andres marrugo

It's All About Writing

photo by fiddle oak.

In the past year or so I’ve read a lot about how different people get their stuff done, specially when referring to writing. There are some people who just wait for inspiration to knock on their doors, whereas others simply force themselves to write every day. Inspiration is a tricky thing, but no one can’t deny that when it comes, it certainly feels good. In the words of Cristian Mihai

“Back when I was very young, I used to write in the moments of extreme inspiration, when my fingers were fueled by a frantic feeling of freedom and everything I wrote seemed to achieve a sort of elusive grandeur”.
Cristian Mihai, Writing Habits.

The forcing yourself to write goes more in the lines of what Merlin Mann describes as “turning your procrastination into shitty first drafts1. The way I see it is that writing is hard, and no one has all the answers. But as evident as it sounds, no writing is produced if you never sit down to write. This is clearly something everyone will agree on.

A couple of months ago I read a nice piece on academic writing by Aleh Cherp. In this article he gave several tips from different authors about the art of writing. One of the books he recommended was “Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article”, and one of the ideas he puts forth is that thinking and writing are not two separate activities. It is naïve to assume that you should come up with ideas and then express them on paper. He goes on to state that

Writing is thinking and a lot of our systematic thinking can only occur when we are writing. Thus, waiting for the ideas to come is one of the biggest mistakes young writers make. Instead, the only way to create your ideas is to actually start writing.
Aleh Cherp, Academic writing: inclining your mind.

I really couldn’t say what kind of writer I am2, but I will say that only through writing I’ve become a better writer. Writing is one of those rare skills that if you practice it a lot you can3 become better at it, but you’ve got to have at least a little bit of talent in order to progress significantly. Besides, if all you do is write, you’ll probably not end up writing something interesting. You have to oscillate between “the writing” and “the inspiration” in order to produce something meaningful. This reminds me of a phrase by Merlin Mann, “The art of art is about oscillating between your time and attention.” A nice way to express this graphically is with the following plot which I shamelessly reproduced from a post by Cameron Plommer on the problem with inspiration

Time and attention.

The graphic is self explanatory in that you have to oscillate between getting information and making something. If all you do is read, read, and read, you’ll most likely never end up making anything. You never give yourself the opportunity to make something, let alone something awesome. On the other hand if all you do is write, write, and write, you’ll probably never produce an interesting thing because you never stopped for a while to realize who you are and what the heck you’re doing.

  1. The concept of shitty first drafts comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird book.

  2. If I could call myself a writer.

  3. There’s no guarantee.