Three Pieces of Advice on Writing That Have Made a Difference Over The Years

by Maxwell Anderson, publisher of The Weekend Reader

Writers love to write about writing.

It’s not hard to see why. Anyone who has written knows that in order to create something good, something worth other people taking their time to read, one does not just sit down at a keyboard and “let the magic happen.” It is hard work and it is lonely work. And like any difficult but worthy project, those who undertake it feel obliged to share why and how they did it. The same is true for a mountain climber, or an olympic gymnast, or a woman who has given birth. They all have stories to tell. They all have advice to share.

Of course, the other reason writers write about writing is to procrastinate and avoid the writing that they really ought to be doing.

Not all writing advice is worth listening to. I had a writing teacher in school who gave me scolding feedback that my imaginative stories and attempts at humorous prose were “not serious enough” and she graded me poorly. It discouraged me from writing for years. My writing may not have been serious enough for her taste but I wish I hadn’t taken her taste so seriously.

I have encountered, however, advice about writing that I have treasured over the years. And the thing about the treasure of advice is that it doesn’t lose any of its value when you give it away. So why not share some of it with you? Here are three of pieces of writing advice that have made a difference to me over the years:

1. You Have to Make a Mess Before You Can Clean It Up

This advice originally came not to me, but to my wife. She was in college, and struggling to get started on her senior thesis. Her advisor encouraged her to get more reckless and start throwing her thoughts on paper and worry about it all making sense later. This practical wisdom has saved me on countless projects from what I would otherwise do by nature: obsess for hours about my opening sentence and how I might grab the reader’s interest. Now I just begin and go back to the beginning at the end.

I found another (more profane, but funnier) version of this advice in Anne Lamott’s wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Lamott encourages us to begin with “shitty first drafts.” No writer really knows where they are going when they start. Therefore your first draft is bound to be awful, or at most only a shadow of what it could be. So, get over it, she counsels. Set the bar lower and just start writing. It’s better to start with something bad and fix it in editing than to stare for hours at a blank screen or sheet of paper, growing more anxious and more frustrated by the moment. Ready, fire, aim!

2. Writing is The Art of Applying a Back to a Chair

Depending on whom you ask, this definition of “The Art” was penned by Mark Twain or Dorothy Parker or Mary Heaton Vorse (or maybe it was someone else?) As comedian George Burns said, “Good comics borrow, the best comics steal.”

The Art is about discipline. It is about doing hard things. It is about not letting yourself off the hook. The Art is doing what you need to do even when you don’t feel like it. It is about having a will of iron and buns of steel, ones that can take the abuse of a chair for hours on end.

In college I remember reading an interview with Stephen King about how he writes something like three dozen books a month. It was simple. He practiced The Art. He said he sat down each morning and didn’t stand up until he had written ten pages. Then he would have lunch.

The point is that you have to start and once you’ve started, you have to keep at it. Simple as that (and difficult as that). The trouble I find is that once I start writing, there are any number of things that I would find more enjoyable than continuing to write, continuing to apply my back to a chair. I could clean up the house. I could make myself a turkey sandwich. I could check email. I could check email again. I could begin organizing my digital photos, which I’ve been meaning to get to for the past four years. Now would be a great time to do that. I think I’m finally ready for it…

Unfortunately, the only thing that will bring an end to the pain of writing is actually writing. So I eventually I need to practice The Art. I need to paint gorilla glue on the back of my pants and then sit in my chair until it dries and I am stuck there.

3. You Should Never Write a Book Unless You Just Have To

This advice comes from A.W. Tozer, a twentieth century writer and pastor. I came across it in the introduction to a wonderful book of his called The Pursuit of God which I remember reading while on an overnight train ride somewhere in Asia.

Ten years ago or so, someone did a survey and learned that 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them worth writing. Joseph Epstein, writing in The New York Times, found this perplexing:

Why should so many people think they can write a book, especially at a time when so many people who actually do write books turn out not really to have a book in them — or at least not one that many other people can be made to care about? Something on the order of 80,000 books get published in America every year, most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary.

Why would so many people think they ought to write a book? Epstein speculated they likely saw it as a way to establish their own significance. In the absence of religion, people look for any number of ways to show their life counted for something. A book is a reasonable strategy for doing that, no? With a dark humor, Epstein disagreed:

Forgive me if I suggest that this isn’t the most felicitous way to do battle against oblivion. Writing a book is likely, through the quickness and completeness with which one’s book will die, to make the notion of oblivion all the more vivid.

I’m not as suspicious as Epstein of the apparently overwhelmingly common instinct to write. After all isn’t our conscious experience of the world and our ability to reflect on that experience the very thing that makes us human? No other creature on earth is so capable. Sharing our experience and ideas with each other is no more unnatural than sharing our cooking. You have both a stomach and a mind haven’t you?

And yet, I think Tozer is right that you shouldn’t write a book unless you just have to. There are two reasons why I think so.

First, what you have to say is probably less original than you think. The world may not need another person to write what’s already been written before. Epstein reported that 80,000 books were published 2002, but that’s nothing compared with the rate we’re publishing today. According to one source, in 2013 the United States saw 300,000 new books from professional publishers and nearly 400,000 more from self-published authors. There are more than 28 million books in print in English today. In other words, there are far more books than any person could read in a lifetime. Given this, there is no reason anyone should have to read a book that isn’t good and wasn’t written by an author who felt she just had to do it.

“The only book that should ever be written is one that flows up from the heart, forced out by the inward pressure. — A.W. Tozer

The second reason to limit your publishing to only those books you just have to write is that writing can be such a drag. If your heart isn’t really in it, you’ll be miserable. On the other hand, if your heart is in it, the words may seem to come easily. I found this to be true while writing my first, and so far, only book, The MBA Oath. I had started an initiative to create a hippocratic oath for business school students and was given the opportunity to write about it along with a good friend. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I got it done. I had a 1 year-old daughter, was starting an intense new full-time job and commuting to work an hour each way. I’d get home, put my daughter to bed, have a quick dinner and write from 9 or 10 until midnight. But it wasn’t a burden. I felt like I just had to write the book because I cared so deeply about it that the words tumbled out of my head freely. I couldn’t imagine writing any other way.

More recently, I talked with my literary agent about a half-dozen book ideas I had knocking around in my head. I wanted to know which he thought I should pursue. He paused on the phone for a minute and didn’t say anything. Then, as if shrugging his shoulders through the phone, he said, “Life is short. And it’s shorter than you think. You ought to write the one you’d be disappointed you didn’t write at the end of your life.”

Most of my writing I do today is for the newsletter I publish, The Weekend Reader. In it, every week I recommend and link to five of the best recent articles related to a common trend or idea that is shaping our culture. One week I focused on fashion trends no one saw coming. Another week I looked at how drones are already changing our lives. Nearly every week I return to these pieces of advice as I work on it. Make a mess. Keep your butt in the chair. Only write about this if you really care.

This week’s edition of the Reader addresses elements of writing from odd angles, like why writing by hand is better for your memory than typing, and how sitcoms are all written with the exact same minute by minute dramatic structure. And of course, I also share a fair amount of advice for writers by writers.

After all, writing about writing is what writers like to do.

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