“How do you write?”
Every day, I write. Not usually here (as evidenced by the lack of posts recently). I work at Rackspace writing copy. Every day, I write something – emails on behalf of the company, on behalf of a person, on behalf of a team. Emails in a series, emails promoting an event, emails sharing silly information. I write a lot.
I write at a desk, with a laptop and a monitor. I write using Microsoft Word. I write with my fingers and my wits and my mind and the Internet.
“No, but, like, what’s your process?”
Ah: The Writer’s Process. I would love to say that I sit down daily, with a steaming cup of coffee, and the words just flow, and they are always great, and rainbows shoot out of my monitor.
Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes, I stumble upon the perfect word, turn of phrase, flow of thought, and it is beautiful. Sometimes, I write and write and knock things off that task list.
And other times, I lay my head on the desk, I pace around the office, I lean allllllllllllllllll the way back in my chair. Sometimes, I go back to this article and I lie down, to see if it will come to me. Sometimes, I write it all, all of it, and then I delete it, because it’s crap.
“How much can you write in a day?”
Theoretically, I can write all the things in a day. But how many can I write well? How much can I write that’s in the right tone, voice, for the right audience, in the right context, with the right information and calls to action, and the right length? Ah, that is the question.
It’s like saying, how many times a day can you be perfect? How many perfect soufflés can you cook in a week? How many times in your life will you give yourself the perfect manicure? How many times a week will you pick the right lane on the highway so you get home in exactly 23 minutes?
I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly creative person, but apparently I am. And as creative people know, there’s often no rhyme or reason to creativity. Some days, I am ON and the words flow like honey. Other days, I haven’t had enough coffee or sleep, and I struggle to form thoughts. Those days are hard. Those days suck. Those days, I get a headache, and I do write, but I’m not happy with it.
“How do you know when what you write is right?”
How does anyone know? What is “right,” exactly? What is right to you might be wrong to me, especially if we have different expectations or goals. And if the goal is met in the end, does it matter if it’s right to me or to you, as long as it works? How do we know it works? How do we track that?
The questions are endless.
Here is what I know about writing:
- It’s better to write something than nothing. Nothing is worse than seeing that blinking cursor on a blank page. Nothing is whiter or brighter than a dearth of words on a page. White space – not a goal when it comes to writing. Better to get those words out, whether it’s a list of points, a table, random thoughts, or even what not to put in. just something. Just start.
- Work on lots of things simultaneously. I frequently hit walls. When I’m writing, I can see my thoughts traveling through a corridor. Often, I reach the end of a thought, and I see a wall. I literally hit a wall with my thoughts. It’s best if I have multiple projects open, so when I hit a wall in one, I can work on another. It’s a round robin of word, trying to outsmart the walls of my own brain.
- Trick your brain. Sometimes, I have to give my brain some space to work things out, have that eureka moment. I do that my doing something menial and small – a dumb online game, washing some dishes, doodling. Something to occupy the buzzing center of my brain to leave the dudes up there who do the deep thinking free to work out the problem.
- Everyone is an editor. Very few people will say they like writing, or they’re good at it. People own up to that. But I’ve noticed that no matter how terrible a writer someone is, they still think they’re an editor. Everyone is an editor. Before you wrote it, they disavowed any knowledge of writing it. After you wrote it, they had myriad opinions on how they could have made it better. It’s just the way it is.
- Writing is not a factory. Going back to the process, writing is not like making widgets. It can take a day to write a paragraph it ordinarily would take 10 minutes. It’s not an exact science.
- But deadlines are better than nothing. Look, we need deadlines in life. Deadlines force you to think, to plan, to get SOMETHING written down. To do it now, to start the process. Though sometimes there’s no way to quantify the process, you have to just put a stake in the ground and say it will be done.
- Internet surfing is a perfectly legitimate way to work. See the aforementioned trick your brain.
- You will want to keep making it better. Writing isn’t finite – you can edit one piece forever. And you should always want to make things better. But there are times when something is better than nothing, when the mediocre words you write are better than the perfect words in your head. Not everything needs to be a diamond. Some pieces can be frankensteined, or cobbled together. Some pieces will feel weird and creaky. Some pieces will look odd. In your heart of hearts, you will know that it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. But it’s there. And sometimes, it has to do.
- Knowing the rules doesn’t mean you have to abide by them. We all know the rules of grammar and spelling, even the dumb ones our teachers taught us. But good writers know when to break them. You can start the sentence with and. You can end it in a preposition. Sometimes, doing these things will make your writing sound more human, and less like a marketing robot wrote it.
- But people will want you to obey the rules. People can be sticklers. Try not to take it personally. Don’t blame them. Blame their 4th grade teacher who made them put double spaces between sentences.
- Everything you write is new. This is what I know: whatever you write, no one has written that before. They might have written on the same topic, but the words weren’t in the same order, the thoughts weren’t the same, the inspiration was maybe different. Your writing is something new. It wasn’t there before, and you created it. That’s something.
- And lastly, you have to read. How can you be a good writer without reading? I don’t know. I know that for me, writing goes hand in hand with loving to read. It helps you understand how to construct a sentence, a narrative. You learn new words. You learn new perspectives. If anything, you might pick up writing tips by osmosis, by letting the good writing seep through your pores into your brain. Reading bad writing is good too. It helps you understand what is wrong, or at least what you don’t like. So read. Read it all.
Now go. Write.