandfather winked. “Someday I’ll tell you all about it.”

Sophie stamped her foot. “I told you I don’t like secrets!”

“Princess,” he smiled. “Life is filled with secrets. You can’t learn them all at once.”


This kind of cross carried none of the Christian connotations of crucifixion associated with the longer-stemmed Latin Cross, originated by Romans as a torture device. Langdon was always surprised how few Christians who gazed upon “the crucifix” realized their symbol’s violent history was reflected in its very name: “cross” and “crucifix” came from the Latin verb cruciare—to torture.


Just a deafening silence, which seemed to reverberate back and forth as if the building were whispering to itself.


Their white lacework carvings seemed to smolder with a ruddy glow as the last of the day’s sunlight streamed in through the west window.


Words I hadn't encountered before, or words whose meaning is self-evident, but that I probably wouldn't have ever thought to use:

tousled, brunt, goaded, sallow, diminutive, whir, foreboding, sepulchral, marauding, nape, flagellation, cloistered, asceticism, neophytes, cassock, glowered, pallid, navel, ghoulish, luminescing, scrawled, "the cobwebs of sleep", sangfroid, genuflected, windswept, lurid, enciphered, wonderment, sculler, "vaulted ceilings", transmogrification, ecumenical, despondent, victuals, plight, bellowed, begrudgingly, crestfallen, "niche and alcove", expanses, prismatic, transept, flanked, recumbent, warren, bristle, munificence, wheeled, gallant, beseeching, heavenward, puttering...

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