May 11, 2011

Writing is Like.....Writing

Before he published Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky test-drove a lot of the ideas it contains in a presentation entitled It’s Not Information Overload; It’s Filter-Failure. It’s over three years old, but still highly relevant. I like to listen to it once a year to be reminded of the major themes, as well as the brilliant and concise way Shirky expresses himself.

In the presentation, Shirky tells the story (beginning around 15:15 of the video) of Chris Avenir, who was brought up on charges by Ryerson College for starting a study group on Facebook. Shirky uses this anecdote to drive home one of his key points (around 18:40 in the video), that “Facebook is a lot like Facebook,” and analogizing it too much to other media or means of communication is a dangerous game.

I love analogies. I think explaining something esoteric in terms of something more easily grasped is one of the best teaching tools around. There is always a limit, however, in terms of how one concept fits inside another or extends itself for pedagogical purposes. There is always a ceiling you bump into when extrapolating from one set of points to another, a gap you encounter when applying one set of principles to something a little bit (or a lot) different. Mind this gap.

Recently I finished a big writing project at work and was reminded of all the ways that writing is like other work, and all the ways that it is not. There is a slight paralysis that occurs in me near the beginning of a writing project (typically before much “writing” has occurred). I usually try applying all the analogies at my disposal to get myself going, sometimes thinking that writing is a lot like running, which in some ways it is. (Thinking about writing is like thinking about running: it's about 5% productive and 95% guilt). As it turns out, writing is a lot like writing, and must be understood in its own right.

Here are some things I have learned about getting myself to and through a writing project.

You have to court the muse. Writing is not natural. It’s natural to have ideas and want to write about them, but the actual process of writing is highly mechanical. One of the best ways to move through it is to tell yourself you’re just going to write a bad draft first. Beware of stalling and just begin. This could mean something as small as saving a blank document with the filename you are going to use, making a list of ideas, or pasting some links in an order that may later reveal an outline. Don’t overthink it. Gretchen Rubin has a technique she calls “suffer for 15 minutes” to get herself to chip away at a daunting task. Since an idea is just the beginning of a writing project, sit with it for 15 minutes (just make yourself) and then see where it gets you. (And don’t count all the minutes you’ve already spent agonizing over how to get the project started.)

Writing is rewriting. An idea is only going to get you so far; now it’s time to work with words. Write a bad sentence, but make sure it's a complete sentence. Then write another one, and another one. Get yourself a draft of bad sentences to work with, which is much easier to mark up and shape than a blank page. You may also consider writing something out of order if you are stalling on the beginning. Start in the middle or wherever you feel you can find a “point of entry.” Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting author Hannah Tinti, who spoke about how she started writing her novel The Good Thief in what ended up being the middle of the story. She began where she had something to work with, and moved from there.

Don't remediate paper and pencil--use a word processor for all it is worth. A word processor makes it very easy to write out of order, copy and paste with abandon, use strikethrough text, and have a passage in more than one place until you know what to do with it. Keep a file of cuts if you don’t know where to put something you’ve written, but can’t quite part with yet either. And you will have to cut something! I once took a course called Approaches to Teaching Writing in which the professor made repeated reference to Annie Dillard’s assertion that you have to "kill your darlings" to write well.

Put it aside for a while. Writing, like crossword puzzles, and many other things (analogy alert) is well-served by a pause, some oxygen, and a fresh perspective. If you get stuck, recognize that you are stuck and take a short break before coming back to your writing task. This is a bit contrary to the first point above, in that courting the muse is all about just sticking with something, but as Gretchen Rubin taught me, the opposite of a great truth is also a great truth.

And speaking of counterintuitions…

Give yourself enough time, and give yourself a time limit. These are both important for good writing, although they seem contradictory. Give yourself enough time so you can write and rewrite. But also--and this is most important with regard to a defined portion of the writing project--give yourself a time limit. Decide what small piece of the larger task you will accomplish before the clock strikes, and set an actual timer. I recently decided to write a song in a weekend. It did not come out right the first time, but by Sunday night I had something because I had a self-imposed deadline (and I had created accountability by telling someone I would have a song by Sunday, a trick I learned from Chris Guillebeau).

When you have a draft to work with, keep the following points in mind.

Read aloud. As my friend Zach says, “The spoken word hides nothing.” Repeated words, missing words, awkward phrasings, Freudian slips, and many other weaknesses lurking in a draft can be discovered when reading aloud.

If real estate is about Location, Location, Location, good writing is about Audience, Audience, Audience. Continually ask yourself who specifically will read this. What do they already know or assume going in? Use the specific audience to further refine your prose.

Expect more of yourself. Be your own ruthless editor and mark up the printed page of your draft. Do this as if you are editing someone else’s work. Make clear marks and thorough notes in the margin, and don’t hold back. Give yourself feedback as an editor, and then get back to work as a writer.

Make it so it lasts forever. This is not the same as spending forever on it, but work hard on your writing before releasing it. As much as you might like to hurry through something to post or publish it on a deadline, there is a high likelihood that you will never return to it to make corrections. Write it well before the first release. This is how you build up a body of work that will satisfy you and enrich others.

I’m reminded of a quote by JD Roth that I often use to recalibrate during a difficult week: “If there’s something you want to be or do, the best way to become that thing is to actually take steps toward it, to move in that direction. Don’t just talk about it, but do something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just take a small step in the right direction every single day.” Maybe writing actually is like a lot of other things.


Mary Talley Garcia said...

Excellent, practical advice! I particularly like the Annie Dillard quote. As someone who can write the same thing 10 different ways and then stall out over which one to use, I'll be repeating it to myself the next time it happens.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this informative post. I feel more confident to tackle projects that I would otherwise avoid.