Writing isn't anyone's favorite pastime. Not even for writers. As sports columnist "Red" Smith once explained, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
The blank screen is a formidable opponent for everyone. At least when it was a blank page, you could doodle, or make a paper airplane.
We're uncomfortable with the process, and little wonder. Writing isn't a skill we're encouraged to cultivate these days. Who needs to write when the phone or—better yet—email are available? Email has evolved its own shorthand that little resembles the conventions of formal writing. When we need to sit down to write a proposal or report, it feels like a foreign language.
My students mightily resist being asked to write papers. Their studio courses—the one that really matter to them—require little writing. And the university has relegated its responsibility to produce literate graduates to a "writing across the curriculum" program that tacks writing onto existing courses as an afterthought. Anything more than a few pages and the students complain that they should be earning extra course credit. They have learned their resistance well: they see that their arts instructors and their university curriculum place little value on writing. Why should they?
At best, our culture pays lip service to the importance of written communication. Nine times out of ten, it's not the New York Times that I find at my hotel door. It's USA Today—what my mother called a "five-minute paper."
What really matters these days is action, and what best communicates is the image.
The arts world harbors its own longstanding suspicion of words—of any "explanation" that might detract from the art itself. And it's true. Words can oversimplify, and they can obfuscate.
But when we move beyond this suspicion, we discover that writing proves an unequalled tool for clarifying and organizing our ideas. Writing is a process. It brings order to confusion, gives shape to intuition, and provokes unexpected connections. By writing, we can better plumb our desires, excavate memories, consolidate knowledge, formulate goals, and relate to a larger world. We don't write just in order to "express ourselves," but to discover what it is that we want to express in the first place.
When Bill T. Jones found himself lost in the making of "The Breathing Show," writing became Ariadne's thread through the maze. "What stupid irony," he observed in a diary excerpt published in the New York Times, "even as I curse language, it's words that I turn to to solve the problem of blankness, the incompleteness that plagues my solo."
The bottom line is, writing is impossible for arts professionals to avoid. It's the way we tell the world who we are—by persuading funders, attracting ticket buyers, and informing the press. Arts professionals write for results.
The truth is, you don't have to be a brilliant stylist. You just have to be thoughtful, clear, and direct. All you need to know are a few fundamental principles and techniques. They will demystify the writing process and provide you with an easy blueprint for any writing project.
The Blank Screen
The first word is the hardest. But it doesn't have to draw blood, with all due respect to Mr. Smith. What makes writing feel overwhelming is the false fantasy that really good writing should just come streaming out of us unimpeded. Would a choreographer head into the studio expecting to finish a dance in one session, like Athena springing full-grown from the head of Zeus? No way.
What does the choreographer know? That the process of creation is much easier, and successful, if you break it down into separate steps. Try to approach writing as if you were making a dance. There are four phases:
Improvisation. Like the choreographer, the writer begins by generating lots of raw material. Capture ideas, key words, images, and phrases without worrying about how they sound or whether they make sense.
Composition. Now structure all that raw material. Toss out the irrelevant and redundant verbiage and put what's left into logical order.
Rehearsal. Now that the piece has a basic shape, begin to edit and revise. Like the choreographer, you're looking at overall flow, consistent style, and effective detail.
Tech Rehearsal. The choreographer works with designers to make sure that the lights, sets, and costumes actually work. So does the writer check for the technical accuracy of grammar and spelling. (See the sidebar for technical tips.)
In the process, you may run into three common roadblocks. Here are simple strategies for getting past them.
If you have trouble getting started. Find a form of brainstorming that suits your creative style. For example, you could begin to articulate your ideas in a letter. Or dictating one. Like to tell stories? Construct a scenario. If you're more visual, start with an image. Poetic? Find a metaphor that works for you.
If you get stuck.
- Talk it out with a loved one who knows nothing about your work. The more ignorant, the better, because then you'll be forced to be clear about even your most basic points.
- Try paper and pen. It doesn't feel as "final" as typing. Make lists of words and phrases, or just draw. One thing will lead inevitably to another.
- Give yourself a five-minute freewriting exercise. Ask yourself a specific question (a "prompt") and then write continuously, without interruption or judgement. The goal of freewriting is to keep your hand moving . Even if you start scribbling about how you hate writing, your hand will eventually lead you to fresh ideas.
If you're too close to the text to see it clearly any longer. Ask a friend or colleague for "directed feedback." That is, focus your reader on a specific question, such as: Do I convince you that the project is worthwhile? Or simply direct your reader to circle any vague or unclear spots in the text.
The "C" List
Okay, so you've committed words to screen. What exactly are you aiming for? It boils down to what I call my "C list." Good writing is:
- Clear (easy to understand)
- Concise (to the point)
- Coherent (fits together as a whole)
- Comprehensive (covers all the bases)
- Cogent (logically convincing)
- Compelling (impossible to resist)
These are goals familiar goals. They're the building blocks of all effective communication, whether you're asking for a raise or giving directions. To apply them to the process of writing, keep in mind the following three principles:
Good writing is in the revising. Anne Lamott, author Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing, put it best. All first drafts are "shitty first drafts." It doesn't matter what the first draft looks like. What matters is the last draft. Concentrate most of your time and effort in the studio (structure) and in rehearsal (editing).
Connect with your reader. Everyone today is working in overdrive, and easily distracted, so do think about your reader and how best to hold her attention. For example, try to speak your reader's language. What are the key terms of her particular field that she will relate to? Or do some reverse thinking. Instead of starting from where you are, imagine your reader's position. How would your reader view this topic? (Don't assume, either, that your reader shares the same knowledge base as you. A brief explanatory phrase is always a reader-friendly gesture.)
Connect the dots. In writing, the biggest bang for the buck is structure. Your syntax may be awkward and your word choice uninspired, but if your ideas flow one into the next, your reader won't notice those weaknesses. Solid structure keeps the reader in step with you by providing her with a clear path from start to finish. Can you sketch an outline of your text? If you can't, how can you expect your reader to follow along without stumbling? Transitional phrases and sentences help the reader follow your lead. And remember topic sentences? Your English teacher was right—they really do work.
Most important of all: keep your hand moving. Write a letter to mom, or even just a postcard. Start a journal. Take along a travel diary on your next trip. Or better yet, keep a diary of your next project. Stash a mini-notebook in your pocket or purse.
And, finally: the easiest way to improve your writing? Pick up a good book and read.
* * *
Words: A User's Guide
Trim the fat: omit needless words, avoid redundancies, and delete fancy words or technical jargon
Pin down exactly what you mean: define, particularize, and offer the "telling detail"
Mark Twain reminds us: "the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
When revising, ask the questions: "who s/he?"; "so what?"; "huh?"; "says who?"
* * *
Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style.
William Zinsser. Writing to Learn: How to Write—and Think—Clearly About Any Subject at All.
Based in Austin, Texas, Ann Daly Arts Consulting LLC provides strategic advising to individuals and organizations that make, fund, or serve the arts. Together we share a commitment to shaping a meaningful future for the cultural sector.A longtime thought leader in arts and culture, Dr. Daly is a frequent author and speakerbooks on the performing and visual arts and has served as cultural commentator for the New York Times, Village Voice, Chronicle of Higher Education, and NPR's “Marketplace.” She has contributed articles to Dance/USA Journal, Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Inside Arts (Association of Performing Arts Presenters), and International Arts Manager.
Article used by Permission of the Author
© 2002-2006 Ann Daly
previously published in Inside Arts