How to Write a Lot

Here is a Word file of a brief article I wrote and which appears in the current issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics and here with permission.

How to Write a Lot
Four Rules
Joseph A. DeVito

A lot has been written about effective writing. For example, the largest selling textbooks, for the largest college course (English Composition), are the basic English handbooks used to teach the skills of effective writing, attesting to society's conviction in the importance of effective writing and its concern with teaching the skills of effective writing. The importance of effective writing has even penetrated the best seller lists with such books as Eats, Shoots & Leaves and the continuing success of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. A search of "writing skills" on amazon.com/books yielded 46,769 results. And a Google search of the same phrase yielded 5, 190,000 sites, many of these devoted to teaching people in business the skills they never learned in college--despite the current emphasis.
But what about writing a lot? Surely there is some merit in writing a lot. And, contrary to what many who write little may argue, there seems no evidence to suggest that quantity is in any way negatively related to quality. Yet many persist in the belief that if you write a lot you can't be writing "good." But consider: Is Shakespeare any less a playwright because he wrote a lot? Similarly, for John Updike who has written some 60 books, for Joyce Carol Oats who has written over 100, and Isaac Asimov who wrote over 200. The same is true in the academic world. Those who write a great deal are in no way inferior to those who write little; instead, those who write a great deal seem (to me, at least) to be among the best writers and most significant contributors to their field.
This is not to say that there are some who write a great deal but are known not for quality but only their prolificacy. There are these people as well but they certainly don't define the class of prolific writers.
With this as a preface--to help de-demonize the writer who writes a lot--here are four "don'ts" that a writer might follow to write a lot. In the interest of avoiding allness, each of these "don'ts" comes with a "however."

Don't No. 1. Don't Delay

Don't wait to sit in your favorite chair with a cup of coffee at your computer to write. If you're on a bus and a thought hits you, write it down on the paper and pen you always keep with you. Louis L'Amour, the prolific Western writer, said that he could write in the middle of Times Square. And, though I doubt that he tried, I'm sure he could have. It's that attitude that helps you write a lot. And don't wait for inspiration which may or may not come. Novelist Peter deVries put this in perspective: "I only write when I am inspired. And I see to it that I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."
However, there are many instances from literature of prolific writers who only wrote at certain times or in certain ways. And it obviously worked for them. Tolstoy wrote in the morning, Dostoyevsky late at night, and Benjamin Franklin and Edmond Rostand at any time but preferably in the bathtub.

Don't No. 2. Don't Edit

Don't edit, evaluate, or self-censor your own work. This can come later. Pausing to evaluate may be an indication of fear of being able to move on and so you pause and evaluate, censoring more and more ideas. This suggestion is nothing more than a repeat of the brainstorming rule: "Don't Evaluate". Creativity and the easy flow of ideas work best when uncensored.
However, at some point you need to separate what works from what doesn't and here you need to start evaluating. But, only after you've written a lot.
At some point you'll need to spell and grammar check and edit what you've written but just don't do it at the point of creation. You can always fine tune your sentences at a later, editing stage. Thomas Wolfe approached this differently, He simply wrote as much as possible and then left it up to his editor to cut and edit his length prose. Fortunately for Wolfe, his editor was the famed Max Perkins, the editor, not only of Wolfe but also of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Don't No. 3. Don't Stop

Don't stop your writing or interrupt your creative flow by looking up a word, finding a statistic, or locating an apt quotation. These are often stall tactics, similar to sharpening pencils in the olden days, and are best avoided at this point. Instead, consider writing directly into your manuscript a note to yourself (I call these NTM, notes to myself) such as "needs a good quotation here" or "rewrite in plain English!" (one of my favorites).
If something is giving you trouble, don't stop to resolve the problem. Continue writing and go on to the next point--perhaps, again, making a note to yourself--"this statement needs research support" or "a good example would really help here." If you stop to find the research support or the example, you're likely to lose your writing momentum--too large a price for finding the information right now.
However, under some circumstances you'll want a break. If that's the case, take a break and you might want to use the time to find that quotation or example. Or you might want to integrate breaks into your writing routine. Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, for example, sets a clock, write for one hour, and then takes an exercise break and does pushups and stretches. Taking a break when you want it is perfectly acceptable and leads easily into our next and final suggestion.

Don't No. 4. Don't Follow Rules

"You have to write every day" is one of the time-honored rules for prolific writers. William Zinsser, in his popular On Writing Well--now in its 30 anniversary edition--echoes the advice originally given by Balzac ("You must write one page each day."): "The only way to learn is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis." This suggestion is not surprising coming from Balzac who tried to write for 24 hours at a stretch, aided by lots of black coffee from which he supposedly died.
Not only is there no evidence to support this claim, there's good reason for believing otherwise. Rules like this make writing work and that's not going to help you write a lot. The more that writing is fun, enjoyable, exciting, engaging, interesting, etc., the more you'll write. And that's perhaps the clearest rule for writing a lot: Write a lot. Basically, the less rule-bound, the more enjoyable the experience will be and the more likely you'll write a lot. After all, why spend a great deal of time doing something you don't like?
However, some people do need rules and it helps to recognize this. If you find that you write more when you follow a set pattern (from 9-12, Monday through Friday, say) then do so. If you want to set a quota, then do so. After all it worked for Hemingway who had a quota of 500 words and it works for Stephen King who uses ten pages (around 2000 words) as his guideline.
Perhaps the best "don't" comes from playwright Lillian Hellman: "If I had to give young writers advice, I'd say don't listen to writers talking about writing."

Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Hunter College of the City University of New York and, by at least some standards, would be considered to have written a lot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

maestra replying:
Good article, Joe, with which I have to agree. For my own writing, I have found that ideas often come to me in the wee hours of the morning when I am free from daily distractions. If I don't jump out of bed and jot those ideas down, however, they are often forgotten by morning. I do try to let my ideas flow freely without editing them, but since I do not have an editor as do you, I do have to ultimately go back and edit my own writing. When I first started writing my book over a year ago, I forced myself to put aside at least one day a week-a Sunday-to concentrate on my writing and nothing else. I soon discovered, however, that writing a book could not be done that way. Now I write when I feel inspired to do so, and sometimes even abandon my writing for weeks at a time. Without a deadline though, I sometimes wonder if my book will ever be completed. Sometimes I actually do not want it to be, as I am enjoying too much the research and writing of it. I am happy to report, however, that I now have some 320 pages completed and lately have been at my writing on an almost regular basis. I actually have been working on another section which is almost ready to be incorporated into the main book. I find it helpful to write the book in sections.