When people hear I write, they approach me as if I’m in possession of some mystical knowledge. How can I find the time to have a thought, write it down, and revise it? Surely I am gaming the system somehow! Surely I have a charmed life, with plenty of time to read hardcover books, look out the window, and attend parties full of well-heeled people quoting western canon classics.
Joke’s on them – I don’t like leaving my house!
The reality of this is that there is no magic spell for writing productivity. It does not exist. Stop looking for it. The only way to learn to be a good (and productive) writer is to actually write. Writing is work, it is messy, it is frustrating, and it only sometimes results in useful material. It is less sorcery than it is mining: you dig and dig through piles of crap, make a big mess, and spend ages melting down raw material and chopping off slag before something remotely presentable emerges.
No one likes to hear that. It’s not the romantic starving-in-a-garret image we still have of writing. And it’s not the slick-millenial-with-a-mac image of writing we have now sold ourselves.
Nonetheless, most people turn to Google for advice. I did it, too. Turns out the internet is so full of tips for writing and productivity that a basic google search returned over 15 million hits!
There is no need to slog through list after list, dodging clickbait right and left. I have a few basic rules about writing that I’ve picked up over the years. These actually work. Hands down. They work completely and totally until they don’t and you have to try some new ones, because writing as I said before is not a magic spell. (Ed. note, that is a run-on for comedic effect, please don’t do that, my boss is reading this!)
Well you just can’t, Minerva.
Actually Write: Oh yeah, about this one. You have to produce to be productive. You have to write to be considered a writer. You can’t just think of it, or visualize it, or hide it away. Nor do you have to win a Pulitzer. Just produce writing. This is why I recommend blogging for novice writers – at the very least, it gets writing out of the notebook and the desk drawer. If you work it properly (reading and commenting on others’ blogs) you may even get feedback. If nothing else, it’s a great way to maintain a corpus of work, and it’s very easy to go back and edit. The nervous writer can see their words formatted and “looking pretty”, which does help build confidence. This, however, is not enough, as you must also…
Give yourself the gift of the draft: No one is ever going to produce a perfect first draft, or second, or seventh. This takes time. Instead of imagining someone judging you, and being horrified if you’ve left a preposition dangling (which I surely have) – remember that every single piece of writing is a work in progress. Get it out first, then polish it. You will never spit out the Mona Lisa. No one ever has.
Revise, edit, proofread – know the difference: This is something I wish we still had time to teach in elementary and high school.
Revision is looking at a finished draft, and asking radical questions about the ordering of points, the types of details used, etc. When you revise you look to make large-scale changes to the work to better the work, not coddle to your image of what the work should have been in a perfect world, if you were just a perfect person. At this point, the draft is still hot lava – it can take many forms, or destroy the landscape you thought you built for it – but it always leaves a new one behind.
Editing is when you dig into the paragraphs themselves, ensuring that you have as many words as you need to make your point (or striking unnecessary clutter). If you have arguments in your pieces, you will edit them to ensure they are logically presented, and are in order. This is what you do when you’ve revised to your satisfaction, but are not yet addressing minor errors. The lava is starting to cool at this point, but you can’t quite inhabit this new land.
Proofreading is when you check for spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes. This is the part most people confuse with editing. It’s an old fashioned term, from back when people would, when writing a book, print out a copy just to check the spelling with a blue pencil. You were literally reading a “proof” of the work, catching any last minute minor issues. The lava has long cooled at this point, and there is soil, plants, and animals on your new draft/landmass, and you are just sort of pruning your garden at this stage.
Read it aloud or backwards: It is very important to divorce yourself emotionally from your work. If you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to eliminate things you thought you needed, details you may have treasured, or turn whole paragraphs inside out – you have to be willing to tear your work apart. This is because writing is meant to be read by others.
Your artistic vision is ultimately in service to your readers, so you have to look at the work from their angle. When we write something, a short essay for instance, we usually have a different image in our minds of what’s on the page. The reader may not have you there to over over them and explain “what this really means is….” – your words have to stand for you. Reading aloud is the first step to making your writing an object separate from you. It’s ok to love your writing, but you must be willing to give it what it needs. Reading your work backwards, sentence by sentence, us another good way to do this – it’s also a handy way to proofread.
Make writing plans: If you want to actually be a writer, it helps to think of it like a small business. When you grow a business, you set goals, or milestones for yourself. You achieve one small thing after another, in service to a larger goal. So what’s your goal? What’s your endgame? What do you want to do with this writing? How are you going to get there? Google calendar is a great way to set dates do do things by – and you can even connect it to your mobile to ring an alarm bell to remind you to write, revise, etc.
NB: When hen you make plans, make sure they are plans you can control. “Being published” is a fine goal, but that itself you can’t necessarily make happen. “Improving my grammar”, or “Blogging weekly”, or (my personal one) “responding to more blogs to build relationships with other writers” – these you can control!
So there we are! These may or may not work for you, and you may need to use them in conjunction with other tips, but as long as you’re writing, you’re getting there!
Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College. She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.