OK, that may be jumping the gun but humor me and read on. Writing is something almost everyone does, but seldom have I taken a step back and considered how it is best done. Almost everyone writes an occasional letter or email or report at work. I started to note how many times in a day I write something and it is far more often than I might have thought. Can you really learn about your own abilities by stepping back and analyzing your likes and dislikes towards certain activities? I think you can. I know that my own personal prejudices about writing are fairly easy to define. Here are a list of my writing observations from blogging.
I hate writing stuff out longhand. I am part of the last American generation to have grown up writing longhand at school and in day-to-day life. I remember working through legal pads in high school, trying to write a report on the causes of the Civil War or a biography of George Washington. I would use index cards to write paragraph lead sentences, then move them around until I felt an outline emerge. I hated every minute of it. I took typing in high school, and I realized that writing didn’t have to be a cramped, dull scribbling exercise. For me, manual typewriters were a discovery, electric typewriters were a pleasure and computer keyboards were a revelation. My personal handwriting has deteroriated to an eleven year-old’s block printing because I so seldom write by hand. At work, my notes from meetings are painful to look at, and I usually transcribe them instantly into a word processing program so I can actually read them.
I have never written well on schedule. I am prone to floods of ideas. Once I get an idea to write about, it just keeps tumbling out until I am finished with it. If I sit down at 9 am and tell myself “start writing,” I usually struggle to start and allow myself to be distracted easily. But if I start writing on what I call a “burst,” the biggest challenge I have is to get it out of my head, through my fingers and onto the screen fast enough. My bursts aren’t even necessarily related to what I’m writing about in most cases. The way my thought process works is similar to the index card method I mentioned above. I have lots of little ideas that float and wander about – little square ideas, little triangle ideas, and so on. At some point, they find their little triangle place and so on, and the overall picture of the writing coalesces. That’s the beginning of the burst. It doesn’t guarantee quality writing, but it does mean a lot spills out. However…
I started this blog partially as a tool to try to force myself into writing on a schedule. Unless you’re already a highly-sought-after writer you can’t really get away with posting once or twice a week if you want to have any sort of readership on your blog. And for every post you see here on my blog, there are probably 10 or more lengthy comments I’ve written on other people’s blogs. I’m trying, sporadically, to work on another blog. I’m even considering launching a blog related to my professional life (audit and Sarbanes-Oxley Act consulting). And before this blog existed, I kept up a furious and detailed political blog for almost four years, which suffered from my ‘burst’ style. There would be twelve posts in a day and then nothing for two weeks. All of this is because I realized that I have the time to write, but often don’t for lack of a purpose. Writing in a blog gives you a great outlet for your ideas, but it also forces you to open your eyes and mind to receiving those ideas and turning them into writing on a daily basis.
After thirty plus years of reading, I still discover new ‘art in words.’ I love to read and the subject matter is sometimes secondary to the style. A tremendous example of this is William Faulkner. I have never cared for his stories, to be honest. Most are too gothic and some (Sanctuary, for example) are horror stories to match Stephen King’s work. But if you ever want to see words flow off the page like liquid gold, pick up a Faulkner book. His writing makes the English language sing. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech is a great short example of his writing. Even the blogosphere has some compelling writers. Blogs like The Simple Dollar, for example, are not building huge readerships by simply throwing out random ideas, but taking some original ideas, mixing in some assimilated/compiled knowledge and writing it into a compelling narrative that makes you want to read more.
Don’t read the news. I have found that since I quit paying attention to the news my reading has picked up. I don’t think your average person – myself included – has the ability to read nonstop 24 hours a day. Eyes get tired, for example. So I was expending a significant amount of my limited ‘reading attention’ on articles about Iraq or Paris Hilton or the stock market. None of that writing really helps me improve my own, because it is often formulaic and static. There are a few ways news writing is helpful: brevity, catchy headlines and descriptiveness. But in general putting down the paper, for me, has meant picking up a book.
I don’t like to revise. Maybe it’s because of my typing skills, combined with the magic of spellcheckers to catch typos, but I hate to revise. Once the words spill out, I don’t like to go back and re-read and edit. I do… but not because that’s my normal style. I recognize that what may sound good in my head may not sound natural if read out loud, or read after a good night’s sleep, or read without hearing the background narrative that’s rolling around in my head (yes, I just said I hear voices in my head, but they are friendly voices, people). So I usually write something, then set it aside and re-read it a day later to see if it still looks good after the ink dries, so to speak.
I am the greatest writer in the world. That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? I thought for a long time no-one would ever be interested in my writing, or that I had much interesting to say. I think now that almost everyone has something interesting to say, but not everyone takes the effort to put it in writing. I decided that there was no reason I couldn’t be a great writer. I may not ever achieve that goal, but I see little harm in imagining that I will. I think of it as a win-win: there may not be a single greatest writer in the world. Maybe there are many, and maybe if the motivation is right anyone can be the greatest in their world.
If you are a writer (blogger, IM’er, or even a traditional pen-and-paper scribbler) what can you say about your own writing?