Writers on Writing
I write a lot, and I enjoy doing so. In fact, writing this essay has helped me realize how much writing is at the heart of my work. It is really the principal way in which I focus, formulate, collect, and integrate my thoughts. At its core, my job requires that I clearly and, hopefully, succinctly and effectively, express facts, opinions, arguments, questions, and data. I consider myself the College’s chief “storyteller” and initially these stories always assume written form. Even when my work requires public speaking—which I also enjoy—nearly any set of remarks is the result of multiple written drafts.
Clear writing and clear thinking are integrally related. Each reinforces the other. Writing is not simply something that I do as a part of my work. When I deal with a personal challenge, writing can be a way—no, actually is the way—in which I truly figure out what I think. My family and friends seem to know how much I write and often ask me to comment on their written work. Drafts of essays for graduate school applications, legal letters, communication to public officials, obituaries and eulogies, early versions of term papers, and many other documents have all come to me for comment, correction, and critique.
My affinity for writing surfaced and grew during my undergraduate years. I had professors and friends who carefully read and critiqued my written work. As students, many of us swapped papers. We criticized, corrected, and commented on the papers each submitted. It made writing a lifelong habit, and a good one. It’s four decades later and I’m still in touch with several of those friends.
The act of writing involves continuous revision. That includes correcting typos, grammar, spelling, punctuation and the like but, more importantly, it should involve reflection and rethinking. I share nearly everything I write for correction, editing, and feedback. For my speeches, remarks, presentations, messages to campus, college-documents, and external publications my approach is nearly always the same. I just start writing and keep going for as long as possible. I make almost no corrections to the initial draft. I do not proofread my own work, as I’m really bad at it. After an initial version is complete, I begin the process again, again, and again. I label each successive iteration: V1, V2, V3… You get the point. After the crude initial draft, each subsequent version is the result of arguments with myself over the ideas, the length, the evidence, the voice, the best way to prioritize and organize a document that will ultimately be shared with and (I hope) read by its intended audience.
I’m very fortunate to work (and live) with people who will constantly read and re-read my work and comment honestly on my countless drafts. Here’s some good, free advice. Avail yourself of friends, teachers, peers, or family members who can carefully read and critique your work. Take seriously their comments. You need not accept these, but keep in mind that writing is a form of communication: their comments may make your thinking and writing better, clearer, and sharper.
Writing rarely seems like work, even when it’s slow or when I notice that the current version is marked V7. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy reading about writers and how they go about the craft of writing. Mind you, I don’t read their novels or short stories. But I do enjoy reading about how they work, which is often more interesting to me than their writing itself. A couple of years ago, I read Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writing. Nearly four dozen writers were profiled. Most were novelists, essayists, or poets. I had read very few of their works, but I could not put down the book about how they approach their writing.
Strange as it may sound, writing is an integral, essential, and even enjoyable part of my life. Insofar as I have any retirement plans, these too involve writing for a broader audience. Coincidentally, I was lost in thought while writing part of this essay. Though it made me late for a meeting, it was time well spent.