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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Nov. 24, 2004
Updated, Nov. 24, 2004

QuickLink: A73688

Writing Tool #32: Let It Flow
A transition from tools to habits.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Let it flow. 

When my friend Tom French first read my list of writing tools, he offered this appreciation: "Man, you take writing from the sub-atomic to the metaphysical level." At this juncture, with about 20 more tools to go, I'm almost ready to take the big turn from the tools of writing to the habits of good writers. Such habits may not get you a ticket to Metaphysical World. But they should help the writer with the emotional and psychological challenges of the craft. Even if you have a thousand tools on your workbench, writing is a confidence game.   


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As you stroll around the garden of The Poynter Institute, several inspirational sayings, carved into marble, greet you. One comes from the great sports writer Red Smith: "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." That quote reminds me of another from reporter Gene Fowler: "Writing is easy; all you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." The agony in the garden.

America is not a nation of writers for many reasons. One big reason is The Writer's Struggle. Too many of us talk and act as if writing were a form of procreation without the sex, all labor and pain, all dilation and contraction, with none of the romance and excitement at the point of conception.

For those of you who want to write well, I'm about to reveal a great secret: The Writer's Struggle is over-rated. In fact, the struggle turns out to be not just a confidence game, but a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse in the world for not writing.

"Why should I get writer's block?" asked veteran newspaper columnist Roger Simon. "My father never got truck driver's block."

Imagine these excuses for procrastination:

  • Fire Fighter's Block
  • Paramedic's Block
  • 7-11 Clerk's Block
  • Casino Dealer's Block
  • Ditch Digger's Block
  • Surgeon's Block
  • Postal Worker's Block
  • President's Block (OK, this one may be valid.)

I will not deny the periodic utility of The Writer's Struggle, which I learned as a boy. "Son," said mother, "there's a foot of snow on the ground. Go out and help your father shovel."

"Gee, I'd like to, Mom. But I'm really struggling with this book report."

Let's be honest. We privileged writers are invested in the struggle. We become writers to avoid heavy lifting. Our hernias are mental. But because physical work aversion is considered unmanly, we've created a mythology about our craft. The writer's life is so hard, Hemingway and his ilk taught us, that only drinking, drugs, and infidelity forestall the dissolution that awaits us.

Compare writing to reading. Although good readers may "struggle" with a difficult text, a metaphysical poem by John Donne, few would argue that struggle is the point of reading. The point of reading is fluency. Meaning flows to the good reader. Writing should flow for the good writer, at least as an ideal. One purpose of these writing tools is to help you become a fluent writer.

I come to this discussion as a recovering struggle-holic, having trafficked in the "woe-is-we" business for more than 25 years. I've been quoted as saying, "I don't like writing. I like having written." That sounds more like Dorothy Parker than me, but I've embraced the idea.

As I become a more fluent writer, the more I enjoy the craft and the more productive I become. These days I sound like a Zen master: "The more I write, the more I write." When I look back on my days of struggle, I see a young man trying to tread water while wearing a pair of work boots. I stay afloat much easier in my bare feet.

My path to fluency did not come from someone else's map. Perhaps struggle is the toll we pay to find the path. Looking back, I can remember some trailheads. These guideposts transformed my negative thoughts into useful work, the way Lamaze mothers learn to re-imagine labor pains as muscle contractions.

To become a more fluent writer, try these strategies:

1. Trust your hands. Forget your brain for a while, and let your fingers do the writing. Your hand bones are connected to your brain bones. I had only the most vague sense of what I wanted to say in this chapter until my hands taught me.

2. Adopt a daily routine. Fluent writers prefer mornings. Afternoon and evening writers (or runners) have the whole day to invent excuses not to write (or run). The key is write rather than wait.

3. Build in rewards. Any routine of work (or not-work) can be debilitating, so build in many little rewards: a cup of coffee, a quick walk, your favorite song.

4. Draft sooner. Many writers use reporting and research to fill up the available time. Thorough investigation is key to a journalist's success, but over-reporting makes writing seem tougher. Write earlier in the process so you discover what information you need.

5. Count everything. Don Murray's favorite motto is "Never A Day Without a Line." Not a hundred lines. For the fluent writer, every word counts. Learn to judge your own work by quantity, not quality. 

6. Rewrite. The quality comes from revision, rather than from speed writing. Fluent writing gives you the time and opportunity to turn your quick draft into something special.

7. Watch your language. Purge your vocabulary (and your thoughts) of words like "procrastination" and "writer's block" and "delay" and "sucks." Turn your little quirks into something productive. Call it "rehearsal" or "preparation" or "planning."

8. Set the table. When work piles up on my desk, I find it hard to stick to my fluent writing routine. That is when I take a day to throw things away, answer messages, and prepare the altar for the next day of writing.

9. Find a rabbi. We all need one helper who loves us without conditions, someone who praises us for our productivity and effort, and not the quality of the final work. Too much criticism weighs a writer down.

10. Keep a daybook. Story ideas, key phrases, a startling insight, these can be fleeting. A handy companion, like a notebook or daybook, helps you preserve the ingredients for new writing. Although I will return from time to time to hard edged writing tools ("Vary the lengths of those paragraphs!"), the next set of tips are designed to help you develop the habits of a good writer. They will be designed to help you overcome your resistance to writing, making the act of writing central to the way you see the world. As you add tools to your workbench, you'll begin to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. As you gain fluency, the act of writing will make you a better student, a better journalist, a better friend, a better citizen, a better parent, a better teacher, a better person.

Finally, remember this quote from poet John Ciardi: "You don't have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone."

[This essay is a revision of "The Fluent Writer," which appeared previously on Poynter Online.]

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