Category Archives: the writing process

Horsefeathers

Question. Which weighs more: one pound of feathers, or one pound of gold?

Answer. One pound of feathers weighs more, because gold is weighed in troy pounds. The one pound that is standard in the United States is only about 82% the weight of a troy pound.

Question. Which weighs more: one ounce of feathers, or one ounce of gold?

Answer: One ounce of gold weighs more, because a troy ounce weighs more than a standard ounce. A standard ounce weighs about 91% of a troy ounce. The reason for this disparity is that a troy pound is made up of twelve troy ounces, while a standard pound is made up of sixteen standard ounces.

You are wondering what this has to do with writing; I can hear you. The point I am hoping to make is that if you knew the answers to these questions, you owned two little pieces of knowledge of the world and the way it works. It doesn’t make sense to me, either, that precious metals are weighed differently from feathers, but they are, and knowing this affects in a small way the way one thinks about the world. Yes, it is a tiny, tiny bit of knowledge, but what is knowledge except the accumulation of many tiny bits of knowledge?

It is already generally accepted that good writing skills depend on good thinking skills. I would like to submit that good thinking skills are helped by a reasonable range of knowledge, and that the wider this range, the better the thinking, and consequently, the better the writing.

An oversimplified way of looking at this is to imagine you are giving someone directions to your house. If you know the names of the businesses and landmarks along the way, you can communicate better. Rather than, “Turn left at the pink building with the weird sign,” you can say, “There’s a pink building; it’s a fishing supply store. Turn left there.”

Now imagine what a difference increased knowledge has on helping you to think about much more complicated subjects, such as love, death, and what causes piss shiver.

It may never be of practical use for you to know that gold is weighed in troy ounces. Still, this little piece of knowlege might be combined in the future with some other tiny bit of knowledge, which I believe will make you a better thinker and therefore a better writer. Take an interest in widening your range of knowledge, whatever it might currently be. Watch Jeopardy! or read a Cecil Adams book. Ask someone to teach you something about his or her job. Read the chocolate FAQ or some other FAQ at faqs.org, and if you learn something good, pass it along, will you?

Unpleasantly, Blindly Beneficial

You’re not going to like this one, in all likelihood.  My students never do.  Most of them who receive this tip as advice don’t actually try it, but the ones who do come back and tell me it really helps.

It’s called the blind revision, and it’s not fun.

When you get sorta stuck on something you’re writing, such as a college essay, a report to a boss, a summary of your week’s activities, or even a speech you’ll be delivering for colleagues, put it away (and I mean AWAY, where you won’t look at it!) and start over.  Rewrite your stuff.  Don’t think about what you’ve already written; just start again.

Of course, some of your words and phrases will come back, and that’s okay, because those might be the ones worth keeping in your final draft.  What you will also find is that you thought of a new way to express a few ideas.  Compare your blind revision to your other draft, and you’ll often blow yourself away either with the new stuff or with the old stuff.  Either way the process will give you new ideas for finishing your project.

I know.  It’s a drag to do a blind revision.  I only recommend it when you’re writing something important and you get kind of stranded.  You have good stuff, but you don’t have enough of it, or you don’t know where to take it?  Blind revision.  Just try it.  Then let me know how it worked out for you!

The Deadline is the Greatest Muse

I work better under pressure.

You’ve heard people say it if you haven’t uttered it yourself. I’m a high-school teacher, so I hear it all the time.

Let’s get this straight: If by “I work better under pressure” you mean you are more likely to get work done if there’s a looming deadline, or that you work more efficiently when you don’t have much time for distractions or goofing off, then okay. I’ll buy that.

If you mean that you produce your best work under pressure, you either aren’t talking about writing or you’ve never actually given anything your best shot when the spectre of a deadline wasn’t clutching your neck from behind. Time and patience reward writers, and rushing is good writing’s enemy. If you believed me when I wrote that a second pair of eyes is one of your best friends in producing quality writing, you have to believe me when I say that giving yourself more time for revision, revision, revision, and revision can only make your work better.

There are things in this life that you don’t WANT performed quickly if taking more time is possible. Surgery, for example, is best given as much time as necessary for a thoughtful job. The last thing you want to hear when discussing an upcoming procedure with your surgeon is, “I do my best work under the pressure of time.”

This is not to say that your best ideas or your best work aren’t sometimes thought of at the last minute. Sure, it happens sometimes. More often, though, I suggest that every bit of important writing could have been at least slightly better if given just one more hour of thoughtful revision.

A Short Plea for Second Pairs of Eyes

The problem with proofreading your own writing is that you know what you meant to write! This creates two very different and very preventable problems. First, since you know what you meant, you don’t always recognize when something you’ve written is not clear. This is why, when the text you’ve written is important, you must always get someone else to read your work. It doesn’t even have to be someone who’s a better writer! It only has to be someone who will give your writing a good, honest, careful look. Too many people, when they proofread our work, read it with the same casual care they’d read anything else; that’s not good enough. Find someone who’s as concerned about keeping you from looking foolish as you are!

Knowing what you mean causes a second problem: When you proofread your own work, you tend to read what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote! I have watched students read aloud a sentence like, “I went to the store,” ten times in a row without noticing that they left “to” out of the sentence! We all do it, so believe me: I’m laughing at myself, too. This is why you need that second pair of eyes.

If for some reason a second pair of eyes is nowhere to be found and you HAVE to send something out NOW, please do this: Read your text to yourself OUT LOUD! Read it slowly. Read it carefully. Read it more than once. Read it at least once while you follow the words with your fingertip, not reading anything that you are not actually pointing to. This will help avoid (but not guarantee against) the problem of leaving words out or repeating words.

Now get out there and find yourself a trusted proofreader!