Two opposite kinds of articles come off my fingers: those where I know where I’m going but don’t yet have the words, and those where I have the words but don’t yet know where I’m going.
In the opening chapter of his classic On Writing Well, William Zinsser tells of a writers’ clash. Two entirely different sorts of writers, whose experience of writing could not have been more different, both tell of their craft. Dr. Brock, a full-time surgeon who recently took up writing in his spare time, explain how it’s effortless and fun and fuelled by inspiration:
“Coming home from an arduous day at the hospital, he would go straight to his yellow pad and write his tensions away. The words just flowed. It was easy.
To which Zinsser responds that
“[W]riting wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely and the words seldom just flowed.”
To Zinsser, writing is the first draft of many more to come — rewriting is essential. To Dr. Brock, editing (Rule 3: “Edit and Distil the Message”) was not needed; the words of the moment “reflect the writer at his most natural”.
Dr. Brock writes on impulse and intuition; when he doesn’t feel like it, he won’t write anything but spend his time outdoors, fishing perhaps. Zinsser sticks to a tight schedule, with daily routines; whether physically sick or merely sick of his words, he improves them and creates more. He suffers, but perseveres.
As this is Zinsser’s book, one might anticipate that he’ll follow this introductory account with a vindication of his own position — but he doesn’t. Instead he takes from it a very comforting conclusion to all of us who dabble in writing:
“For there isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such personal work. There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.”
Writing guides — of the kind that stacks bookshelves or the kind that flourishes on Medium — are for getting over your hurdles. And there are countless different hurdles, often placed there by your own fears and inadequacies. I don’t know which ones you’re struggling with, which is why good writing advice is whatever gets you across that which is stopping you from writing.
My obstacles? I easily get distracted by things and people around me — especially noise. Another: I think that my words are garbage and, simultaneously, so perfectly made that I should never change a thing. Clearly, then, it becomes impossible for me to judge the quality of my own writing.
After researching a text, fighting for it to hold together and to make sense, I can emerge with a piece I’m psyched about. I’ll share it with friends and eagerly tell them that it’s the best thing I have ever written — only to repeat the exercise a few days later with another article I’m equally psyched about.
Is everything I have written the best I have ever written? Hardly. It’s just that when I’m in the middle of it, I can’t tell.
I have two ways that my articles come into the world; I call them Flows and Puzzles.
Flows are what Dr. Brock talks about. It’s a writing practice where I know precisely where I’m going, but I don’t have the words yet. They’ll come. In the process of walking that arduous path, I discover how to explain the argument step-by-step. One thing follows another, roughly in the order in which they appear in my head; the sentences flow naturally from one thing to the next.
In my 5-rule writing guide I explain that
“As a writer you wish you convey an idea, an argument, a perspective, to the reader. To do that you must grapple with a problem, a question. Something has to propel the reader from the first sentence to the second.”
I start with a blank sheet, an overwhelming amount of inspiration, and a central problem. This is the idea I want to convey to my reader; here’s how I walk them through it; I must prove this, that, and the other thing, before addressing another critical point. At the end I have told the story I wanted to tell and Rule 3 only leaves me with minor changes to make.
What makes me more like Zinsser than Brock is that even in Flow mode I rewrite sentences, remove words that don’t belong, and strip the text of words that don’t carry the meaning forward. Editing is too deeply rooted: I’m constantly fixing, pruning, improving. Zinsser’s words echo like mantra: “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”
The other mode of writing is Puzzle. Here, I have words and paragraphs scattered across the many softwares I use (Google Keep, Evernote, Trello, Docs) plus a few scribbled on a note on my desk. In contrast to Flows, I don’t yet know where this Puzzle will take me. I have the components, but I can’t see the structure they form. They’re a puzzle, a riddle, waiting for me to assemble them in a way that works.
I usually find myself in this writing mode when I’m reviewing books, as ideas are scattered throughout the notes I’ve taken for the book — sometimes days or weeks apart. Sometimes the puzzle pieces that I have left are fully-written paragraphs; sometimes they are nothing more than words or questions probing me to investigate further.
This is the digital version of scribbling in the margin.
Like the metaphor this mode attempts to copy, you start somewhere — often by simply aggregating pieces that look like they belong together: comments on an author’s style goes in one pile, evidence assembled in another, and strong or weak counterarguments in a third.
After a while I have enough groups, the content of which I rewrite: distil the message, slim the argument, discard into the “Leftover folder” that which doesn’t fit. Then I attempt to structure the groups, make transitions between them. In what order? Where am I going with this? What makes sense for the argument? What is the argument?
Sometimes my puzzle pieces fit into several different articles, all with different ends. As I struggled with a typical Puzzle article last week, I re-wrote the first page probably four or five times, endlessly rearranging the paragraphs. I removed what I thought wouldn’t work, only to bring it back on the next page, break its sentences into pieces, rewrite all of them and place them in other sections of the article.
Only with the help of colleagues (Rule 4: “Assistance Helps”) to ask the right questions and comment on what they found confusing could I discover what I meant to say. I now see that I was trying to do a single jigsaw puzzle with pieces from at least three different packages. No wonder it wouldn’t work.
When I sat down to write that evening, I had no idea. I knew I had puzzle pieces scattered everywhere, but couldn’t see the picture they formed. After hours of arranging, rearranging, rewriting, deleting, restructuring, and listening to others’ comments, I could see the picture — and so I carefully placed the pieces that didn’t belong in a Trello card for later. A final draft, stripped of what didn’t belong.
Writing is a long and complicated journey that leaves you with a single, two-dimensional result: Your words, arranged together in the final version of your piece. The reader usually cannot tell how many drafts you went through, how much work went into them, or how many paragraphs and sentences you pruned off the splendid tree now in front of them. Only you do. The writing process is the way in which you actually go about reaching that end state.
Some writers work on that tree for decades; others go with the flow. Don’t be alarm at what seems like a formidable task. Try. Writers work on their craft, and with each attempt they improve. That’s the journey.
While I’m probably 85% Zinsser and 15% Dr. Brock, some other combination, or something else entirely, might work for you. Try. And when you struggle, which we all do, ask for help. That’s what everyone else does.