The trick to writing

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” ~ Red Smith

Joost Swarte

Today, I discovered the trick to writing. It’s plain and simple. So plain and simple, in fact, it’ll sound downright ridiculous. But here it goes:

The trick to writing is to write.

Doesn’t that sound absurd? Let me (slightly) clarify.

The trick to writing is to write as if you have no other choice.

This epiphany came from first-hand experience today, as I finally admitted to myself that this is the beginning of the end of my PhD journey. My general introduction was written in the winter (by me, don’t worry) and now I am beginning to produce as many journal-style papers as I can until I’ve conveyed everything worth conveying to the scientific community (I’ve collected a lot of data, it’ll be a while!). Today, I started to write my real papers.

Of course, by “started to write” I mean the process of actually typing strings of sentences onto a page. The “other” equally important process of writing (i.e., reading, annotating, outlining, bulleting, writing half-sentences that I reassured myself weren’t final because they did not contain THE perfect choice of words) had begun a while ago. And between that wonderfully productive time and today, something weird happened – I froze. Something about beginning the actual process of writing is inanely “freak-out-and-denial-worthy”, once you’ve grasped the reality that THIS tangible beginning of a collection of words, graphs and figures is going to be your Dissertation (capital “D” also spells “daunting”) and that you’d better be good at this because this is the beginning of your long career (hopefully) of pushing to publish papers upon papers (hopefully)…There’s an invisible line between the time when you’re ahead of the game and writing is easy because it’s early in the process, and when suddenly your task becomes to write and produce and submit and defend and graduate. Gasp. I recently crossed the invisible line and suddenly writing became less easy.


What became easier, though, was procrastination, not in the sense that I was putting off working, but that I was putting off writing. I never imagined that someone who LOVES to write as much as I do (seriously, I need it to survive!) would have writer’s block. Shhh! Let’s not call it that, please. Let’s call it “it’s not the right day today” instead.

It’s not the right day today, I have too much to do, I have back-to-back meetings, I have to wait until I read more papers, I’m not in the right mood.

QUIET! You and I both know these are excuses. Super smart excuses, but excuses nonetheless.

The key, I discovered today after my first day of really pushing through it, is just that: Push through it. Keep at it. As if you have nothing else to do, as if you have no other choice. Devote your day to writing, and don’t give yourself a way out of it! Fight off any excuse that creeps into your mind, and give yourself a chance to nip both that invisible line and your sudden lack of confidence in the butt. Because that is all it is, in the end – it’s all in your head.

It’s easy, I promise.

Not in the mood? Tough. You have no choice.

Too distracted? Well, close your browser windows (yes, that includes Facebook) and your door.

Your schedule too full? Carve out time for writing as if it’s really urgent (it is!) and ask others to respect that.

Need to read more papers for a particular section? Highlight the sentence in RED, add a few suggestive dots (…) and move on! It helps me if I consider a paper a work in progress and somewhat more circular than linear. That way, I can add bits and pieces later on, and it doesn’t have to be complete from the get-go.

Your sentence sucks? Skip a line and write another version of it. And another. And another. That’s honestly what I did this morning, after I told myself, “Just spit out the first version that comes to mind just to break the ice and you’ll perfect it later!”. I wrote six (!) versions of the exact same sentence, one after the other like a crazy paraphrase-loving person. I couldn’t help it. The perfectionist in me doesn’t do well with “you’ll perfect it later”, but I found that writing multiple versions of the same idea back to back (rather than deleting and re-writing) boosted my morale and helped me keep at it. After all, you ARE writing and filling the page (albeit with the same sentence over and over again!), and it is much more rewarding and less frustrating to track your progress with different wordings, rather than to see the same blinking cursor struggle through the same three words. It eventually worked and one of those six sentences ended up being a keeper (and the opening sentence of my paper, no less). I felt very triumphant!

Stuck on how to express a complex idea succinctly yet clearly? Keep at it. Don’t give yourself a way out when the voice in your head can’t explain what he/she means. Don’t let yourself get all glazy-eyed while your mouse cursor drags you back ‘home’ to Facebook while you sit there all helpless-looking. Would you give up in the middle of a sentence if you were explaining something to someone? Would you just walk away from them and stare blankly at Facebook with your incomplete idea lingering in the air? No! So try again! Keep trying, until you’ve made it through the wall (then and only then could you reward yourself by scrolling down your ‘other’ blue-and-white wall). Bear in mind that it’s always easier to return to a task when you’ve left it on a good note than on a sour note.

Distracted again? Oh, all right. Fair enough. You DO deserve a break sometimes. I like to let my eyes wander away from the page now and then, and I stare out the window or at some wall-art for a few seconds. It helps if the mind stays on the writing while the eyes wander – it may even help return to the page with a new solution!

Coming up with 389078038 other things you need to do instead of writing? Resist! Give yourself no choice. Nothing is as important now. Even if you just noticed that your keyboard could use a good cleaning (seriously?) or if you just thought of several people you have to write emails to (they don’t miss you!). Resist it all, I say!

Need to go to the bathroom? Oh. Okay. That one’s valid. But hurry back!

The bottom line is keep at it, and it becomes easier. Start with baby steps. Write for an hour, or a morning/afternoon. Once you keep at it all day long, you can say you wrote all day. Won’t that feel rewarding? It does. And it’s more rewarding to think of it in terms of how much you kept at it, rather than how many lines you managed to put on the page (and even that amount will increase with practice).

Just write. Chances are it won’t be as bad as you think it will be, and re-writing is easier than breaking the ice on a blank, horridly white page.

And so the secret to writing is a secret no more. Sure, it was never a secret, as it’s what Professors and mentors and academic writing resources and writers have been saying all along. And given that the quote at the top of the page is disputably attributed to at least eight different sources according to some authority called Quote Investigator, it looks like this may be sound advice! But I think the discovery lies in having to go through this milestone oneself. Try it for a day, and let me know how it goes.

2 thoughts on “The trick to writing

  1. Ah, I wish you’d written this months before 😦 I am in constant writer’s block state so these tips definitely help. I also noticed that with practice and more writing, it comes easier. Thanks a lot for sharing, it seems like you’re on a roll! Best of luck with your Dissertation (with a capital “D”, also spells “dedication”).


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