In today’s post, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest author Jack Hart provides some helpful writing advice, geared toward academic and non-academic authors alike. Jack Hart is a former managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian and is the author of Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction and A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work. This post is bound to inspire you to get out of your writer’s rut!
“Writing is easy,” Gene Fowler famously said. “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” All you have to do to write, Red Smith said, was “open a vein.” Other wordsmiths have talked about bleeding at their keyboards, turning out words in blood, and producing poems “drop by drop.”
Writing is a process, of course. It starts with idea development, involves research and organizing, and ends with polishing. But there’s no doubt that drafting, the stage that Fowler found so daunting, causes the most agony, the kind of pain that has led to torrents of blood metaphors.
Most of those come from journalism and fiction writing, and I can vouch for the misery both can generate. But I’ve done my share of academic writing, too. And I fully sympathize with anybody who has to grind out a journal article, monograph, or convention paper. If anything, the precision that scholarly work demands makes the writing even bloodier.
Whatever the genre, writing will never be easy. But the research shows that certain tactics for turning out first drafts not only ease the pain, but also improve the work.
My own experience confirms that. I’ve worked as an editor in newsrooms big and small. And for decades I routinely administered writing questionnaires when I taught at newspapers, magazines, and professional workshops. Invariably, the writers who were happiest and most productive had a similar game plan.
Somehow they’d learned what both writing professionals and academics say is the secret to successful drafting — operating with a split personality. The pros say that the happiest, most productive writers approach their rough drafts as a literary version of Mr. Hyde. They cast civilized restraint aside, letting an uninhibited process of creation carry them quickly through the first version of the story. They don’t stop. They don’t revise. They don’t look back. They push relentlessly forward, seldom even consulting their notes as they rough out a draft.
Only when they’re finished with that first version do they slip back into a Dr. Jekyll persona. Then they sweat each detail, checking facts for accuracy, revising sentences for rhythm, and scrutinizing words for precise meaning.
Former Los Angeles Times writing coach Bob Baker heartily endorses this Hyde-and-Jekyll process. “What I am asking you to do,” he says in his book, News Thinking, “is to become selectively schizophrenic. I am asking you to shift gears after you finish typing and before you start editing.”
Bill Blundell draws the same distinction in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. “The storyteller,” he says, “selectively becomes two people as he works. The first is the sensitive artist-creator, the second a critic who savages every weakness in the creation.”
The research backs up the experts. Two Harvard psychologists, V.A. Howard and J.H. Barton, summarize existing studies in their book Thinking on Paper with the observation that drafting involves “intuition, imagination, risk-taking, a headlong plunge down new corridors of thought and experience.” Only after the draft is finished, they conclude, does the writer give way to “cool detachment, doubt, skepticism, testing, rigorous assessments of logic and evidence.”
One thing virtually all observers say is that we should place fewer demands on ourselves when we’re drafting. If we let harping little voices pick, pick, pick as we write, they will sap our confidence, create tension, and paralyze our creative subconscious. At their worst, these hobgoblins of the keyboard can freeze us up entirely, creating the dreaded writer’s block. And, as poet William Stafford put it, “the cure to writer’s block is to lower your standards.”
In other words, don’t futz.
Trying to get every sentence perfect during drafting is a fool’s errand. Wait until the polish stage before sweating the small stuff. The important thing at the drafting stage is roughing out what will later become a finely finished piece of work.
A food writer who attended one of my workshops passed along this metaphor: Master furniture makers, she said, don’t cut out one leg of a table, sand it, stain it and shellac it before going on to the next leg. If they did, the completed creation would be a mess of mismatched pieces. Instead, they create the entire table out of rough lumber first. Then they sand and stain and polish to a high gloss.
Unfortunately, the way we’re trained to write often encourages the one-leg-at-a-time approach. We are urged to watch ourselves at every step of the draft, guarding against typos, grammatical mixups, and factual errors. We’re told to write the perfect first sentence before we write anything else. We’re taught to be cautious and critical, when we should be cavalier and creative. As a result, we work with imaginary editors at our shoulders, dwelling on the ways that mistakes can damage our careers, ruin our reputations, or embarrass our institutions.
But some writers manage to push all these gremlins to the side. They draft easily, naturally, armored against anxiety-producing distractions with tactics that keep them moving ahead along the paths they have set for themselves. If they have doubts about a fact, they flag it for checking later. If they need a quotation or some other tidbit from their notes, they mark the spot and move along. They stroll through their assignments at a steady, even pace.
And they never leave a single drop of blood on their keyboards.
Jack Hart’s latest book, Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest, is a murder mystery set in the 1980s Pacific Northwest. In the book, Hart masterfully interweaves a suspenseful plot with richly observed Pacific Northwest history and a vivid picture of a community on the brink of change. Hear him read from the book at these upcoming events
Elliott Bay Books, Seattle, April 18 at 7:00 p.m.
Powell’s City of Books, Portland, April 29 at 7:30 p.m.
University Book Store, Seattle, June 10 at 7:00 p.m.
Village Books, Bellingham, June 14 at 7:00 p.m.