Words of wisdom for writers.
Originally published 2015
- While you’re writing, the thing you are writing is wonderful. When you’re done, it can seem pointless. You wonder why you wrote it. When you publish it and hear from people that it helped them, it’s wonderful again. That is the reward of writing well.
- If you don’t hear, the writing may need to be improved. But take heart — your ideas are still wonderful — it’s the writing on the page that needs to be improved, not you. You’re fine. When you learn to see the result as something outside yourself, you won’t mind criticism. Instead, you’ll be grateful for the opportunity to make it better. (Michaelanglo saw the sculpture in his mind’s eye, and removed the stone that wasn’t part of it. Criticism helps you remove bits of stone, making it easier for others to see the intended shape.)
- The most powerfully creative time is after you wake up. That’s when ideas and inspiration are at their strongest, and you can’t wait to start writing. The thoughts you have when waking are like the tip of an iceberg. Sometimes, you jot down a note or two, and that’s it. Other times, you can write and write and write, for many hours.
- Normally, the driving force that compels you to write runs for a few hours, as thoughts keep coming. Sometimes it’s only for an hour. Sometimes it’s for 3 or 4. Once in a while, it can run for 5 or 6 hours. (By that time, even the best writers generally need to take a break!)
- Writing requires you to be alert. When you’re not totally alert, you can sit and stare at the screen like a zombie, with no words coming together in your head. You can sit and stare if you want, but it’s an exercise in self-mortification. Better to go do something relaxing, or sleep.
- In any human activity in which lives depend on being alert (think the military, or the merchant marines at sea), a “watch” is no more than 4 hours long. Sometimes, it as short as 2 or 3 hours. Think of writing in those terms. When you get up, you’re probably good to go for the duration of a “watch”. Let’s say that’s 4 hours. Maybe you only work 3 of them, and quit early. Fine. The next “watch” is 4 hours. Spend that one relaxing and eating. Then sleep until you’re ready to get up. That will often be 3 or 4 hours. When you wake, you’re ready for another creative burst. So if you have a 4 hour “watch”, and spend one working, one relaxing, and one sleeping, that’s 12 hours. With that schedule, you can get two powerful creative bursts in a day.
- As important as creativity is — and as wonderful as it is to feel that sense of connection with the well-spring of ideas and inspiration that come to us, and through us, to get on the page, it is still important to know that you become a writer when you learn to rewrite and rephrase for clarity, to remove excess verbiage, and to reorganize so the material is presented in the most understandable way. That is the real work of writing.
- Most often, those abilities are trained through an apprenticeship program. So seek out a good editor who will spill red ink on your work, and do the hard work of making the changes they suggest. You will make them time and time again, at first. But eventually you will learn to avoid those mistakes during your initial writing. That is the apprenticeship process.
For a small, readable, and absolutely wonderful style guide that is not just a militant collection of mindless rules, read Joseph Williams, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
- In a writing session, then, start with whatever is in your head — whatever came to you in the night, or as you woke, that you just cannot wait to get down on paper. Write it, even if it has nothing to do with the project you’re working on. If nothing else, jot it down in a note, for use later. Because if it’s in your head, it’s worth sharing — and the wording and concept-connections you have right in that moment may well be more complete and better phrased than anything you come up with later.
- Most often, though, the thoughts you have in your head will relate to whatever project you are working. After you have captured your initial thoughts, spend the rest of the writing session doing the work of writing — rewriting, rephrasing, reorganizing, and removing excess baggage.
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