I do not consider myself a writer, but I do write. Many find writing difficult. So do I. I love it despite its difficulties. I love it because of its difficulties. Flannery O’Connor says, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Writing obliges me to transubstantiate the fuzzy warbles, swirling in the chaos of my brain, into something on paper that can survive the gauntlet of internal criticism, and be absorbed into the population of fuzzy warbles in another human brain. It is a selfish act. It is a social act.
Writing is a test of my understanding of a subject. I think I know that I think. Writing forces me to prove to myself that I understand a topic. I change my mind often when I write—my ideas, my constructions of reality. Frequently I realize how little I know about the subjects I write about. It is a humbling process. Writing reminds me how much I do not know. Many people may be content thinking they understand a topic, rather than writing it down and proving themselves wrong. I prefer to be reminded of my ignorance, seizing it as an opportunity to learn and expand my worldview.
Albert Einstein allegedly said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This illuminates the reason that we write: to communicate with others—to teach, to inform, to persuade, or to entertain—to be understood by others. How others understand one’s prose is vital to writing well. The question is not “Can I understand what I have written?” but “Could someone else understand what I have written?” One must develop the ability to step outside of oneself and read their writing as an “other,” to be self-critical. One must have the courage to read one’s own work. Also, One must be willing to be read and to accept the helpful criticisms of others. Like it or not, writing is a social act.
Writing is not a matter of getting words on paper, but getting words and ideas in the right order and making them understandable. Rarely do the initial words on the page reflect the thoughts in my head. The real work of writing is editing. “Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it,” Ernest Hemingway warns. Writers become attached to their words and ideas. They become invested. Words and ego become intertwined. However, a writer must segregate words from ego, either surgically or by brute force. Stephen King counsels, “[K]ill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Editing can be brutal. Do not take it easy on yourself
To say that I have a “style” is a stretch. To the extent that I do, it is a style learned through emulation as much as instruction. Sure, I took required English courses as an undergraduate and learned a lot. But I learned as much and more by reading and emulating the style and mechanics of more seasoned and successful writers and scholars. One can’t write unless one reads. One won’t write well unless one reads well. Emulating the styles found on the internet is a sure way to degrade one’s writing skills. Read in your field and try to write like more senior scholars. Read history, literature, and other genres outside of your field to expose yourself to good writing and help you polish your prose.
Writers write. It is not enough to think about writing. Procrastination is easy. Writing is hard. The internet is replete with advice about the habits successful writers have in common. Two habits rise above the rest. First, write every day. Do not make excuses. Franz Kafka, one of my favorite authors, says “Whatever distracts is evil.” A Czech bureaucrat by day and a writer by night, Kafka understood how focusing on the humdrum activities of everyday life imperiled his writing. Second, do not “write yourself out.” Lay out some breadcrumbs for yourself. Leave a few stray thoughts on paper when you are finished writing for the day, they will inspire your writing the next day allowing you to build momentum during your next writing session.
Writing is not easy. If it were, everyone would do it. Sometimes it is easy. It is never effortless. But writing something well is always satisfying.