How to make writing less hard

Inspired in part by the return of an age-old discussion about how bad Judith Butler's writing is (answer: it's pretty bad!) I've been thinking about advice on how to write well. I've argued before that a large proportion of such advice is useless, or self-contradictory, or regularly ignored by the person dispensing it. ("Omit needless words," declares William Strunk, in The Elements of Style. Well, yes, but if you already know a word is needless, you shouldn't need to be told to omit it, and if you don't know it's needless, how is Strunk's advice going to help?)

 

Still, three pieces of advice have made a concrete difference to my own productivity as a writer – and I think also to the quality of my writing, though that's not for me to say. Here they are, in case they might help you too:

 

Good writing is pointing out. 

 

As Steven Pinker notes in his book The Sense of Style, writing is cognitively unnatural: it's such a new way of communicating, on the timescale of human evolution, that it's little wonder we struggle. So it helps to approach it by means of an analogy with something we did evolve to do. Quoting the academics Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, Pinker suggests approaching writing as if you were pointing something in the environment out to another person – something that she would notice for herself, if only she knew where to look. Imagine directing someone's gaze across a valley, to a specific house on the other side. "You should pretend," writes Pinker, "that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, and that you're directing the attention of your reader to that thing." He calls this the "joint attention" strategy.

 

Which sounds obvious, except that it makes immediately clear how many writers are doing something else. Academics are often more focused on showing off their knowledge, or their membership in an exclusive circle (or in Butler's case, trying to create an "aura of importance", in Martha Nussbaum's view.) Journalists are often trying to inflame your anger, or rally support for some cause.

 

Using the "joint attention" strategy makes it easier to see which details are essential and which aren't – and it helps you tread the narrow path between patronizing your reader and providing them with insufficient information. It's not that they're stupid and you're enlightening them, but nor are they already inside your head. So you have to show them what you've noticed. Look, over there: can you see?

 

Stopping is as crucial as starting. 

 

You've presumably read a hundred pieces on the importance of a writing schedule, or aiming for a minimum number of words per day. But the big lesson I took from Robert Boice's psychology study How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency is that what really matters is stopping once you've met your word goal or completed your scheduled writing session. (And Boice suggests these should start very short indeed, like 10 or 15 minutes.) Don't keep going, even if you're on a roll. Make yourself get up, walk away, and do something else. 

 

This will feel all wrong: shouldn't you seize the momentum and get more done? No, Boice insists. The urge to push onwards "includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time" for work. If you keep going, you'll reinforce your worst impulses, whereas walking away helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to your writing project, day after day. And short work periods will ensure that writing remains something only modestly central to your life, which will prevent it becoming too intimidatingly scary to confront. 

 

If you're staring at a blank page, you're doing it wrong. 

 

This deserves a longer treatment, but here's the short version: consider shifting some of the energy you spend on writing away from the creation of finished products (articles, short stories, whatever) and onto the ongoing maintenance of some kind of system for storing and fleshing out your ideas. Sitting down to write an article or story shouldn't be the beginning of a process, in which you have to decide what to write about, then go do research, think of things to say, etcetera. That's the arduous path. The easier one is to keep a constantly expanding storehouse of notes on what you're reading and conversations you're having, observations on life, shower thoughts, and so on. That way, sitting down to write an article is just the end stage of the process, a matter of bringing together various insights, facts and quotes you've been collecting and cross-fertilizing for months. 

 

The hardcore way to do this is to create a "Zettelkasten" system, as outlined by Sönke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes (which is worth reading even if you don't decide to implement the whole thing). My version of this approach is still embryonic. But already it's clear that as it reaches a critical mass, it begins, in an almost magical fashion, to generate its "own" ideas, almost as if it were a human collaborator. At the very least, start keeping an ideas file, and carry a notebook wherever you go. Writing can be hard, but there's no need to make matters worse by starting each project from scratch. 

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