My friend Saloni Dattani recently wrote a good piece on her approach to writing. I follow many of the same rules: that criticism of style is not to be taken personally, that nuance can be the focus, and that it’s better to be precise than sound clever. I especially agree with the notion that it’s on the writer to be understood rather than on the reader to understand. Reading’s already hard work. It’s the writer’s job to make it as easy as possible.
But the other day I was also asked how to write to a deadline — that is, how to get writing done.
My agent and editor will both be a little tickled by this, as my second book has been taking years longer than expected. But I’ve learned a lot from how I wrote my first book and how I write this newsletter. (My second book is delayed because I haven’t always known enough about certain important sub-topics to start writing some major parts, not because I haven’t been able to write it up. Much of this newsletter has been me exploring the bits I need swot up on before I could put them into the draft.)
Now, there is plenty of advice out there about writing productivity tactics, much of it very good. “Imagine you’re writing an email to a specific pal who is similar to your intended audience” can be a good one in some circumstances. “Write out a plan made up of headings each one out into paragraphs” is another (though I don’t often use it). But I’d like to instead share what we might call writing strategy.
Because I find that in general getting writing done always comes down to just two things: underlying tensions between research and writing, and editing and writing. In these titanic struggles, research and editing both cannibalise writing. Although they are still necessary to it, they are still ultimately the enemy. And once you know who your enemies are, they get a whole lot easier to fight.
Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of these enemies, the main overall strategy I have is to just write. Splurge whatever you can on the page and just. keep. writing. Don’t look back over any single line you write or you will be like Orpheus escaping the Underworld with Eurydice — look back even once and it’s game over. Just keep going, writing as though you’re talking to a chatterbox and you’re afraid they might interrupt. When there’s a point you can’t remember just put a placeholder in. Can’t remember a precise year? It was in XXXX. Can’t remember a name? XXXX said it. Can’t remember a statistic? It was X%. Citation here? Don’t pause to insert a footnote or you lose. Just put the surname of the author in square brackets right then and there in the line to come back to and tidy up later, perhaps a page number if you’re afraid you’ll forget, or perhaps a hyperlink if you’ve already got something open and to hand. But you just have to keep going or one of either research or editing will win.
Once you’re done and your thoughts are all on the page, the enemy is broken. You can go back over and edit for clarity, and pick up any nonsense or repetition. You can go look up what all those XXXXs were and insert them or correct them or decide to put in something else entirely. But by this stage you’ll have already won the war.
If you’re struggling to write anything at all, then it suggests you were not ready for battle at all. You need to close the document and go research — after all, a good general knows their enemy as well as they can before they even approach them in the field. A good general also knows when they’re beaten and must retreat.
Over time, of course, as you get used to winning battles, you can toy with your enemies. You can do a little editing on the fly. You can even do a little research there and then while writing. But by then you are in the flow state — a seasoned conqueror, with nothing to fear. Once you have the strategy down, it’s easy. The rest is just tactics.
P.S. I got married earlier this week, so I’ll be taking a short pause from the newsletter. The usual service will resume later this month.