quill array with knife and test paper by studentofrhythm

Do you enjoy writing? I do. I find it soothing to arrange a sentence to explain my message, whatever that message happens to be.

By no means do I consider myself an expert. I know that I’m wordy and verbose and break some of the cardinal rules such as “write with nouns and verbs” (rather than “write with awesome nouns and superlatively cool verbs”). I think I’m proficient and reasonably understandable. It helps that I spend a good portion of my daily work life in the writing of various corporate documentae. These may not be Tolstoy, but they force me to write coherent sentences and paragraphs, all of which eventually contribute to a document of one type or another.

Add to that my blogging behavior. Again, this isn’t high literature but it is writing and the more you write, the better you write. As I saw on Merlin Mann’s blog the other day:

The Top 1 Behaviors of Successful Writers: They Write

This is good advice and the thrust of Merlin’s message was that if you boil down the writing advice columns and the author productivity interviews, you eventually end up with that one nugget of info. Just write.

Everybody is talking about writing this month because it’s NaNoWriMo1, but we should be talking about it all the time (or writing about it, or waving about it). Writing well is a critical skill in the online world. Just as people draw associations between accent and education, the presentation of your written words will have an impact on how people view your abilities. In a knowledge economy where you are forced to interface with clients and collaborators through online textual means, your writing can set you apart or set you aside.

As an aside, this is one of the complaints I’ve heard about Google Wave (beta). If you are involved in a wave with someone, they can see you typing—actually typing, character by character—including all your deletes and rewordings and edits. While that might be a new paradigm, I for one am not ready for people to view the sausage making that is my writing process. Google says the feature to turn that off is coming.

So what to do? How should you improve your writing: Should you listen to the advice of NaNoWriMo and just write write write without stopping for edits or rework? Sometimes I do that. I recently compiled a document2 by doing a stream of consciousness dump onto a text file for about an hour and then piecing it together into a coherent whole. I threw out about half of what I wrote, but it allowed me to “fill the corners” and catch all the detail that I wanted without my brain having to worry about how well the document sounded.

Should you outline? Some do. I don’t. I don’t believe in outlining. Outlining isn’t writing; outlining is planning and sometimes it’s easier to outline after the document is complete. In other words, you finish a draft and then realize there’s a heading topic missing so you go back and fill it in or reposition your existing text to cover the gap. I have outlined to set tasks for a team of people who were working the same item, but it’s an exception for me.

Should you do writing practice? Some do. I don’t see the point. Fiction authors may disagree with me here. They will probably state that doing writing exercises helps to develop their various voices. I won’t argue the point. I don’t write much fiction so I’m hardly an expert. My opinion is that you might as well practice writing while producing real content. Sure, the things you’re generating right now might suck, but everyone has to go through that phase. There’s no reason to hide it. Any reasonable person will recognize that sometimes you just can’t be Shakespeare.

As another aside, I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a document that I wrote some amount of time before and thought, “Who wrote this piece of shit? Oh, right. I did.”

The only other thing to do if you want to write, and write well, is to read. Important writing people will say “read the classics” or “read big books” but given the quality of writing available that is out on the web nowadays I say, “read”. Although I will draw the line and emphasize that you shouldn’t read the comments on YouTube.

Now that I’ve pontificated on that topic, I must go and practice my preaching. Talking Traffic has been woefully neglected. I plan to have several episodes ready to go before I start recording again so that I may keep a more regular schedule.

1: I decided to keep track during NaNoWriMo of how much writing I do on a normal basis. I’m abusing NaNoWriMo’s interface to keep up with my progress even though I’m not novelizing.

2: My use of the term “document” in this posting is of a general nature. While I’m alluding to corporate writing in some cases, my “documents” include blog postings, corporate memoranda, emails, love letters, twitter tweets and forum postings,etc.

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3 Responses to Writing

  1. steph says:

    I write for a living, and unfortunately this has kind of ruined me for creative writing. I spend so much time writing for money that I find it hard to spend time doing it for “free” when I could be playing with my daughter or mountain biking. It’s become more of a chore than a pleasure.

    One thing I’ve learned about writing– it’s an intensely personal process. What works for you may not work for someone else. You really need to experiment with your ideal environment and conditions. For example, I need near complete silence and as close to zero distraction as possible (and no wifi! Think library carrel). And when I get stuck (practically hourly), the absolute best solution for me is to go out and jog or ride. This really does not fit into the corporate ideal….

    I do enjoy NaNoWriMo– the online camaraderie and the rush of a deadline is hard to beat!

  2. annie says:

    If only I could convince my students of this magic: read & write. They miss the point at how they’ll be better people for it.

    Ick. Wave sounds a lot like some of the early chat features I encountered. It drove me nuts watching someone else’s painfully slow typing. I always had to resist jumping in with my answer when I’d realized what they were trying to say. Also, I’m not the most pleasant person to watch type. There are some words that I cannot type correctly w/out the included back space corrections (it’s just how my brain & fingers encoded things).

  3. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Steph: I myself can write in a distracted environment as long as I’m not creating content. I guess the only real analogy I have at the moment is for Talking Traffic. If I’m writing an episode about a topic that I happen to know backwards and forwards then Jenn and the Cat and my Phone and the Internet really have no power over me but if I have to research and think, I’m doomed. And wow that sentence is terrible.

    Annie: I’d like to give Wave a shot for a few things. I have an entirely geeky application in mind for me and Jenn whilst working together in the house, in separate rooms (no more shouting or IM’ing across the house). Hopefully when the full version is released there will be a “done” or “send” button if you want it.

    Q: “Hey! How do you spell Chameleon?”
    A: “C – H – U – ^h – A – M – E – E – L – ^h – ^h – ^h – E – L – E – O – N”

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