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No one way to write

David Bowman, who tweets as @PreciseEdit, suggested last week: “Understand your ideas thoroughly before you begin typing. Then make the words fit the ideas.”

There are people who write like that. The blind John Milton turned over the enormous complexity of lines of Paradise Lost in his head at night and then dictated fresh passages in the morning, saying that he needed to be “milked.”

Of course, people who write extended works, such as books, have to develop methods of planning and organization: outlines, by chapter and within chapters; slips of paper with key passages or passages to be quoted; index cards by the dozen pinned to the wall, and then rearranged. I find myself turning over phrases in my head, in the shower, on walks, or as I pace the room restlessly.

For shorter efforts, a rough outline scribbled on a piece of paper or a handful of key sentences and phrases may be enough to get you started.

But you have to be careful about the advice people give you, because writing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and not every writer has thought through his or her ideas thoroughly before taking up the pen or sitting down at the keyboard.

Writing is also a process of discovery, and many of us also discover what our ideas are as we struggle to express them.* Sometimes you have to set out with a sentence and no clear idea of where you are going after that.

Such an approach, of course, demands revision. You identify false starts. You delete whole paragraphs of aimless wandering. You take what was at the bottom and move it to the top. You prune ruthlessly. Sometimes, if you have the courage, you throw it all away and start over.

Writing, in plain fact, is not an efficient process. It is inherently messy and time-consuming. It is all measure once, cut twice. You, like Milton, may cast and recast in your head before you are ready to put words down—and we have no reason to think that Milton himself did not revise and recast those initial drafts. Or you, like most of us, may struggle and groan and stare at the wall or window and pace before you can get the damned thing into some kind of reasonable shape. Even when it goes smoothly (you should be suspicious when it does), you will need to go back and give it a good, hard look and fix things.

It’s up to you to settle on a method, rather than to accommodate yourself to someone else’s method. Once you find what works for you, writing will become a little easier.

But not much.


*Thus the remark attributed to W.H. Auden: “Let me see what I wrote so I know what I think.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:11 AM | | Comments (2)


Another cite from the collection:

"People think that you have these things called ideas and that writing is a matter of imposing them on the subject material, whereas it's only in the writing that I discover what it is that I think."

-- Anthony Lane

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” - Joan Didion

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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