I’ve had little time to write lately, so writing feels like a guilty pleasure when I have the time to do it. I am advising four PhD students who often ask me about the writing process. I’ve almost forgotten about how hard technical writing was for me back when I was in their shoes.
Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself jarred my memory. This weekend, I was listening to the audiobook while working on on my yard. One passage about writing got my attention:
[Bill] Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?” These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.
Part one is really great advice. I’m a firm believer in writing as you go. I’m not so sure about part two for students writing their first article or thesis. First, most of the time it is even feasible to write until you reach the end. Second, organization helps when writing a lengthy manuscript (lengthy here is relative to newspaper articles). It’s usually easier to write when you have an outline that lays out your ideas in a straightforward fashion. You should know where you’re going. But if organization paralyzes you, I recommend just starting the damned thing and reorganizing later. Students seem to struggle with writing sins of omission – the biggest mistake is not getting started. If you want to finish something, you need to start it first.
When searching for Roger Ebert’s comment on writing, I found similar advice from Matt Zoller Seitz about writing movie reviews on rogerebert.com:
Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer’s block is not the fault of the writer. It’s the fault of the writer’s wrongheaded educational conditioning. We’re taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that’s boringly linear and predictable: What’s your topic sentence? What are your sections? What’s your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that’s structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. Your mind is a babbling lunatic. It’s Dennis Hopper, jumping all over the place, free associating, digressing, doubling back, exploding in profanity and absurdity and nonsense. Stop ordering it to calm down and speak clearly. Listen closely and take dictation. Be a stenographer for your subconscious. Then rewrite and edit.
This isn’t quite the right advice for writing a thesis, but students should hear this. Students know they are supposed to organize. They seem less familiar with the idea of puking on the page, knowing that they can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. The latter approach is how I start almost all of my blog posts (most get cleaned up later).
How do you write?