Writing Advice

 

I sometimes get questions about writing from graduate students, who face unique challenges, because they’re charged with completing a lot of coursework and also composing a brand new book along the way. They have 5-6 years here. And they aren’t full time writers, comfortably ensconced in an Upper West Side apartment. Usually, I find myself sharing something like this list.

True to form, it took great readers and a lot of re-writing to make this list. Thanks, good people.

1. Treat writing like an athletic event. That is, as something physical. Get enough sleep. Drink a lot of water. Take time away from the screen. Get a computer that is easy to see (big, high res screen) if you can. Comfortable headphones if you wear them. A nice chair. If you’re writing for the long haul, you’ll even need to eat vegetables and drink a little less booze. A double bourbon and a booming soundtrack might make for an awesome set of paragraphs, but the morning hangover will not make editing any easier.

2. Try to write every day, without editing, for at least half an hour. But revise, in your mind, what it means to “write.” Write at different scales – close readings, blog posts, breezy op-eds, dense histories – and at different paces. Write letters to the editor, memos to the dean, whatever. Take even the crafting of emails seriously. Excellent long-form writing often moves through these same scales and paces, speeding up and slowing down, narrowing in and opening up.

3. Do not, however, get in the habit of thinking you need to write at the same time every day. Or in a precise set of conditions. “I write from noon to 5 everyday.” Impossible. Rigid structures are doomed to fail, because you don’t have complete control over your world. Don’t set up strange rituals about writing that are unsustainable. I used to say “I am a morning writer” and the problem with that is that only graduate students on fellowship who live far from campus have mornings “free.”

4.  Learn to be an improvisational writer and build infrastructure to support that practice. Put all your documents in the cloud so that you can access them at any time on any device, and always have a device that can access them on you. Get an iPad, use google docs or dropbox, and if you have an insight, sit down and write it to yourself. Have a thought in a bar? Text yourself a voice memo. Or scribble it on the napkin. Get up one morning and you’ve got an idea?  Try to write it down before you do anything else.

5. Write out of sequence. If you’re trying to generate a certain number of words each day, you need to be able to slip out of the narrative structure of your chapters. Got a slow day and the words aren’t coming? Do that close reading of that paragraph or that painting, which you’ll use in Chapter X down the line. Got everything you need for those complicated 5 theory paragraphs in Chapter 2?  If you’re feeling it, get to it. Writing in sequence is a legacy of the typewriter.

6. Also, learn to see the field. By that, I mean try to get enough distance so that you can see the entirety of what you’re writing, so that you aren’t, once again, just writing paragraph after paragraph in strict sequence, which amounts to “thinking out loud” on paper, or just writing randomly. Sure, writing should be a journey of discovery, but that doesn’t mean it needs to begin with a blindfold. At the start of it, you should try to get some sense of which direction you’re headed.  And you should try to outline that – in whatever fashion works for you – on paper.

7. Read great writers. And don’t just limit yourself to the New Yorker or to the Atlantic – because, these days, so many wonderful people write in other places. And don’t assume that trendy, hip, and new publications are always the best. Find people who write beautifully. See how they build a paragraph. Watch how they use metaphor. See how the modulate their emotional tone. Think about how they start, sustain, and close off an essay or a chapter. And try to emulate/revise/appropriate their own techniques. Be a prose bricoleur.

8. Whenever you are writing something, establish the tone early. For me, this is about choosing the music I will listen to as I write. Melancholic? Strident? Angry? Ironic? For me, again, these require radically different musical forms. Keep the tone consistent.

9. Study yourself. What doesn’t work? I can’t write prose and watch TV, for instance. But I also love to study the national popular, and can’t really look away. And, importantly, I can write email even if the electric lights of the television are flickering.  So I handle the daily queries that come to me even as I consume new media – or relax. But writing, for me, only happens when there is music playing. It took me a long time to learn this, and it only happened because I engaged in a form of autocritique.

10. Find your readers. You need people who will read your work for you forever. And you need to do the same for them. They do not need to be in your field. Indeed, having a small set of experts on a single topic read and share work is probably a bad idea. At least, it would be a bad idea if you wanted to reach anyone outside of your field.

11. Always remember that writing is about communicating complicated ideas to an audience of specialists and interested non experts, but it is also about artistry and technique. So think of yourself, then, as a writer. As an artist. Search for better words, richer metaphors, more imaginative interpretations. Do not settle for stale, routine prose.

12. Be prepared to fail. I would love to write like Alec Wilkinson in Big Sugar, but I don’t. I can’t. I am a competent writer who aspires to be more. That aspiration pushes me to try and do different things. And often those things fail. That is fine. In 100 years, we’ll all be dead, and no one will remember any part of what we’re talking about. So take pleasure in the immediate thrill of the big reach – and the big fail.

13. Be ready to re-write, too. Amy Poehler says that writing is “hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.” Most writing is about re-writing. Make time to go back and tinker and tighten, smooth and reduce.

14. Choose one bible. Find one book, one set of recommendations about writing, and stick with it. Don’t buy this week’s Times recommendation, and then next week become a devotee of someone else’s prose craft. You need one truth. You don’t have time for more. There are things to say, and not that much time to say them. For me, it is The Elements of Style; for you, maybe it is someone else.

15. Take 30 minutes every day to think about your writing in silence. Just lie on your back or gaze out a window. Sit still and think. Dreamtime is precious. Thinking should always precede writing.

16. Many people will tell you that great writers are “disciplined” or “professional.” So they are. But mostly, I think, they’re relentless. They cut things out of their lives to make time for words. Be dogged. Be determined. Be relentless. Be restless and discontented unless you are writing. Fight for time every day. Fight like you need to write to live, like the words are oxygen. And when they come, breathe them in deep.

17. Finally, as is true with any listicle, make your own index of what works for you, thumbtack it up on the wall next to your desk, and come back to it every year. Revise the list, over and over.

Last updated: 1/11/16