Writing is not a mystery, except when it is.
If you’ve written a great deal, you know what I mean. If you have not, the previous sentence reads like awful haiku.
Sometimes, people try to complicate the writing process. But there is no Rosetta Stone that can translate how to become a successful writer. We teachers sometimes muddy the waters and develop ornate syllabi with readings, assignments and exercises that justify university learning objectives. Instead, we need to open up our classes.
To that end, I plan to have my students write more than they had during classes (even though they sometimes feel as though they report and write too much out of class) and to include The Elements of Style as a class text for Writing for Sports Media, Advanced Reporting and Feature Writing — as well as for any other writing course that I might be assigned to teach here at Eastern Illinois University. This book has endured for roughly 100 years because Strunk & White offer advice within its 86-pages that instructs and encourages without being prescriptive. I’ve read at least one post where a grammarian has attacked Elements for some errors it may contain. But writing is not about grammar – heresy, I know – rather, it is about communicating clearly. (Grammar itself can be a matter of choice, so critics need to lay off those who seek to creatively and effectively alter language.) Times change, but the advice within Elements has not yet faded.
Take, for example, these advisory comments, which are twined in many ways:
- Omit needless words.
- Revise and rewrite.
Unless reporting a game story on tight deadline, first drafts won’t cut it. Even after posting these late-night stories, writers should go back and edit, a process that will help omit needless words, and, perhaps, inspire several needful ones.
(Class assignment: In class, teachers might want to have students write a story based upon some game information; once submitted, have students then edit or revise these for 10-20 minutes, or even at home. Then, compare the two versions to reveal the strength of revised story.)
Before we write well, we need to write regularly. That has been my egregious error these past several months during which I have spent a great deal of time researching, reading, jotting many pages of notes, organizing my office, setting up outlines for two writing projects – and cleaning my house (when was the last time someone cleaned the window sills or emptied the gutters?), clearing out crap in my garage, trimming bushes and tearing out trees and even developing syllabi for classes three months away. Pretty much, I have done everything except write. Once this happens, we (or, at least, I) question our projects, worried whether the efforts are worth the time spent. (I turned down an offer to write two different sports nonfiction books, which I might, in fact, now do. Hell, I spent way more than 60 hours outlining and planning one of the books. What was I thinking?) I write best when I set aside specific times to write, and not watch yet another episode of “Bosch,” nor work on a New York Times crossword or read another book.
That’s why I am going to start writing a chapter for a book that is due; after all, there’s only so much research and outlining one can do. I’ll do so as soon as I hit the send button on this post. I had always taken to heart Thomas Edison’s belief that genius, or success, relies on one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I definitely need to sweat over this laptop, a bodily function that has never been a chore for me. (I’ll leave this end clause here despite Strunk & White’s desperate pleas.)
Over time – and after thousands of mediocre, poor and fairly good words – you’ll get to where you’re significantly better. But, hopefully, you’ll also realize you still have much more to do, and then you’ll write and reflect even more until you get to the point where you know you’re pretty damned good. And then you’ll press on some more. If you’re really a writer.
Write tirelessly, frequently and fearlessly – as I plan to do, again, starting today.
Writing is a lifelong journey, but it all starts with the proper habits. Don’t I know it, brother.