Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune on February 21, 1992
I’ve been sitting here for two hours trying to write this. And what do I have to show for my time? Not a thing. Nothing but frustration.
I keep going back and forth from my writing pad to my word-processing screen, hoping that changing the medium will somehow make the words flow. I’ve gathered and sharpened all the pencils I could find in the house. Nothing helps. I’ve even gotten down on all fours to work on a new trick I’m teaching Molly, my Old English Sheepdog. (I’m showing her how to push a toy baby stroller across the floor with her nose.) Any diversion at all seems to hold my attention better than my writing assignment.
In a word, I’m blocked.
I call a friend, who tells me my problem is obvious: confusion over my purpose in writing, insecurity regarding my audience, inadequate knowledge of my material, failure to approach writing as a process, and perfectionism coupled with negative thinking.
The solution, she assures me, is equally obvious. Here’s her advice – not that it will do me any good:
Think of writing as a process. Writing is not a single-step event but a process with at least four distinct phases. These include pre-writing, drafting, revising, and presenting text. You’re more likely to get stuck if you try to write final copy in a single step, without, for example, first doing your pre-writing work: determining your purpose, understanding your audience, and knowing your material. Skip the first stage and you may find that the words just won’t come. When this happens, the real problem, according to my friend, is not language but approach.
Allow yourself the freedom of an imperfect first draft. Hemingway (never one to follow his own advice) was fond of saying, “The only thing that matters about your first draft is that you finish it.” In other words, just do it. Give yourself the benefit of sketching out a draft that is nothing more than a beginning. This frees you from the tyranny of perfectionism. It’s a wonderful freedom. Once you’ve created a text, you can always go back and rewrite and polish and fuss over it. The idea is to “get it written, not right.”
Develop good writing habits. My friend also told me that writing comes more easily if you write at the same time every day. Some of her friends even make appointments with themselves to protect their writing time. They believe that keeping a regular writing schedule helps their minds and bodies develop a kind of rhythm, so that when it comes time to write they are more likely to have the energy and concentration that writing demands. Some even reserve a certain place in their home or office where they do nothing but write. They don’t balance their checkbooks there, and they don’t talk on the phone there. When they sit in that certain place, they write.
Think positively – about yourself and about your ability to write. The novelist Gail Godwin once told my friend about a trick she uses to silence that inner critical voice that we all hear sometimes. Godwin thinks of this self-censoring tendency in terms of Freud’s notion of the Watcher at the Gate, a little creature that sits perched on the edge of your subconscious mind. Even as your thoughts are first taking shape, this creature says things such as, “Stupid. Unoriginal. Doesn’t sound right. Don’t let it out.” When Godwin hears this inner voice, she looks the Watcher at the Gate right in the eye and says, “Be quiet. I know you’re there. You have a legitimate role to play, but you’re too early. First I create. Then I revise.”
Well, that’s what my friend told me about overcoming writer’s block. I hope you find her advice helpful. I don’t. I don’t think I’ll ever get this written either. Even if I do, it probably won’t be any good.
by Stephen Wilbers
What is it about writing that makes it so hard to write that first
sentence? There may be as many answers to that question as there are
writers, but I suspect the most common cause of writer’s block is
perfectionism: trying to create perfect copy in the first draft.
If we could just remember Ernest Hemingway’s observation – the only thing that matters about our first draft is that we finish it – getting our thoughts down might not seem so overwhelming. Instead, what we (or at least I) tend to do is write a few words, edit, write a few words, edit, creeping along in stop-and-go fashion, pausing to correct every problem and to worry about every unmet expectation before proceeding.
There was at least one time, however, when I didn’t fall prey to the tinker-as-you-go approach, and it was the most pleasant writing experience I can remember.
The occasion was an online interview with NovelAdvice.com, a Web page for writers. Rather than talk with me in person or on the phone, managing editor Marcia Krech explained, she wanted to conduct the interview in writing. She would send me a list of questions, and I was to respond by a certain deadline.
When the questions arrived, I looked them over and began thinking about them, even though I knew I wouldn’t have time to write my responses until sometime the following week. That was my first good move. Rather than close my mind to the assignment ("I don’t have time to think about this now!"), I opened my mind to it. Then, at odd moments over the next few days, I found myself reflecting on who would be reading the interview, how to be most helpful to those readers, what points I wanted to emphasize, and how I might word my responses.
Good move No. 2 was to set aside time for drafting. I knew I would be working at a dead run until the following Friday, when I would be leaving for an out-of-town business trip. (Well, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly business – it was a sailing trip on Lake Superior, but I did plan to do some thinking about business.) One hour, maybe two, on Friday morning was all the time I could give to drafting my responses.
Good move No. 3 represented a discovery about the process of writing: As I got started, I decided to make my writing session as much like an in-person interview as possible. In other words, rather than laboring over each question, meticulously planning my wording and editing as I went, I decided to write my responses as quickly and freely as possible, knowing I would come back later to revise.
That was the key: not worrying about how it was all going to fit together, just emulating the flow of conversational responses. The questions were before me. All I had to do was answer them.
To my delight, I discovered the more I relaxed, the more readily the words came, with one idea suggesting another. Later, when I went back to edit, I found that the copy produced by this let-it-flow approach needed no more editing than copy produced by my usual stop-and-go method.
That’s when I realized the value of the question-and-answer format for drafting: If you compile a list of carefully considered questions, spend some time reflecting on them, and then draft your responses as quickly and freely as possible, writing will be a breeze – oops, there I go again. Hyperbole aside, you might find that creating your first draft is relatively painless, if not enjoyable.
Why not try this approach the next time you find yourself procrastinating over a writing assignment? Perhaps the best way to overcome writer’s block is simply to ask the right questions, and then answer them.
by Stephen Wilbers
If you want to learn something about yourself as a writer, copy down this phrase: "I hate to write when . . ."
Or, if you prefer, "I love to write when . . ." If the word "love" is too strong, try "like."
Now take two minutes and write down your thoughts about the things that make writing difficult – or rewarding – for you. Write without stopping to edit or fuss over your wording. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure. Just write down your thoughts as they occur to you. Let one idea lead to another.
I’ve done this exercise with many groups of writers over the years. I enjoy feeling the creative energy well up and fill the room. The scritch-scritch of pens moving across paper or the tippidy-tap of fingers striking keyboards is music to my ears.
In addition to the pleasure of group writing, I’ve learned a few things about the psychology of writing. For example, I’ve learned that many people’s positive or negative feelings about writing depend on their attitude toward three things – purpose, audience, and topic.
Here, more specifically, are the factors that seem to influence people’s attitude about writing:Understanding of purpose: It’s easier to write if you know why you are writing. If you are unclear – or uneasy – about your purpose, writing is more of a challenge.
Commitment to the task: Attitude is everything. If you care about your objectives and if the purpose of the assignment is personally meaningful to you, you are more likely to commit the necessary time and energy to be successful.
Feelings about the reader: To write to a sympathetic reader who is open to your ideas and suggestions is a pleasure. To write to a harsh critic who is likely to criticize every word you write is a burden.
Knowledge of the topic: Nothing beats knowing your stuff. The more comfortable you are with your material, the more readily you can work with it, organize it, and present it in ways that are relevant to your reader.
Interest in the topic: Some topics are simply more fun to write about than others. Personally, I’m a sucker for language, literature, music, art, natural history, the outdoors, and nature. All I have to do is shoulder a canoe or catch a whiff of a musty Duluth pack, for example, and I’m having fun, even before I’m on the water or in the woods. And if I can’t be in one of my favorite places, writing and thinking about it is the next best thing.
In addition to factors relating to purpose, audience, and topic, many writers are influenced by their level of confidence regarding their writing skills. What about you? Are you confident of your ability to write effectively? If not, are you working to improve your skills?
Whatever your feelings about writing, you might be encouraged by these observations:
*Getting started is usually the hardest part. Once you’ve begun, you’re likely to take pleasure in the process of creating something worthwhile. Many writers love to have written more than they love to write.
*Avoidance is your enemy. The more frequently you write, the less burdensome it becomes.
*Everyone makes mistakes, and few if any writers produce perfect text. Remember: Don’t try to be perfect; just try to be good.
by Stephen Wilbers
It’s Monday morning when you see the message. Your boss wants you to write
a report on a topic that is not particularly interesting to you.
The report is needed by Thursday afternoon, but there are at least a dozen other things you must do before you can get to this assignment. Wednesday morning is the earliest you’ll be able to begin pulling together information and drafting.
So what do you do?Scenario 1
You put it completely out of your mind. You say to yourself, "I’m too busy to even think about this. I can’t possibly begin writing until Wednesday morning at the earliest. There are all these other things I need to accomplish before I can do this."
Wednesday morning comes around. Your other assignments are more or less taken care of. It’s time to begin working on your report. You sit down at your computer, and – you’re blocked.
"This is going to be so much work," you tell yourself, "and I’m not in the mood to do it."
It takes you a long time to get started. By lunchtime you have accomplished very little, and now you’re getting anxious because the report is due the next day. You know that whatever you do now won’t be your best writing.
As in Scenario 1, you’re not thrilled by this assignment. Rather than put it out of your mind, however, you tell yourself, "I’m so incredibly busy this week. I can’t possibly start writing this report until Wednesday morning. But despite how busy I am, I can take two minutes now to think about what I’ll need to do when the time comes to write."
You sit down at your computer – or perhaps with a tablet of paper – and you start making notes. You don’t take time to worry about word choice or sentence structure; you just jot down your thoughts and ideas as they occur to you. Two minutes later you stop making notes, and you move on to your other assignments.
Wednesday morning comes around. Your other assignments are more or less taken care of. It’s time to start writing.
As you sit down to write, you realize you’ve been thinking about this assignment off and on over the past two days. You already have some ideas about what you need to do.
The words may not flow effortlessly, but they do come, and you’re able to finish your first draft in time to do some editing and revising. You know this is going to be one of your better pieces of writing.
The difference between these two scenarios?
In the first, you created an obstacle you had to overcome later. When you put the assignment out of your mind, you closed a door. Then when it came time to write, you had to expend some mental energy to open that door.
In the second scenario you took just enough time to begin the process. Then for two days, perhaps even as you were doing other things, you were working on your assignment. When it came time to write, rather than make a cold start, you made a warm one. You were ready to go.
So don’t create obstacles for yourself. Start thinking early, and keep the door open.
by Stephen Wilbers
Why is it so much easier to speak than to write?
The answer is obvious: When we speak – at least informally – we have lower expectations.
When we speak, we concentrate naturally on the three components of communication – purpose, message, and audience. We are pragmatic. We are intent. Sometimes we become so focused we forget about style or even some of the rules of grammar, but generally we get the job done.
When speaking, we usually begin our sentences without having planned or rehearsed their endings. We simply begin.
We start speaking with a reasonable degree of confidence that we will complete each sentence sensibly, or at least somewhat coherently. One word leads to the next, one thought inspires another, and, as in all good conversations, the thoughts begin to flow.
Contrast this approach with the typical writing experience: We sit frozen at our keyboards, sounding out the words, conducting a silent, sometimes desperate rehearsal inside our heads, afraid to commit ourselves to one possible version over another.
Then, if we ever make it past total paralysis, we write a few tentative words, stop, look them over, sound them out again, and start revising. We laboriously construct our sentences one line at a time, like a perfectionist bricklayer laying and relaying a row of bricks, and by the time we’re satisfied that any given sentence might stand we’ve forgotten what we were planning to say in the next one.
The problem with the stop-revise-and-go method of drafting is that it usually involves more stop than go, and the qualities we often associate with conversation – fluency, spontaneity, candor, and authenticity – are lost.
No innocent bystander to this debacle, our computer feeds our compulsion to rethink and revise like a fast-food restaurant serving up super-sized portions to an overindulging public. It sends us all the wrong signals. With a red squiggly line here and a host of word alternatives there, its message is clear: Stop composing and start revising. Fix this. Change that. Make it perfect as you go.
The standard solution to overcoming the impulse toward incessant revision is simply to keep going. As Dorothea Brande, Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, and others have advised, write without stopping. Allow yourself to be carried away by your thoughts. Write at a gallop, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, so that your internal critics are left behind.
The only problem with this standard advice – advice I myself have given – is that it’s impractical. Writing without stopping is great for brain-storming, and it’s wonderful as a warm-up exercise, but creating a first draft that way is likely to produce something far from usable copy.
The more I think about writing – both as a teacher and a practitioner – the more I believe that the best advice is not to eliminate editing as we draft, but to minimize it.
Rereading what we have written serves a purpose. It can help us stay on track, even help us find our next words, but we should challenge ourselves to see how far we can go before we look back.
Perhaps we should think of drafting not as galloping but as walking. We might not move quickly, and sometimes we might lose our way, but if we just keep moving forward, eventually we’ll arrive at our destination.