Monday, July 20, 2015

How I Write

While quite a number of people dread writing and try to minimize expressing themselves in that medium (I'm sorry, texting and tweeting don't count, as they're more like composing shopping lists than the script for Schindler's List), among those of us who embrace it there is considerable variety in how we approach it. In the hopes that it may be instructive, today's essay will illuminate how I do it. 

First of all I want to make a confession: writing is not a skill that came to me naturally; I've taught myself to do it. Though that may be unexpected from a guy who has authored a regular column in Communities magazine for decades and has posted 900 blogs in less than eight years, in college I had a minor reputation for talking my way out of writing assignments. Literally. On a number of occasions I went to the professor and successfully argued that I make an oral presentation in lieu of submitting a paper. I still had to prepare, of course, and I still had to make cogent points, but I dreaded public speaking less than writing so I thought of this as a creative coup.

Slowly, over the course of the last 30 years, I've trained myself to be an effective writer. In fact, today I write something substantive almost every day (and I'm not counting my commuter rush of email traffic—not the least of which is my thrice daily intimate correspondence with my new partner, Susan, where the bulk of the investment in our burgeoning six-week-old relationship has been epistolary). "Substantive writing" could be a blog, a magazine article, a cogent summary of a complex topic, a comprehensive client report, or a nuanced proposal. If a day goes by where I don't have my writing oar in the water, then the next day I have to pull the boat twice.

In any event, here's how I approach my craft. I find it useful to think of writing having three distinct phases. Though the actual work may be accomplished in one sitting—depending on timing and inspiration—it's helpful to understand that each of the phases has a different mind set and that it's often productive to complete one phase before moving on to the next.

I. Outlining
This is the big picture. What do I have to say? Why is that compelling?

The first germ of what I'll write about can come from a number of angles:
—It could be philosophical (for example, many topics arise from my working with groups as a consultant and having an issue come up that I don't think I've treated thoroughly before). Thus, I might be writing about the theory of cooperative group dynamics, or articulating what I consider a best practice.

—It could be poignant (arising from a riveting personal experience: either something I witnessed or that involved me). These tend to be stories about how I learned a lesson, or how I'm struggling to make sense of one.

—It could be whimsical (telling a story of something entertaining or amusing; life is full of spontaneous oddities that are delightful to share). Though rare, there are occasions where I start with what I think is a terrific ending and then backfill all the rest to get there, like when I found myself coming home by train in mid-December and Mr and Mrs Claus walked through the dining car in full drag. When we got to my stop and I was the first one to get off there were 100 people with cameras and lights waiting to greet me in the sleepy town of La Plata MO—all hoping that I'd be Santa Claus.

Pretty much everything I write falls into one or more of a small number of categories:
o  Cooperative group dynamics
o  Community and sustainable living
o  Personal journey (major markers in my life and the learning associated them) o  Humor/entertainment

Next I try to sketch out the main points in a stream of consciousness—just banging down ideas and phrases as fast as they occur to me. (I can always excise ineffective thoughts and rehabilitate lame phrasing later). If the sequencing of ideas matters I often capture it in this initial rush.

It's not unusual at this stage for a topic to get richer and more complex once I delve into it, though sometimes the reverse obtains (where close examination reveals that I have nothing that interesting to say and my once-exciting concept is exposed as fool's gold).

II. Crafting
In the second pass, I try to flesh out the outline (put meat on the bones). This is typically done one paragraph at a time. Sometimes it's a slog (like house-to-house combat); sometimes it flows easily (like a float trip down the river of creative expression).

This is where the art of writing is most prominent. Each paragraph needs to meet strict personal standards for being to the point (laser focused), elegant (lean of words without being obscure or ambiguous), and grabby (with metaphors and images that are evocative and apropos).

Is there sufficient context? Is there a personal story, the telling of which helps place the reader in the narrative, or grounds the point (such as my encounter with Santa above)?

III Copy Editing
In the final phase I'm using an old toothbrush to clean the grout on the bathroom floor. Have I used some words too often (I don't count prepositions but you can't use "scintilla" or "maximal" more than once in an essay)?

Have I chosen the right words (sometimes the phrasing is not quite apt or the words don't convey the right flavor)? This is where I drill down on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

I read the essay aloud to see if the meter is right. If I stumble somewhere, I rework the rough spots (like sanding wood).

This final phase is about polishing, craftsmanship, and technical skill, not so much artistic expression.

• • •
If all goes well, by the time I've weathered the gauntlet of all three phases I have a nugget worth publishing—and that goes down so easily that the reader hardly notices that serious effort was expended in its manufacture.

No comments: