How I Write
Yesterday, I read Shawn Blanc’s new piece, The Root of Non-Writing. Fittingly, I was procrastinating from working on an article at the time.
Shawn talks about the value of gaining momentum, and the need to push past fear of the first draft. I’d certainly agree with that. I’m always fascinated to read about other writers’ processes, and in keeping with that I’d like to share some of my own reflections on writing.
The main obstacle I usually face is finding my thesis. In most cases, I have only the topic itself in mind, and haven’t decided in advance how I feel about it, or what my position is. I have ideas and thoughts, but the connecting thread between them is murky.
I usually realise that I want to write about a topic before I’ve worked out what my argument is. The act of writing about it helps me discover my position, or at least to hone it into something coherent and hopefully interesting. I think it’s absolutely fine to use writing as a means to explore a subject; indeed, I think that doing so produces more honest and better-reasoned results. Writing is too useful a tool to save for the end of the journey.
I write against notes. I know that’s an odd phrase; you were probably expecting “I write using notes”, or “from notes”. That’s true, but I specifically write up against the top of my notes, in my text editor of choice: BBEdit.
I arrange my notes in a text file, add some space above them, and then start writing at the top of the file, transforming a note into a thought or section and removing it. Thus, I write against or through my notes. Preparation is essential: your thoughts have to be in order to make that system work. I use simple bulleted lists to organise points - a list for each topic or section, with a maximum of two indentation-levels. It’s simple, and it works.
Regarding structure, if (as here) I’ve read something elsewhere that seeded a piece, I tend to acknowledge and summarise it at the beginning of the article, rather than interspersing my remarks between quotes. Personally, I hate “quote and respond” pieces, even though I’ve written a few on occasion.
Some people love them (like Craig), but I find them difficult to write - or even read. Threading a narrative through multiple quotes is one thing, but (for me) an email-like quote-reply-quote-reply structure reads more like the work-up for an article, rather than a finished piece.
I write for this blog and one or two magazines every month, so I’m accustomed to both unbounded writing, and working to a word count (or indeed a character count). They’re two very different kinds of writing, and I’ve learned a lot about my own style as it pertains to length.
When I’m not writing to a count, I have two natural lengths of piece:
- 700 to 1,000 words for a compact exposition on a topic. This is also an ideal bite-sized chunk of text for the reader, and fits well on a single page. It’s no coincidence that the majority of commissioned magazine pieces fall into this band.
- 2,000 to 3,500 words for a more detailed exploration or discussion.
The zone between the two is a death march. A wasteland. I have noticeable difficulty writing to that length, and when I’ve done so, I often feel the piece reads like a too-long version of the shorter type.1
That’s utterly subjective on my part, and perhaps I’m making it into a psychological barrier for myself, but I would have serious reservations about a limit of, say, between 1,200 and 1,800 words. To me, it feels unnatural.
Editing. Editing. Editing. It’s all in the edit. Writing is easy; editing is hard. You’re paying for the edit, not the words. Write for yourself, edit for your readers. There is nothing more important than editing.
All of those statements are absolutely, fundamentally true. Editing is crucial. Like all writers, I should really do more of it. When you ask a writer for their tips on editing, they’ll respond in the panicked, embarrassed manner of a European being asked by an American to translate a Latin inscription2; they feel they should have definitive knowledge on the subject, but they can probably only bluff their way through in the hope that the other person doesn’t know enough to contradict them.
No-one writes because they enjoy editing. There’s a name for those people, and it’s
artless jackasses autistic savants soulless automatons editors. For the rest of us, I can at least offer a few tips from my own experience.
Full, patient read-throughs are essential - do them when you’re finished, not when you’re twiddling your thumbs and searching for a closing paragraph. When I encounter errors or poor style, they usually don’t stop me dead - instead, I read on but I get a vague sense that something is wrong. When that happens, I’ve taught myself to isolate the last five paragraphs and re-read them on their own (absolutely isolated, in a new text document). I don’t know why it works, but it does. Flaws become apparent.
It’s in the nature of writing to be blind to what later seem like obvious flaws. It’s not ego; it’s just that when you’re reading a piece that you wrote, the words you see are coming from your mind, not your eyes. Force yourself to slow down, and trust your instincts. Any whisper of disquiet probably means you’ve recently passed a typo that’s still a correctly-spelled word, or that you’re repeating yourself.
One of my weaknesses is crutch words, phrases and punctuation constructs; you’ll no doubt be able to find some in this article. Word-frequency tables can be useful (Scrivener can do that), or even just a quick find-all on a suspect stem-word.
Another weakness of mine is flabby language. I’m too proud of my vocabulary, and I sacrifice succinctness so I can show it off. The only solution is practice, careful read-throughs, and ruthlessness. Or perhaps, in the fullness of time, acceptance of your own style.
“Write drunk; edit sober”3 is a great piece of wisdom. I’ve found that it’s functionally equivalent to “write at night, edit by day”. Writing in the evening gives me the courage (and the emotional investment) to tackle difficult topics or angles that I might wrongly shy away from in daylight. Editing by day, though, acts as a safety net - and also improves the accuracy of your editing.
A corollary is that you shouldn’t submit (much less publish) anything after about 7pm, if you wrote it the same day. If it has emotional resonance for you (particularly if it deals with anger or outrage), I’d move the limit back to 4pm. Otherwise, nothing good will come of it. I could tell you some stories about that.
Everyone suffers from creative block; it’s both a psychological and a biochemical phenomenon. The simplest advice is to take a break and try again later, and it usually works. Read twenty pages of a novel, or go for a fifteen minute walk.
When that’s not feasible, I try thinking aloud, and forcing myself to answer questions about the topic or piece - usually while throwing a beanbag up at the ceiling and catching it again, repeatedly.
I re-read (and reorganise) my notes, then take individual points and expand them into sentences or paragraphs. I’ll rewrite them later, of course, but the shift in context seems to jog my creativity. Even writing sentence-fragments can be useful.
There’s a final piece of wisdom for avoiding block, but it’s so absurdly impractical and unrealistic that I mention it for novelty only: don’t write on deadline day.
For me, the flow of writing is something like this:
- Identify a topic. It’s fine if I don’t have any particular thoughts on the topic yet.
- Find an angle, and jot down some thoughts from that perspective. The angle might be whatever is topical, or one of my interests, or the focus of the publication I’m writing for, or it might just appear organically.
- Develop a position (or more than one), and work up a framework for the piece.
- Express my position as clearly and effectively as I can, via the cycle of writing and editing. If that means modifying my position as I learn more about the topic and my response to it, so much the better.
Writing is absolutely a skill that you can improve through practice. Indeed, practising actually changes the nature of writing, as with anything. The experience is different depending on how often you do it. Once a month just isn’t enough if you want to break through your barriers and find both the mechanics and the art of it getting easier. Practice also allows you to find your own authentic voice, which will be evident no matter what style of writing you choose to do.
There’s no substitute for just showing up each day, or week, and writing something. Write until it hurts too much, then stop until not writing hurts too much. Writing is agony, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a compulsion.
Remember that you do your best writing when you respect your audience - which is why writing for yourself is the wisest thing to do. The worst kind of writing is constrained; written in someone else’s voice, or from their position, or in their style. Ideally write about the things you’re interested in, but certainly write in your own way.
Write with integrity. That doesn’t mean objectivity, but rather personal authenticity. Be vulnerable. Be honest, but above all be engaging. Be uniquely yourself by not trying to be anyone else. And bear in mind that you’re probably your own worst critic.
I wondered aloud recently whether I’ll ever reach a point where I know how popular an article will be before I publish it; I still have no idea, and I’ve been doing this for eleven years. The consensus on Twitter was that I won’t, and I think that’s probably for the best.
I’m extremely gratified that you choose to read the things I publish here. It means a lot to me. In thanks, I promise to continue pretending you’re not there at all, and write for myself alone.