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If You're a Writer, Write

by Tom Johnson on Jul 13, 2009
categories: creativity technical-writing

Many of you—at least a third, I'm guessing—are writers by nature. You majored in English, dabbled in creative writing, probably immerse yourself in literary novels at lunch. You love the written word. You revel in your expertise in grammar, your fine tastes in sentence structure and semantics. You proudly display your Chicago Manual of Style on your bookshelf. Maybe you even secretly want to be a novelist. Perhaps you have an unfinished manuscript tucked away in your desk drawer that you think about finishing. Writing—the more creative, literary kind—is in your blood.

Fortunately, now is one of the best times for writers to be alive, because you can write and publish without hassle. According to Phillup Greenspun, the web provides a flexible format that removes traditional restrictions of length. You're no limited to magazine length (5 pages) or book length (200 pages) of content. You can publish 20 pages essays, or 2 paragraph thoughts. You can write fiction or nonfiction, on any topic you want. You could publish your novel serially, or write your book chapter by chapter in a wiki-like way, or do any creative thing you want.

So why is it that, given the opportunity and tools to write, so few embrace it? I have several thoughts as to why.

1. You enjoy the idea more than the work

Most people enjoy the idea of being a writer more than the act of writing. The same could be said of a lot of activities. I once fantasized about doing triathlons, but it was really the idea of being a triathlete that appealed to me more than running, biking, and swimming. I also once fantasized about medicine, but it was the idea of "being a doctor" that appealed to me more than putting my hands inside bloody skin and tissue to fix people.

The truth about writing—the reason why people may daydream about "being a writer" but never seem to find the time to write—is that it's a lot of work. Coming up with original ideas, organizing and structuring those ideas, editing and polishing your sentences, refining your thoughts, and finding time to do it all rather than sit back and watch TV or work in the yard—is something akin to completing that triathlon. It's a lot of running/thinking, swimming/writing, and biking/editing. And it's taxing. Winston Churchill compared writing to fighting a monster:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

Instead of slaying the monster, it's easier to sit back and think about "being a writer."

2. Your elevated awareness sets higher standards

Another reason you may not find time to write is that your literary awareness is on a higher level, which makes writing more challenging. You're aware of what good prose looks like, and so the standards you set for yourself are more rigorous. You've got William Faulkner and Jane Austen or some other famous writer on your mind, and you know that to write something worth reading, it will take a lot of time, more time than you're willing to commit. For the limited time you do have, all you can produce is mediocrity, which you won't sink to.

This high-brow position isn't very excusable, because knowledge of higher standards often gives you more talent and capability. And if you have limited time, you can just stretch your efforts out over a period of time. Still, being able to recognize that your first drafts are junk can be a motivational deterrent.

3. You've fallen out of the habit

Although the previous two reasons are possible, most likely you stopped writing because you've fallen out of the habit. Desiderius Eramus, a fifteenth-century Dutch humanist, said, "The desire to write grows with writing." The reverse is also true. The desire to write shrinks the less you write.

Habits aren't particularly tricky to establish. It's mostly a matter of doing it. Once you start doing something, it becomes easier to do it. When asked for advice from a young would-be writer, E.B. White, author of dozens of essays, said:

You asked me about writing—how I did it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my journal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not "plotted"—most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, "Who cares?" Everybody cares. You say, "It's been written before." Everything has been written before.

In other words, if you want to write, just open up a blank Word document and start typing. It's that simple. The rest—the form, the purpose, the ideas, the publications—will follow. The more you write, the more desire you'll have to write. And the easier writing will become.

Final Thoughts

I decided to write this post because I'm frequently asked—by fellow writers—why I blog [write] so much. For me, I consider myself foremost a writer. I majored in English, studied creative nonfiction writing, and find value in the act of writing, especially when I have nothing particular on my mind. I enjoy creating something from nothing.

I prefer personal essays and nonfiction over fiction, so the blog is a natural form for me. But whatever preferences for form you have, don't give up on your more creative or literary writing. You don't have to submit your writing to journals and magazines for publication. A blog can be a worthy publishing format. I get more reward from the comments, trackbacks, emails, and other feedback on my blog than from any other writing endeavor. Whatever style and format you choose, if you're a writer, write. The opportunity is there.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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