How I Write

Published: 2020-09-01
Tagged: guide essay writing

A few weeks into April, I set out to improve my writing. The temptation to write an essay or story was planted in my mind a long time ago. There have even been a few attempts, but the results never made me happy. This time was different: I shared a draft of a blog post about [Kegan's "In Over Our Heads"][0] with my wife. Years of literature produced a warm, but scathing critique. The idea was solid, she said, but the flow, style, and especially readability were garbage–it would be cruel to inflict it on anyone.

An epiphany came to me then: exciting a reader's pleasure and wonder is the writer's ultimate goal. It may sound obvious, but it was a whole new way of looking at the subject for me.

I asked myself "What do I need to create a solid piece of writing?" Well, there are all these tools like editing, revising, close reading, etc., but they're just lying in a jumbled pile in a my head. Over a few Spring days, I thought about how each tool works and how it relates to problems I face when writing. Slowly, an idea of a step-by-step process formed in my mind that looks like this:

  1. Collect ideas. Gerald Weinberg's [The Fieldstone Method][1] contains a lot of advice about this. Thanks to him, I carry a pocket notebook everywhere I go, in which I note down anything that catches my attention: words, phrases, quotes, experiences, and ideas. Once a month I copy everything over to a text file for preservation and searching later.
  2. The first draft: take a bucket of ideas and dump them onto paper. No revising, no editing, no judging. Just write.
  3. Let it stew for a few days.
  4. The second draft: add missing pieces, remove ones that don't connect strongly with the topic, and move paragraphs around until the information flows well. I can usually make out the final shape and title now.
  5. The third draft: go over each sentence and make sure it makes the paragraph stronger. Rewrite, move, or remove those that don't. Then, go over each sentence again to see if it's clear and reads well. June Casagrande's [It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences][2] gave me some much needed help in this area.
  6. Let if stew for a few days.
  7. Judgement: did the piece come out well? Is it coherent? Does it have a good beginning and ending? This is when I usually share it with my wife and get her feedback. If there's any uncertainty about the quality, go back to step 4.
  8. Publish it!

Most writing loops through steps 4 through 7 at least twice. Sometimes, it gets stuck on step 7 until a new ideas comes along and gives it a push.

I'm happy with this process because it's attuned to me. It wasn't handed down by some Authority, so I feel ok about experimenting with it, which makes it into a game of sorts: if a piece turns out bad, what can I do differently to make it better? It also works as a guide because I know what I need to be doing with a piece at any given moment and what the next step will be. There's less fear and uncertainty, which are emotional states that fuel writer's block, analysis-paralysis, and perfectionism.

Back in April, I didn't know where my quest for better writing would lead me. I thought it would reveal a secret that makes essays and stories great. Instead, it changed how I think about writing: it made it fun.

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A code cave is a series of null bytes in a process's memory.

Programming, exploring, tinkering, philosophizing.

All views expressed are my own.