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The Agony and the Methodology
The pain of writing is legend. And its intensity hardly varies between the student facing a term-paper deadline, the office worker thrashing out a report, and the seasoned professional writing for publication.
When I run a writing seminar, I usually hand out a questionnaire that, among other things, quizzes the participants about the emotion they bring to their writing. They like to quote Dorothy Parker, the New York literary wit who said she hated writing, but loved having written. "It's agony and ecstasy," one writer said. "When I get the idea, and when I'm finished . . . it's joyful. Everything in between is agony."
Why should that be? Physically, writing's relatively easy work. Take it from a guy who's loaded log ships, pumped gas, and tarred roofs in the midsummer sun. Writers work on their butts and out of the weather. So what's with all this whining?
And why the avoidance, which one writer labeled "tap dancing"? "I'll dance around the story," he said, "putting it off because I think it's harder than it invariably is."
What's the first thing you do when facing a new writing assignment? I ask. "Get a cup of coffee," a journalist replied. "More difficult story, more coffee, more trips to the bathroom, more procrastination."
"But is it really procrastination," another writer asked, "when I'm walking around, getting another cup of coffee, and thinking about the story? More likely, it's a paralysis from possibilities: possible stories, possible leads, possible story flow."
Exactly! Paralysis from possibilities. The tendency to see the task ahead as overwhelming explains most keyboard anxiety. For a variety of reasons, we view writing from the back end. Day in and day out, we witness the finished work of accomplished writers. In our mind's eye we stroll down street after street of beautiful homes, ignorant of the piece-by-piece construction that created them, one two-by-four at a time. "Look at that gorgeous building," we think. "The craftsmanship. The detail work. The sheer size of the thing! I could never build something like that."
Time for another cup of coffee.
But there's another way to look at it. For the past year I've watched four row houses rise on the lot next door. The work was noisy, messy, and distracting, but instructive, too. From the logging crew that brought in chain saws and cleared the lot to the roofers who nailed on the shingles, not one bit of work went into those houses that you or I couldn't do ourselves, given enough time and some research into the technical details. The secret is in the process, not the finished buildings.
The pain of writing stems from comparing your blank screen with the finished pages you see all around you. But beautiful writing is built one step at a time, just like a house. Take the steps slowly, break them down into pieces small enough to handle easily, and the agony will disappear.
Writing, it is often said, is thinking. And the most productive form of thinking, the method that built the modern world, is science. The discipline, the logic, and the procedural rules of science took us from oxcarts to interstellar probes. So it's not surprising that scientists place so much emphasis on process. Science, they will insist, is process. Articles in scientific journals invariably include detailed descriptions of how the authors conducted their research--the methodology. That mandatory section of the report sometimes takes more space than the section describing results.
Methodology is just as important for writers. "Genius," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind." In writing, that can involve a considerable journey. And, as every mother's cliche will have it, the longest journey begins with a single step.
The Back-End View of Writing
For decades, I focused my writing-improvement efforts on the last stages of the writing process, the eleventh-hour nit-picking that burnishes words to a high gloss. That's what I spent my time doing in the newsroom. And those were the skills I taught in my magazine columns and workshops.
I wasn't alone. Most writing coaches, copy editors, workshop organizers, newspaper line editors, readers, and critics have focused on the polish stage of writing.
Harvard education professors V. A. Howard and J. H. Barton, authors of a wonderful summary of writing research called Thinking on Paper, note that a principal "obstacle to writing improvement is our tendency to dwell on either the final results or the mental origins of writing to the exclusion of the activity of writing, as if an empty gap separated writing from thinking."
As Bob Baker, the author of Newsthinking, puts it, "You have to stop concentrating on merely the results of good writing--the examples they show you in most textbooks. You have to begin thinking about the causes--the thought strategies that created those polished examples."
Baker, a former writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times, was one of the writing-process pioneers who helped me discover new dimensions to writing and editing. Don Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning University of New Hampshire professor, was another. Murray's seminal book, Writing for Readers, helped shift the focus of American writing instruction from results to causes.
I've seen the power of what Murray teaches. Analyzing and improving process, making it less painful and more efficient, is the surest route to writing improvement. It's helped me with my own writing, and I'm confident it can help yours, too.
I. THE WRITING PROCESS
Seize the subject, and the words will follow.
--Cato the Elder
Writing One Step at a Time
Most of us have had a classmate who could sit down the night before the due date for a big term paper and bang it out in a couple of hours. He'd be heading out for a beer while we sat staring at our keyboards with--as journalist and screenwriter Gene Fowler described the predicament--little drops of blood forming on our foreheads.
Or maybe your experience was with a colleague who could knock out a big departmental report before lunch. Or a friend who dashed off long, beautifully organized letters in one continuous flow of words. Or a closet novelist who produced a book by turning out a few pages a day despite holding a full-time job and having two toddlers underfoot.
Maybe they're all writing gibberish. Or, like the reporters who shrug and say their stories just "write themselves," maybe they're mindlessly spewing out cliches according to a formula that requires no thought whatsoever.
Still, sometimes the two-hour term paper gets an A, the speedy report writer earns a promotion, and the relaxed reporter wins a Pulitzer.
That shouldn't be terribly surprising. Most accomplished writers follow an efficient road map that leads them through projects without a lot of angst. In the real world of experienced professionals, a published piece almost never originates at the keyboard.
Consider everything that typically leads to a final draft:
1. The idea that results in a piece of writing may take days, weeks, or months forming in the writer's mind. It probably will be shaped by discussion with others--editors, friends, sources. Eventually, the best ideas take the form of hypotheses that can be tested in the real world.
2. The information gathering can take anywhere from a few minutes to months. In the case of some Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories, reporting lasted a year or more. Copywriters at ad agencies may spend months on research, interviewing, and brainstorming. Gathering string for a novel or a nonfiction book can take decades.
3. After the reporting, the writer has to ask, "So what?" What, in other words, is the focus of all the data pulled together during information gathering?
4. The raw material--notes, documents, database information--must be sorted and organized. That gives the report, essay, or story a shape, and it makes the raw material accessible during the writing.
5. The writer must work through the first draft.
6. The writer--and everybody else involved in producing the finished product--must dive into the final tweaking and polishing.
Of course, writing projects rarely conform perfectly to this idealized scheme. Ideas get refined as information gathering proceeds and the ultimate focus of the writing emerges. Drafting may suggest more meaningful approaches to organization. In the real world, writers jump around the process instead of moving smoothly from beginning to end.
Regardless of the writing project, however, one thing remains the same. Content problems are almost always process problems. And some writers struggle for their entire lives without tumbling to the First Law of Writing Improvement: A problem visible at any one stage of the writing process usually results from something that happened at the immediately preceding stage.
Why do some writers bog down in aimless morasses of information? Almost always it's because their original idea wasn't adequately developed. Why can't some writers find a focus? Probably because their undirected information gathering swamped them with irrelevant information. Why do some writers have a hard time finding a sensible organizational scheme? Maybe they have no focus. Poor organization, of course, will make it devilishly difficult to craft a decent draft. And if you have a lousy draft, you're bound to have problems polishing it.
My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.
Mining the World for Ideas
The author wearily steps to the lectern, ten cities into a twelve-city book tour. She finishes her shtick, asks for questions, and scans the audience warily, leery of the hands thrusting toward the ceiling. She points at a smiling face in the back, grips the edge of the lectern, and tries to keep herself from glowering as the inevitable question floats toward her again.
"Where," says the adoring reader, "do you get your ideas?"
"You get a life," growls the author to herself before graciously answering the damnable question for the umpteenth time. And, despite the platitudes she dishes out for public consumption, "Get a life" is the right answer.
Experienced writers are swamped with ideas. The problem isn't getting ideas; it's getting around to the ones they already have. They have lives, in other words. And the lives they lead follow myriad paths to an unending supply of ideas.
For one thing, they're great readers. They read competitors, friends, enemies, and the best writers, living and dead. They read novels, memoirs, and billboards. Then they think about what they've read, exploring the possible application of new ideas to their own writing.
They don't get stuck in reading ruts, either. Lots of us wake up to the morning newspaper and find time for a favorite magazine or two. But inveterate readers sample the whole world of print. In my town, that's easy. Portland is home to one of the world's biggest bookstores, Powell's City of Books, and at least once a week I stop into Rich's Cigar Store, which not only stocks my favorite brand of stogie but also carries somewhere between three thousand and four thousand magazine titles. On any given day I might leaf through Fine Woodworking, Granta ("The Magazine of New Writing"), or Zyzzyva (a literary journal).
I'm only following my own advice. I'm the guy who tells folks in magazine-writing classes to read something weird every week. You may not have a Powell's or a Rich's in your burg, but these days you can find just about anything online.
It helps to keep some crude files, too. They don't have to be fancy, just a manila folder labeled with a broad topic. Then, if you see something that grabs your fancy in one of those off-the-beaten-path publications you're reading, you can stuff it into a folder. Right now my idea file contains folders on "Overhead Wires," "Danish Narrative," and "Cutthroat Trout."
It doesn't hurt to get off the beaten path literally, too. Take a side road on impulse--that's how I ended up with a file labeled "Overhead Wires." Or turn your feet down a street that leads away from where you're headed, pop into a business you've never visited, and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Then go write about your experience. Nothing generates ideas like getting your hands on the keyboard. The world is filled with writing wannabes who insist they'll write something wonderful as soon as they have a really good idea. But they'll spend a lifetime waiting for their muse to arrive because they have the process backward.
Writing generates ideas by encouraging the kind of sequential, cause-and-effect thinking that leads your mind into new territory. Howard and Barton, the authors of Thinking on Paper, scanned the scientific research on writing and concluded that writing was "the father to thought itself. . . . We do not so much send our thoughts in pursuit of words as use words to pursue our thoughts."
Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a midcareer school for journalists, and Don Fry, a freelance-writing coach, divide writers into "planners" and "plungers." Like Don, I'm a planner who likes to know the central point and general organization of what he's about to write before he types the first line. Roy's a plunger. So sometimes he just jumps into a topic and starts writing whatever comes to mind. After a while, a focus emerges. Then he backs out, throws away most of what he's written, and starts over. He calls that first round of writing a "vomit draft."
In more polite circles, that's called freewriting, and it's been a mainstay of writing-workshop exercises for decades. It's the keyboard equivalent of brainstorming, a chance to follow ideas wherever they lead. You muzzle your internal critic and start writing, as fast as you can, for a predetermined amount of time. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, whatever. Only when time runs out do you start to think seriously about what you've done, sifting and evaluating and finding an idea that's worth developing in depth.
The important thing is that you spend a reasonable amount of time on the idea stage of the writing process. Resist the impulse to rush into the writing when all you have is a topic. I'd damn well better have something specific to say about overhead wires or cutthroat trout before I get too far into writing about those vague categories.
If I don't, I'm in trouble. The idea is the foundation for all that follows, and without a clear vision of your objective, you can't plan your information gathering or organize your material. Well-shaped ideas are one of the best antidotes to the pain so often associated with writing.
As a writer who attended one of my workshops put it: "The more I get a good solid story idea and get out of the office to talk to real people during the reporting of it, the easier the writing."
If the writing is hard for the writer, it's also likely to be hard for the reader.
From the Hardcover edition.