Whether I’m writing for work, school, or to keep in touch with friends in distant places, staying engaged throughout the writing process is everything. To be honest, thinking about the writing process tends to bore me. I spend more time thinking about writing than I do actually writing, so I find it helpful to draw connections between the writing process and aspects of my life that are a bit more exciting in order to stay engaged. With this in mind, I’ll compare my personal writing process to running a river.
Running challenging whitewater involves planning, more planning, and careful execution. This isn’t all that different from the writing process. As previously mentioned, I spend a lot of time thinking about whatever writing project I’m about to start working on before I put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. Much like I plan a detailed, safe line through a complex rapid and discuss it with my boating partners before shoving off into the current, I mentally organize my thoughts for a writing project, jot down notes about the mental outline on paper, discuss it with colleagues or peers if possible, and then start writing. When I’m lucky, the words flow like water. When I’m not, I usually end up doing something else and returning to the project later when I’m ready to focus and commit.
The best way to improve my paddling skills is to get out on the water as much as possible. Similarly, the best way to improve my writing skills is to practice writing as often as I can, and to read as much as possible. Through practice, skills are honed, technique is polished, deadlines are met, and boredom is kept at bay.
Brian French is the Director of the Undergraduate Advising Center and an avid whitewater paddler.
I had a few good writing teachers during my school days. I had more than a few who were not so good. Mostly I learned to write by reading and absorbing words and structure organically.
I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well in my early 20’s. It was like pouring a bottle of Drano into my brain. It dissolved nasty clogs created by years of writing curriculum sludge. Instead of telling me to avoid dangling participles and split infinitives, Zinsser suggested I “get people doing things.”
Zinsser’s teaching was simple and it stuck. I was grateful, but a little ticked off. Why the hell hadn’t anyone taught me to write like this before?
These days I have a job communicating complex technology issues to non-technical people. Often those people are campus administrators who have the daunting task of making strategic decisions about bewildering concepts. Technology presentations are never welcome agenda items at Presidential cabinet meetings. It’s discouraging to hear groans and see eyes roll before a word is spoken, but I can’t blame them. When IT shows up, we might as well be yakking about dangling participles and split infinitives.
I know that the way I can make a difference in my job is to communicate about technology the way Zinsser wrote about writing. It’s a work in progress.
I’ve stumbled on some great books that pick up where Zinsser left off. If I could recommend just one, it would be Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heaths’ mnemonic device “SUCCES” reminds me that the best writing is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and delivered in the form of a story.
Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin and his recently released Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work, have helped me appreciate the power of pictures. Thinking and connecting and communicating don’t have to be limited to words.
I’ve improved my creative processes by learning more about how my brain works. Perhaps my favorite book on the subject is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Now instead of creating hierarchical outlines to guide my writing, I draw mind maps to help me see how ideas relate to each other.
New ideas seem to absorb more slowly in midlife, and skill improvement can be painfully incremental. But I keep feeding my brain and my writing is getting better, I think. Now I just need to get braver.
Gordy Pace is Communications Director for UM Information Technology
Even after writing professionally for 35 years, I still rely heavily upon outlining to organize my thoughts and to develop an effective document.
For a document of any length at all, whether that is a proposal, the text of a speech, a research paper, or a letter to a policy-maker, I first write up an outline the way we were all taught in K-12 school. I try to get the outline the way I want it before spending any real time writing the text itself.When actually writing, the first sentence of the paragraph needs to amplify the point made by that section of the outline.
I generally rewrite multiple times, and try to find someone else to read it before sending it in.
Something that helps me a great deal, but I usually can’t find time to do anymore, is to take a long walk to think about the document before I even put an outline together. In my early days as a chemistry faculty member, I have fond memories of long walks along the Missouri River to think about my next research proposal!
Royce C. Engstrom is President of The University of Montana
by Tobin Miller Shearer (African-American Studies/History)
It all comes down to when I eat my oatmeal.
I discovered this oatmeal insight into when I write best in the midst of writing my doctoral dissertation. The thing you have to understand from the outset is that I wrote my dissertation in my early 40s after having been out of the academic loop for fifteen years. During that time I wrote two books and a bunch of articles for a variety of popular and religious presses, but I hadn’t yet discovered how I wrote best. I knew that I didn’t like to write under deadline pressure, that I always had to go through at least two major re-writes, and that I would get sleepy if I wrote after exercising and eating breakfast. Entire mornings would be lost to a belly full of oatmeal after a six-mile run. Some mornings I was lucky to eke out more than a sentence or two if I had pushed the pace or eaten a second bowl of cereal.
When I was faced with the need to produce a historical piece of writing in a limited time, I realized that something needed to change. Given that a generous doctoral fellowship freed me from teaching responsibilities, I decided that I would reorder my day. Rather than get up and run, eat breakfast, and then write, I would get up and write for three or four hours and then exercise and take in morning fuel. Within a week, I realized that I was on to something. No longer was I nodding off while trying to think of the best way to avoid the passive voice. That foggy feeling of fuzzy-headed satiation disappeared. I became more productive. The writing flowed more smoothly. I’ve never gone back.
Nearly six years later, I still get up about 5:30 five days a week and write. Some days, I’m able to work for four hours. Others, just an hour. But by writing first thing, every morning, I spend less time trying to remember where I left off, what I’m trying to say, and why I want to say it.
Of course, the things that worked for me before the oatmeal insight still apply. Some mornings are more productive than others – occasionally I’ll spend an hour on a paragraph, sometimes just a sentence. I usually write 3-4 drafts of an article or chapter before I’m ready to submit. I like to write from an outline, re-outline, and then draft again. I write best in conversation with other writers, which means I actively seek out readers at earlier stages in my writing than later ones.
But those are things I already knew before the oatmeal insight.
It is only after the oatmeal insight that I’ve come to recognize, as I once heard another writer opine, the only thing that sets a writer apart from other people is that a writer writes. Once I figured out how I could regularly and consistently get myself to type words on the screen, the rest got a bit easier. Not easy, mind you. Writing is always hard work.
But, for me, the process of writing before my belly got bloated made all the difference.
Over the years I’ve developed a procedure for writing—in my case, producing literary criticism—and I hadn’t much thought about it until invited to contribute to this blog. I can imagine a better approach than mine but, because it has generated several books and a number of articles, I’m not going to change anything.
When I read a literary text I think I might want to write about, I highlight all the passages that appeal to my interests. Occasionally, not often, I’ll annotate something. When I’m done reading I go back through the highlighted bits and, on paper or computer, make a list of their page numbers and attach a topic label to each one. Then I think about the various topics that have arisen, and usually, by this time, I more or less know what I want to focus on. Notecards that I could shuffle and categorize might work better, but I find looking over the same material again and again, inefficiently trying to find this or that passage, allows me to understand my writing project better and to see new possibilities. Some kind of order gradually arises from this relative chaos, and by the time I’m done with the process I have a sense of what position I want to defend regarding the literary work in question.
Next I try to write an introduction ending in a provisional thesis statement. The introduction takes me a long, long time as I try to understand what it is I’m trying to say or, more accurately, to write myself into some understanding of what I might want to say and then to say it as well as possible at this stage.
Then I do a scratch outline, nothing very detailed. On that basis I write the rest of the piece.
Normally by this time I’ve read quite a bit of secondary literature that seems relevant (I go by titles and references in bibliographies). I try to reference a reasonable number of such sources. Occasionally I play off of what someone else has said, but, for better or worse, I usually say what I want to say first and then see what sources agree with me or offer alternative perspectives I should take into account. There are certain big names or authorities in whatever field I’m working in, and I do need to acknowledge their work.
Revision involves moving a lot of elements around, tightening or altering the thesis statement (and hence tweaking the rest of the piece accordingly), and making sure the thesis position is appropriately foregrounded throughout the essay, chapter, or book. I try to do a fair amount of “sign-posting,” giving the imagined reader a sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
I love tinkering with words. I spend a lot of time, probably more than necessary, trying to articulate things as precisely and concisely as possible. This is like a game to me; it’s fun, and time passes quickly. Once I have a draft I enjoy proofreading and polishing, knowing that what I’m working on is essentially in the bag.
In the whole process I imagine a reader who has read whatever I’m writing about but perhaps not recently—so that some refamiliarizing is necessary—and who has an educational background somewhat similar to mine. I try hard to hit a happy medium between, on the one hand, authorities on my subject matter and, on the other, general readers who are reasonably bright, well educated, and with enough interest in my subject to at least start reading what I have written.
John Glendening is a Professor of English.
One of the secrets to great writing surely must be to practice the craft. So, take whatever opportunities arise to tackle the challenge of organizing your thoughts and faithfully communicate them to others. Brilliant ideas and insights deserve to be shared. Indeed, as scholars, we have a duty and a responsibility to capture those thoughts and offer them up to all who might consider them.
But, in this ‘firehose’ era, where we are inundated in information and seemingly endless demands for our attention, make sure you have something worthwhile to say. You’ll know when you do! I wrote a weekly blog for over two years and it is obvious when you run out of things to write – you post about the challenge of blogging! Of course, it is a narcissism not peculiar to blog posts as anyone who had padded an essay to reach a target length will know. So, spare us your navel gazing unless there’s something interesting down there!
I enjoy writing. The physical experience of writing, that is. I find there is something very tactile and amazingly eye-opening in watching words magically appear on the page. I write with a fountain pen, which was a habit I picked up in college. The words flow easier that way and they seem to take on an appearance that makes me want to care. Writing on paper allows me a freedom of few bounds. I can scratch things out, put in curly arrows to insert an expounding or extension (just did!), and write sideways down the margin if I want to. Later, when typing these words into the computer, I edit and sometimes move things around. But, the creative act is channeled through my pen and paper.
Can you hear my voice? People often tell me they feel as though I’m talking straight to them when they read my writing. I like that, and I often can hear myself as I’m writing. And, it’s not uncommon that I read aloud what I’ve written. I find that very quickly points out awkward phrasing and word choice. Besides, I have a great radio voice, and it, too, needs practice! I want to connect with my audience and it seems as though I should stay true to who I am and not try to write like someone else. That’s being true to my voice, right?
Writing is hard. But, it is still such a crucial skill. Like most skills, you need to practice it, enjoy the craft and task of it, all the while maintaining the simple fact that a piece of you is forever left behind for others to ponder over. Writing is a great gift, never should it be squandered, more should it be treasured. It shouldn’t be easy.
Bill Borrie is a Professor of Park and Recreation Management
My writing process always stems from my belief that writing is hard. Even writing badly is hard. So to write well requires a whole lot of dedication and persistence. For me, it looks something like this:
I read an article or hear an idea that makes me think. (The articles and ideas that don’t make me think I discard. Probably too readily.) The beginning of my writing process is reading, reading, reading. I keep track of the topics that interest me in a RefWorks folder where I can easily export things I find. I do this because I am really annoyed at having to re-find something later. But then, I print out everything and make lots of notes in the margins. I underline the phrases I like. And then I think. And read some more. I usually read a lot of the works cited in the articles I like. I see if there’s anything else the author has written that is equally interesting. I believe that I do extensive researching/reading in order to give my brain the space it needs to sort out an idea before I start writing. When I write, I am very organized because I know that I will want to write straight through the piece without distractions. I create a rough outline with sections and I almost always know where I will place all my cited material before I write my own words. This sounds strange, but I think it works because I have given myself so much time, by reading and researching, to think through my response. I already know what I will say, and how. It’s just a matter of pulling the pieces all together. When I begin actually writing, I usually do nothing else for days. I write all hours of the day, although I write my best material late at night. I like to think about more precise vocabulary and more elegant sentences when I’m getting ready for bed. I almost always discover that I have repeated the same word too many times in a piece, and so I rely on my before-bed practice (and a very handy thesaurus app) to correct this problem.
I do not draft anything by hand. I keep a word file going and I back it up many, many different ways.
Once I consider the piece finished (which is a hard decision to make), I let it sit for a few days. I re-research the topic using insights that struck me as I was writing. If I find more material, I integrate it. I fuss about formatting (more than I should) and I double and triple check my citations. I even google some of my phrases to make sure that I have kept my voice separate from those I cited. I share this with select, trusted colleagues and I almost always take their advice without question. That is the value of a good reader! At the very end, I write my title. I think titles are terribly hard and I feel a lot of pressure to find a pithy, clever, enticing title. I am not ever very happy with my title. When I submit my writing I don’t like to share this step with others. Just seems like an unnecessary jinx, you know?
Megan Stark is an Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Services Librarian at the Mansfield Library.