Wednesday, September 08, 2010

how to write less badly

Carleen linked to this great little article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: 10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly, by By Michael C. Munger. It's geared toward scholarly nonfiction, but a lot of the points make sense for any kind of writing. Here are two of my favorites.
4. Give Yourself Time. Writers sit at their desks for hours, wrestling with ideas. They ask questions, talk with other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunch more. Don't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don't just write down ideas... Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or even time, an image of the ideas that exist in only your mind at this one instant.
We all know that writing well takes dedication, practice and patience. And yet, I still struggle with creating a regular writing habit. 500 words a day, five pages a week, one story a month, monthly writing goals - you name it, I've tried. They all work, for a little while, and I keep bouncing back from one trick to the next. As long as I'm producing something, then it's okay to switch things up. Currently, I'm writing once a week at the coffee shop. It's working, but I need to add more writing sessions to my week. One day out of seven is not nearly enough.
7. Write, then squeeze the other things in. Put your writing ahead of your other work. I happen to be a "morning person," so I write early in the day. Then I spend the rest of my day teaching, having meetings, or doing paperwork. You may be a "night person" or something in between. Just make sure you get in the habit of reserving your most productive time for writing. Don't do it as an afterthought or tell yourself you will write when you get a big block of time. Squeeze the other things in; the writing comes first.
This is my biggest issue. Balancing a 40 hour work week, marathon training, two dogs, and a relationship is tough enough. Adding a daily writing practice is even harder, but that doesn't mean it's not necessary. I need to stop complaining, stop making excuses, and make it a priority.

As I fine tune my MFA writing portfolio and contribute to my two writing workshops, writing will take it's rightful place at the top of my list. Deadlines help, and I've got a bunch of them looming. Onward and upward we go! 


  1. I've been really working at waking up early, getting the coffee on, and writing. Mornings are always best for me too, but it's hard, especially when I'm so exhausted from the other "stuff" in life. That article rocks though! Definitely applies to writers of any genre.

  2. I read that article, and I thought there were some good tips in it. However, for academics, there were also a lot of mixed messages, and I hope that Munger was being falsely modest to at least some extent.

    I wonder if you've seen some of the other recent chronicle articles that talk about tenure being doomed? I don't want to discourage you from pursuing your dreams, but I wish someone had been more honest with me about the reality of the declining percentage of tenure track jobs in the academy before I entered grad school 7 years ago. Something like 70% of academic teaching positions are now adjunct jobs or filled by fixed term faculty on yearly contracts. It's a pretty grim situation, and I promise you that it's not fun to be on the academic job market when there are less than 10 jobs in your field in a given year and each job gets several hundred applicants.

    I'm really sorry for being a Negative Nelly, but I think people should be fully aware of what they're getting into when they decide to go to grad school to pursue a career in the Humanities.

  3. @Moda - Truthfully, I don't read the Chronicle that often. Just when friends link to articles, like this one and the one you quoted about a fashion sense = stupidity (I'm paraphrasing, of course).

    And I sincerely thank you for your perspective on professorship as a career choice. You're not being negative - just realistic, and I want to be prepared for whatever choices I make. I do know that I want an MFA, even if it doesn't lead to a tenure track job teaching creative writing (though I sure wouldn't turn one down!). I'm not sure where life will take me or what opportunities I'll be offered. If tenure is indeed doomed, I hope that something better will rise up to take its place. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we're all just doomed.

    And yes, the Humanities are doomed most of all. But I do have an MLS to fall back on, should I need it. Not that libraries are doing much better these days. Sigh. It's a good thing I'm a great at being poor. ;)

  4. And naturally many people (foolishly) advise people with PhDs who can't find jobs that pay a reasonable wage and benefits to go back to grad school and get an MLS.... *sigh*

    At any rate, I hope that it all works out for you (and for me because I'm selfish like that :))!

  5. I know you run in the mornings, but Morning Pages (three a day, every day) have been my most successful attempt at keeping up a daily writing habit. I write longhand in a pocket Moleskine. The writing is stream-of consciousness — by which I mean I'm not working on "stories" — but I have used some of my ideas later. And it's the actual practice that has helped me the most. I find it is the time when I am least distracted and the most likely to actually DO it.