I’ve been spending a lot of my time the last three months the same way I spend my time when I am normally home – at my desk, writing. Or, to be more precise, not writing, but looking at the keyboard and the screen and thinking about vacuuming the house or getting something to eat or what emails I haven’t answered and bills I have yet to pay. And then there follows a burst of writing, and after a while I have lot of words to edit and finally my article is done or there’s another page to the book I’m working on.
Writing is weird. You start with a blank page, though of course these days it’s a blank screen. At some point you have to fill it. If you don’t then you never get to write anything and when you are a writer you need to publish so you can get paid. In that sense it’s like every other job. What I tell people who ask about it is that to be successful as a writer you have to make it a job. If you wait until you “feel” like writing you will never write anything. It’s something you have to be disciplined about.
There are all sorts of ways I have heard about. I know one fellow, reasonably successful; for a while he had a regular column in the Wall Street Journal. His system was some crazy combination of 19 segments of seven minutes each (I am not kidding here) set to a desktop timer. He had to write to 14 of them each morning, with the other five segments of seven minutes each set aside for breaks. Each day he spent just over two hours working and wrote for a little more than an hour and a half of it.
My own method is not quite so disciplined, but I do write every day. Twice a week I write these blog posts. I also write a lot of freelance articles, most of them about golf – which I have been doing for 30 years now. I also write books, something I started as an academic back in the late 1980s and which I have continued in the golf world, having now finished nine of those. Most of writing is not about writing but editing, fixing and adjusting the flow so that there’s a continuous narrative that’s all self-contained.
The one key to writing and editing is that no one ever knows or cares about what you leave out. They only know what’s there. So you have worry about making that complete and interesting. It also means you have to cut out your own words when they don’t fit, even when you are emotionally wedded to them.
I don’t know if it helps or hurts me but I never learned properly to type. I do a version of high-speed hunt and peck. I can type about 40-50 words a minute. When I am on and have found a certain rhythm the words fill up the screen very quickly. My best writing comes fast, without thinking. The first draft of this piece took 20 minutes. It’s taken another hour to edit, though I will surely miss out on something. I am a terrible editor of my own work but a very good editor of other writers and have line-edited 50 or so manuscripts for publishing houses.
Writer’s block is a function of worrying about how others will perceive your work. That concern will paralyze anyone. It’s important when writing to decide who you are going to piss off and who you are trying to speak to. The worst thing you can do while writing is to try to please everyone. That’s a sure-fire formula for producing dull, lifeless prose.
One thing I learned in my years as an academic was never to write like other academics. They tend to depersonalize everything, removing themselves from the text and producing work that feels robotic and disconnected. My own writing draws upon feelings, emotions, ideas and images I can recall from my first encounter with the subject. There are moments when I can immerse myself back in time and reproduce the feelings I had 40 or 50 years ago. That’s what I rely upon. That and a good opening line.
It’s all about intros. I can’t physically start writing without a snappy intro. You can do all the research and interviewing you want but without a proper intro nothing ever writes itself easily. Intros are hard to plan. They show up in my head when I am in all sorts of places – the shower, watching TV, or idling at a red light. The moment an intro line appears I try to remember it, to repeat it out loud,. Sometimes I even write it down – though I am lax about doing so and occasionally lose the line before getting to my desk.
Good writing is also about what are called “outros” or kicker lines. This refers to the way you finish off a piece. Kicker lines are different in origin than intros. They emerge organically from the writing itself. They show up on their own, like cold pizza or leftovers you forgot about and discover only when poking through the refrigerator. You never know when you will get to it. Sometimes you just look up and there they are. So you stop.