I resolved at the end of 2011 to blog about writing every day in 2012. I also resolved to lose some weight. I did about half as well in both categories as I had hoped. I was coming off a great couple of years writing—I published 3 books in 2011 and had 2 scheduled to appear in 2012—and I wanted to put some of my experiences as a busy, active writer in print. I was also teaching my first writing course at Gordon College and wanted to share some of my “insider” experiences with my students.
I am officially awakening my writing blog after its summer slumber, inspired by my great class of writing students at Stonehill College, especially those who promised to carefully read any comments I put on their papers.
We talked a bit in class today about the steps involved in writing. I am hoping to move the class past the “one-click” approach that for writing is “Do one hasty draft at the last minute and hope it looks edited and polished.”
I write almost everything in the same way, whether a blog on the Huffington Post, an op-ed in the NY Times or a book for Harvard University Press, although such different projects employ these strategies in very different ways. In all cases though, I have 4 basic steps, which I think any experienced writer will recognize.
1) Before you write a sentence have a conversation with yourself.
A) What do you want to say in your piece? Too often writers will simply write “about” a topic, without identifying what message they want to leave with the reader. In my book that just came out last week, Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story, I wanted specifically to make the scientific account of origins—from the Big Bang to the present—sound like a grand narrative with a direction and a purpose, as if it was going somewhere. This guided all my prose construction.
B) Who are you writing to? You should have an audience in mind. Quite literally it can be useful to picture this audience. As I write this right now, I am picturing my students at Stonehill. This doesn’t restrict my audience, of course, it just guides my choices as I write and reminds me not to write for my editors.
C) Why are YOU writing this? This rule is much easier for an experienced writer, of course, since you have a better sense of who you are. I can respond to this question: “I have written 9 books on science and religion and am qualified to write on this topic.” (This is a boring response, though.) My actual response for Seven Glorious Days as I was developing the project was more like “I know enough about the Big Bang, astrophysics, geology, solar systems, biochemistry, evolution, human origins, and anthropology to join all these together into a narrative. And I know the Biblical story and rhetoric well enough to make them fit together. If you are a student you might answer this important identity question by noting that you are fully bilingual and so have something to say about languages; or you played Little League for 4 years; or you really love your grandparents; or you almost died in an accident.
D) What great stories do you have? We have all great stories and sometimes all that is needed is the courage to tell them. Most of us have interesting anecdotes that can bring our writing to life. If you think someone should read your writing, then you should be OK with telling them your stories.
2) Always make a rough draft, from a sketchy outline (which, if I am honest, is often only in my head). Short pieces often don’t need outlines, but 80,000-word books certainly do. I pay close attention to word counts as I write to avoid spending too much time on early topics and running out of space. My current book project has two many words in the first half, so I have some work to do to fix that. Writing too much can be a waste of time but it does give you room to cut weaker material. I pay no attention to mistakes as I go and avoid diversions. I don’t stop for footnotes or fact checking. I make notes to myself: “Find better example,” or “Use a baseball analogy.” I insert ***** for information I don’t have and come back later. The goal is to get your rough draft in place so you can start to think about how it all hangs together. You know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln died, so there is no danger in postponing your visit to Wikipedia until your draft is done. I do the same thing with footnotes, often just putting “get footnote” or “I think there is something in that book by Koestler” where the footnote should be. There is great value in having a completed draft so you can think about your piece as a whole. I find this is also true for a book length draft. Returning to edit the first chapter, after you have written the last chapter, gives you a great perspective on where your project is going.
3) After I have a draft I like, I correct and finish it but I don’t polish it yet because I don’t want to think about polishing prose at the same time I am doing book-keeping: Filling in gaps, getting footnotes, fact checking, looking for detours, etc.
4) Polish the prose. This is the part I like the best—playing with words. I fix boring sentences. I think about ledes. I look for mixed metaphors—“He dove right in and headed down the highway.” I try to eliminate passive voice, which is often hard and sometimes not advisable. I look at my verbs—are they strong? Do they convey the full sense that I want? Are they interesting? Boring is bad. Totally bad. I always look closely at my word count and watch it drop while I polish. Editing often involves nothing more than eliminating waste words. You see the sentence: “After having looked at the first century of American history, I will now attempt to explain why the second century is basically a repeat of the first;” and you gag and change it to “America’s first century is also its second.” The idea is always to help your reader move from one idea to the next without have to pass through thickets of irrelevant prose. I once edited a 10,000-word chapter down to 9000 words without eliminating a single idea.
I should polish this blog some more but I am not going to…I lost 8 pounds so far this year, by the way. Eliminating words is much easier than eliminating pounds.