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How to Write

© Copyright 1999, Charles King
You sit down before your computer, staring at a blank screen. Or you take pen in hand, hovering above a bare notepad. And you wait. Your brain grinds, you sniff into the deep, dark recesses of your mind for a thought, an idea, a phrase that will break the log jam, start the flow, unleash the torrent of words and concepts and sentences and paragraphs that will eventually become a fully finished, shellacked, refinished, no-damp-stains, all-working-parts essay. 

This, at least, is the image that most folks have about the process of writing. Wait for the thoughts to come, get them in order, then put them into words. Sand off the rough edges of the rough draft, and you’re good to go. 

But talk to anyone who writes professionally—journalists, novelists, scholars, screenwriters, cookbook authors, anyone who makes (at least part of) a living putting words on a page—and he or she will tell you that all this could not be more mistaken. 

Here are a few tips about how most people who write often and creatively (whether fiction or non-fiction) do what they do. They are ideas that you can apply to your own writing for courses in the humanities and social sciences, or to any other endeavor in which you are asked to convey your thoughts in written form. 

Five Things Most People Believe About Writing—And Why They Are Wrong

1. Writers are a separate caste of people, or at least people who make a living based on what they write. 

Right? Wrong. Writers are simply people who write. And very, very few are able to make anything approaching a decent living wage from their work. Most professional writers work at several projects at once and are always on the look-out for the next job to keep the debt-collector at bay. They also do other things to pay the bills, like be university professors, or live peripatetic lives going from one fixed-term project or one-year fellowship to another. 

There is no essential difference between writers and non-writers, except that the former write and the latter don’t. That is as far as it goes. You should always be very suspicious when you hear someone say that he “wants to be a writer.” It is a pretty good indication that the person is laboring under the illusion that he must do some particular something, perform some act of initiation, speak to some secret oracle in order to be welcomed into the exalted society of the writing class. Nonsense. Just write, and you’re a writer. 

There is no reason to think of writers as an elite club of wordsmiths or anointed arbiters of taste and custom. Writers are just people who happen to write. And that makes you—whether you are composing a term paper, an essay or any other piece of writing in which you are trying to communicate your own ideas to an audience—a writer as well. 

2. Writing is an art. 

Well, not really. Writing is more like a craft. Like making clay pots or building a cabinet, it requires skills that you can learn by looking at good examples of master craftsmanship, working to imitate those examples, screwing up a lot, and doing it all over again. It involves trying something, usually getting it wrong, then figuring out what is wrong about it and trying again until you get it right. Writers try out phrases and sentences, rearrange words, look for different words, perhaps junk the entire page (or save it in a separate file) and start over. Most of writing, it has been said, is in fact re-writing—putting something down on the page and then honing and revising it until it seems right. 

Not only is writing not an art, but art is not really an art either, if by creating “art” we mean a mysterious process in which your Muse sits on your shoulder and inspires you to greatness. Most painters, sculptors, and composers will tell you that getting things wrong, correcting mistakes, starting over, and failing miserably are all part of the “creative process.” And so it is with writing. 

There is another point here to keep in mind: Since writing is a craft, the more of it you do, the better at it you are likely to become. Like making cabinets or playing a musical instrument, writing takes practice. Writing often, in different forms and under different circumstances, is the only way to become a better writer. Writing under time pressure and with a flexible deadline, writing long essays and one-paragraph pieces, writing formally and informally—these are the ways to sharpen your skills and develop new ones. 

3. You have to know what you want to say before you can say it. 

Writers can disagree on this point, but I am of the firm view that you do not know what you want to say until you have said it, and not the other way around. 

Professors often hear students complain that “I know what I want to say, but I can’t express it” or “You know what I meant by this sentence; I just didn’t present it well.” But what do these complaints really mean? They seem to mean that somewhere, in the dark recesses of the writer’s mind, lies a perfectly formed idea, but that somewhere between the mind and the page, things broke down. The synapses didn’t fire as they should. The idea was too complex to be expressed in English. There were no words available that could encapsulate its multiple nuances. When we put it in those terms, the I-know-what-I-want-to-say complaint just looks silly. 

There is, of course, a difference between what is in your head and what is on the page. Every idea or argument begins with an intuition, a tug, a belief, a vague feeling that one thing is true and not another thing. But the task of writing is to translate that blob of an idea into a clear statement, one that can be defended and argued about, and most importantly, one that someone else—whether they agree with it or not—can at least understand. 

All this is why fuzzy thinking and poor writing often go together. In fact, they are probably the same thing. I have never met a brilliant, clear, and logical thinker who was a bad writer, nor have a met a great writer who did not also think well. Writing is not simply the task of reporting your fully formed thoughts. Writing is part of the process of forming them. 

4. Writing is a creative process. 

This is undoubtedly true, in so far as you are producing something (words on a page) out of nothing (no words on a page). But what many people mean by a “creative process” is that writers make things up in their heads, with little input from the outside world. Not so. Good writers are also voracious but discerning readers, and perhaps the best way to improve your writing—besides having someone who writes well regularly critique your work—is to read the output of good writers and try to make your writing as much like theirs as you can. 

To write well you must read good writing. And to write good non-fiction, you must read good non-fiction writing. Writing is one field in which that old computer programmer’s saw—Garbage In, Garbage Out—clearly applies. To write good essays or term papers, you need to read well-organized, cleverly written, and logically argued pieces of non-fiction. That means regularly reading serious, high-quality periodicals such as The Economist, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Times Literary Supplement, Lingua Franca or other important weeklies and monthlies, as well as the quality national and international press such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and similar newspapers. You learn to write well by learning to read well, consciously imitating the style of argument and expression used by established, professional writers. If your normal reading includes only People, Time, and USA Today, it is no mystery why your essays are not getting the marks you want. 

5. Writing requires inspiration. 

This is the view one hears most often about writing. But for most people who write, the process is not so much about being inspired as about the laborious, excruciatingly painful task of getting the words from your head to the page—and then making sure that they are good. Most writers often feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, filling up page after page of nonsense, hovering on the edge of insanity, trying over and over again to get their thoughts in order, and succeeding only after many, many rewrites. 

Inspiration rarely comes into it. Many of us (writers, that is) do come up with our own interesting turns of phrase or sentence fragments while taking a shower or walking down the street. Many of us even carry notebooks or slips of paper to note these things down. Often, great ideas are sparked by reading someone else’s quality writing, even if the new idea is tangential to the piece you are reading. Good reading does beget good writing. But no one—except maybe Stephen King—can sit down and churn out a fully formed piece of writing based solely on something called “inspiration.” 

Waiting to be inspired is the most serious mistake that many writers make. It is the source of what is usually called “writer’s block.” You know the feeling. You sit down to write, stare at a blank page or an empty computer screen—and then nothing. It is like staring into a black hole, where nothing, not even ideas, can escape. You try to put down a few words, but nothing comes. You feel heavy, burdened, oppressed by the tyranny of the opening line. 

In fact, that is what most writers feel like all the time—not because they are waiting for inspiration, but because writing is just plain hard work. The only way to deal with the situation is to push through it. Get something, anything, down on the page. Tell yourself that you won’t leave the chair until you’ve finished a paragraph or a set number of words. Resist the temptation to take a walk or make a cup of tea. If you tell yourself that you just need to take a break in order to be “inspired,” you may build up your calf muscles and drink lots of tea, but you won’t do much writing. 

Writing is work. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. But keep in mind the points above, and your chances of producing quality work will improve markedly. It is a tough thing, getting words on paper. But like many people before you, you will simply have to learn what has been called the butt-to-chair theory of writing: Sit down, suck it up, and just write. 

© Copyright 1996, Georgetown University

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