A few years ago, I was asked to teach a graduate seminar on non-fiction writing at NYU’s Journalism School. At this point in my life, I had published a half-dozen books, and probably taught more than a dozen seminars over the years—classes on technology, media theory, popular culture, and literature. But I had never taught a class about writing itself. I was a writer, but somehow I had never managed to teach a class that actually focused on what I did for a living.
I took on the assignment with real enthusiasm. I assumed over the preceding decade or so that I had accumulated enough wisdom about writing—how to present an argument, or craft a compelling magazine-length narrative, or convey a complex idea in intelligible prose—that my students would find the class worthwhile.
But when I actually began teaching, I found myself talking about something that I hadn’t anticipated. I had indeed accumulated what I felt was a useful toolbox of writing strategies, little tricks and habits that greatly enhanced my productivity and effectiveness as a writer. But very few of those strategies had to do with the actual words on the page. I found myself talking less about how you write opening paragraphs, and more about the best time of day to work, or the most useful tools for keeping notes, or the right point in the research process to start writing. My strategies, in effect, were more about lifestyle choices than they were about sentence structure. They were all about creating an environment that made it easier to turn inchoate ideas into working prose: ways of organizing your writing space, work habits and routines that helped you get those words onto the page or the screen. In a funny way, my seminar turned out be closer to Dave Allen than E. B. White; my strategies weren’t about “elements of style”; instead, they were tools for getting things written.
The nice thing about thinking about writing in terms of tools and work habits—and not in terms of style guides—is that the advice turns out to be more widely applicable. On the level of the individual sentence or paragraph, teaching people how to write a New Yorker article is materially different from teaching them how to write a business plan or a scholarly essay or a personal memoir. These are each genres that require distinct kinds of sentences and forms of organization. But most of the tools and strategies I’ve accumulated over the years work well irrespective of the kind of content being written.
When I first began talking with Ev and Biz about helping them with Medium, they described part of their mission as building an environment that would encourage and cultivate better writing on the web, and help those words get into wider circulation. So it’s appropriate that one of the first collections on Medium should be focused on writing tools. For the next few months, I'll be posting a series of mini-essays on life inside my own personal writer's room, starting with one of the most crucial habits of all: keeping your hunches alive.