Friday, October 20, 2017

8 Rules for Writing

Every October 20, the National Council of Teachers of English celebrates the National Day on Writing. I'll admit I have misgivings-- it reminds me too much of the teachers who teach a "writing unit" for two weeks in April and ignore writing the rest of the year-- but this year I thought I'd recognize the day with a list.

Here are the things that I believe are true, that form the foundation of my writing and my writing instruction:

1) There are no writing prodigies.

Mozart started playing piano at age three and composed his first piece at age eight. Pascal wrote a mathematical paper at age nine. Piaget published a paper at age eleven.

But there are no writing prodigies. There are no classic poems or timeless novels or important essays written by six-year-olds. And what that tells me is that all writers started out in exactly the same place-- downtown Suckville. Some people are better equipped to climb to the top of Mount Awesome faster than others, but when I encounter a student who is not very good at writing, I have to assume that they aren't very good yet. Students get where they're going in their own way in their own time. My job is to help them in their journey, but if they aren't very far along yet, that doesn't mean they can't still make great progress.

2) Writing is craft.

Too many people rule themselves out as writers because they don't experience blinding flashes of transportive inspiration. But when you call a carpenter, they don't say, "Well, I'd like to fix your cabinets, but I just don't feel inspired today." Writing is hammering and framing and laying planks and re-building and altering and fiddling endlessly to get it right. Hammer away and bang it out.

3) Ideas are the basic building blocks

There are still folks out there claiming that the building blocks of writing are sentences. Don't believe it. The basic building blocks of writing are ideas. All good writing begins with a person who has something they want to say, an idea or concept or feeling or image they want to convey. Everything else is the business of getting that Something through the pipeline. The mechanics and the grammatical nuts and bolts and the usage rules are all about making sure that the pipeline doesn't get clogged, that technical issues don't interfere with the audiemce's ability to get what the writer is putting out there. 

4) Form follows function

Do what you need to do to best convey your Something. There are no right and wrong choices-- there are only choices that work and choices that don't, and your measure is always "Does this serve the material? Does this support my Something?"

5) Avoiding mistakes is a mistake

A musician can play every note exactly as written, and be absolutely mediocre. A sports team can make zero mistakes and still get thoroughly beaten. In writing, concentrating on avoiding mistakes is a fool's game. It's not good enough to not do anything wrong-- you have to do something right. Be bold. Don't focus on what you're not going to do-- focus on what you are going to do.

6) You do you

Idea webs. Classical outlines. Free-writing to generate ideas. Discussion. Thinking in isolation. Pulling it out of your butt at the last minute. These pre-writing techniques all work for somebody (and not for some others). Pen or typewriter or computer screen. You have to know what works for you. There is no "correct" or "incorrect" way to write-- there are only the ways that work for you and the ways that don't work for you.

Here's the catch-- you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what does and doesn't work. You may want to be the "pull it out your butt at the last minute" person, but you have to take a hard, honest look at your product and ask yourself if it really represents your best work.

7) Testing is not writing

Never, ever mistake the kind of word tofu product required by standardized tests for actual writing. We live in a golden age of bad writing instruction, almost all of it aimed at standardized test writing-flavored behavioral products. That is not actual writing; it's mindless idea-free hoop-jumping. Never mistake it for anything else.

8) Write

Yes, read about writing. Talk about writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read-- and do it like a writer. But at the end of the day, there is only one way to perfect your craft, and that is to write. Write every day. Write about whatever is passing through your head. When Something scratches and bangs and hollers against the inside of your head and demands to be released, release it. Write. Write during your lunch hour. Stay up an extra hour. Get up an hour early. But write.

Today is the National Day on Writing. Let's go ahead and proclaim 363 more Days on Writing to follow it up.


  1. Mozart may have composed at an early age but nobody plays any of those pieces - they exist merely as curiosities. His mature writing was far, far better and are examples of Classical-era perfection. The point: even "prodigies" have to learn and grow up. So, inhabiting "Sucktown" is something even the most celebrated of geniuses have to endure for at least a time.

    I find that most of my students (musicians) simply do not have the patience to be bad and follow through on the process of learning to get better. They think that there is some point they will reach (early high school) when they will suddenly be good, all the while never having really discovered how to practice effectively or not bothering to study masters on their instrument. When they discover that there is no magic wand and that it just takes hard work over long periods of time with many "failures" along the way, many of them quit.

    I suspect it is the same way with writing - nobody is "born" good at it, it takes time, study and willingness to be terrible at it. That is what most students simply do not have: a willingness to be awful. Sort of shoots all sorts of holes in the "humans are innately curious and want to learn things" canard, doesn't it? They want to learn things if they are instantly rewarding and are curious insomuch as it leads to pleasure. Real learning is hard and is filled with self-doubt, frustration, failure and endless repetition and most people consider that boring.

    1. I wonder how much of your experience is determined by our testing culture. Has it changed over the years, or have you always found students to be that way? Testing is all about right or wrong, now not later, failure is not an option. I don't see how we can expect students to stick with a pursuit through tedium, "failure" and other hard times, when they are trained to the carrot and stick of BS Testing.

  2. Excellent eight points, and I heartily agree.

  3. Great question. In my experience (38 years), when it comes to "success", most students prefer the path of least resistance. However I am convinced that the the last 17 years of test and punish culture has changed the meaning of "success" - and not in a good way.