What Everyone That Writes Should Know About Writing

April 10, 2011

Having written 20 books, numerous articles, 260 blog postings, and 38 newsletters (at the time of this writing), it’s probably safe to say that I qualify as a “writer” by now. Once you’ve gone past your first million words, I think the label applies. Over the past few months I’ve happened to speak with several different people, sharing what I’ve learned about writing, and there’s one insight that seems to be the most intriguing and useful to those that aren’t accustomed to sitting at their computer for hours on end trying to put two good paragraphs together: writing is the least important step in the writing process.When it comes to the process of writing, the steps are (minimally):

  1. Plan/research
  2. Write
  3. Rewrite (rewriting implies both reading and editing)

Of these three, writing is by far the least important, which is ironic, because many people think it’s the most important. And this is actually a problem, because people that think that put so much stress on writing something exactly right, that they struggle mercilessly. Never sweat the writing. I’m not saying that the writing doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter that much.

The goal of of the writing step is not to write something perfect or great or even good, it’s just to put words on the page:  to move the cursor to the right and down. Writer’s block is simply a person not writing because they can’t get the words to come out precisely as they should. Well, that’s going to happen…all the time. The most critical step is rewriting. Rewriting is how you make something good out of something decent; something great out of something good. And every rewrite will make it just a bit better. Once you accept that, you’ll see that the real purpose of the writing step is to give yourself something to rewrite. I’m big on analogies, so I think of the writing process like sculpting with clay: during the writing step you build up this big, rough mound of blob, that you can then sculpt into what it should be during the rewrites. No sculptor would think they have to get the clay in the absolutely right shape from the start (now cutting stone: that’s a different issue). The next time you’re in front of the computer, trying to churn out the next great novel, blog posting, technical article, email, or whatever, remember the immediate goal: get some words—any words—on the page, so that you can later make them better. This is how good writing is done.

Now this may seem like I’m oversimplifying things, or the fact that I’ve written so much would imply that my rough, ugly drafts are still pretty good (and, hey, thanks for that compliment), but I really do mean what I’m saying here. There’s this quote I like from Alistair Cooke:

A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.

If you want to be a writer, you have to write, even when you don’t feel like it. Or especially when you don’t feel like it, because writing can be lonely, tedious, frustrating work, and the best day of writing still loses out to napping in a hammock on a pleasant spring afternoon. I write something pretty much every day, I expect, and there are many days when I don’t feel like it. Moreover, there are many days where I know, as I’m doing it, that the writing isn’t very good. But that’s okay, because the initial writing doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be. At this point in my career, I can normally tell as I’m putting words on the page (or screen) that a sentence or paragraph is no good. When that happens, I just write “UGH”, often stopping a sentence in the middle, and go on to the next paragraph. On a good day, I may only have one UGH an hour; on a bad day, several. But the important thing is that I took a stab at writing what I thought needed to be written, and I have something to improve when I begin the rewrites. Don’t be afraid of writing a bad sentence, paragraph, or page: be afraid of writing no sentence, paragraph, or page. That’s a much bigger hurdle to overcome (in part, because when you do finally write that bit, after procrastinating for too long, the writing is still probably going to be *$&@ that needs a heavy revision and you’ll have just wasted too much time in getting that junk on the page).

So that’s the most important thing I’ve learned, having done what I do professionally for a decade now: writing is the least important step in the writing process. Whether you’re a student working on a paper, a hobbyist trying to write that personal story you’ve always wanted to put out there, or the burgeoning professional, about to embark on your first technical assignment, the advice is the same: never sweat the writing, just write something.