On Writing

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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27 Responses

  1. Michael Cain says:

    I just finished reading an interview with an author who cited Ray Bradbury’s “Write 1,000 words every day, and after three years you’ll be a writer.” Not necessarily a fast one, or even a good one, but a writer nonetheless. Discovering that Oglaf’s muse (NSFW) has charge of you provides a different sort of motivation :^)Report

  2. Michael Drew says:

    Sometimes we write primarily for ourselves, and then throw it out there for anyone who’s willing to put up with it in the hope of finding some half-obscured nuggets of wisdom. Those who aren’t willing, especially in a blog? Who can blame them?

    This is me. I sympathize with your struggle. Apparently I don’t want to be a writer that badly.Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    Man do I love this post. What you said up there? That’s exactly why I’m not a writer. Why I could not be a writer. It’s just so goddam much work!

    But good on ya for persisting. One tip, tho (maybe): sometimes good enough really is good enough. As you said up there, you actually are a good writer, which means sometimes your own standards are gonna be higher than they need to be, especially given the limits of individual sanity.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

      sometimes good enough really is good enough.

      This is what I mean about the need to rewrite. This sentence makes no sense.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

        Oh, I’m not a writer so I feel no compulsion to re-write.Report

      • Sometimes, especially when writing on a deadline, good enough does have to be good enough, I think. I’d rather write well. But I’d rather write poorly and be on time than write well and be a week late.

        That standard applies more to undergraduate assignments and reports at work I have to write and that almost no one will read. Sometimes I apply it to the (very minor) publications I’ve done. Not journal-quality, just encyclopedia-quality.

        The standard doesn’t apply as well for things I care about. I still sometimes do it, which is probably why I’m not really a writer.Report

      • Sometimes… good enough does have to be good enough…

        When I was promoted to supervisor at Bell Labs, my former boss came by to congratulate me, and to warn me. “Part of why you got promoted, Mike, is that you don’t settle for ‘good enough’ in the things you do. One of the things you have to learn as a supervisor is that you can’t do that for everything any more. You’ll have to look at some stupid piece of paperwork that comes down, and decide ‘This is worth 15 minutes of my time,’ do what you can in 15 minutes, and send it back.” It was true, it was hard for me to learn to do, and it was one of the most valuable pieces of advice anyone ever gave me. Saved my sanity during the session when I was working for the legislature.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to James Hanley says:

        Oh, piffle. You are just playing dumb. It makes perfect sense, in our cultural context where “good enough” is often derogated, this derogation often taking the form of denying that it is in fact “good enough.” It may be that this commonplace will die out, and someone a century or three down the road will scratch her head wondering what “sometimes good enough really is good enough” can possibly mean, but so what? For the intended readers, the meaning is perfectly clear.Report

  4. zic says:


    I’ve been trying to make the first point in the copyright thread, too. To do it well, you have to do it. A lot. You have to put your ass in the seat and do the work. Since I started using my camera in June, I’ve taken something like 30,000 photos, and I’ve studied nearly every single one. Taking them, studying them, seeing how people react to them, that’s how I’m developing my eye. The best image I’ll ever take in my entire life won’t be an accident, it will happen because I’m putting in this effort.

    When people ask me about writing well, recommend William Zinzer’s On Writing Well.

    Thank you, James Hanley. I want to go re-read it now.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      Okay. So on your chapters, you are writing on deadline. My experience was that this gets easier; chapters seven and eight will be much easier than two and three.

      I agree, the big problem here is the overall structure; but even here, you’re already in the stream; you’ve committed to the structure you have. Teaching them as you write could, I think, be a a tremendous aid in rewriting; including a look at the order of presenting material, but it does mean your students are beta testing for you. This is the way of the world now, it’s an honor to be the guinea pig doing the beta testing. A privilege.

      It’s also important to let your whole brain work on this, including your subconscious mind. I’d read the day’s (or few-day’s) work before going to bed; particularly if I’m chewing on a problem. I’ll often wake up with the problem sorted out, understanding my way through the weeds. Perhaps this is the reason so many famous writers say they write in the morning; that’s the time when the dream-mind’s work is freshest.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

        chapters seven and eight will be much easier than two and three.

        No, because as the term goes on I will have grading to do, more weekends will be taken up by swim meets, and I will get more and more tired from the general grind of the term. I have carefully planned a few handouts from other sources precisely so I won’t have to try to keep up in the last several weeks of the term. By Thanksgiving I will be a zombie, desperate to go away somewhere for a weekend all by myself to do nothing but read fiction and watch movies. I will not get that weekend. The week after Thanksgiving I will be staring dully at my students, uttering trite banalities about government in a monotone, and I will spend finals week wandering the halls looking for colleagues to talk to so I have an excuse to avoid reading the growing stack of final exams on my desk.Report

  5. Maribou says:

    Loved this post, and related to much of it.

    For me, though, the original ass-in-seat writing is IMPOSSIBLE, but rewriting is both compulsive and enjoyable. I can rewrite all day, happily … but that original draft? Even for short book blurbs? UGH.

    I’ve been seeing a counselor for the last few months, and it’s interesting to write for therapy, because I’ve had to learn how to write for MYSELF rather than any real or imagined audience…. often I’m still writing for the counselor – she’s a different audience than I’m used to, but still an audience. Other times, though, I’m my only audience, and I rewrite nothing; I don’t even copy-edit, except to fix painfully obvious typos. It’s unbelievably weird – and yet also the most satisfying writing experience I’ve ever had.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Maribou says:

      For me, though, the original ass-in-seat writing is IMPOSSIBLE, but rewriting is both compulsive and enjoyable. I can rewrite all day, happily … but that original draft?

      I sympathize. Often my technical career involved writing smallish (less than 10,000 lines of code) one-off pieces of software for specialized testing, demos, etc. I could find innumerable other things to do rather than sit down and start writing it. Once there was something basic up and running, though, I could spend all day adding features to it, or going back and cleaning up badly written bits.Report

  6. A few thoughts:

    1. I started to make real progress on my dissertation only when I committed to writing at least one or two hours a day, most days a week.

    2. I’m often embarrassed by my blog comments. I usually rewrite/revise them at least once, but not always. And when I don’t, I regret it. There are a lot of comments I make and then erase because they’re too offensive or too personal or too punchy and do more to incite than advance discussion. Unfortunately, there are a lot of comments I post that probably should’ve been erased.

    3. I always revise my blog posts, but not enough. Because my blog is not widely read, I do often edit after the fact. If more than a day has passed since I’ve published a post, I usually try to note when I’ve edited “for clarity,” but there’s something wrong with that. The reader doesn’t know what I’ve edited out or in.Report

  7. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Well done James.

    I believe if I was to try to capture the process of writing a software application, it would parallel this surprisingly well.Report

  8. Mike Dwyer says:

    Liked this post a lot James. There are so many different approaches to writing. I remember reading something about the way Shelby Foote did it. He would write for about two-thirds of his work day in longhand on a legal pad. Then he would go back and do edits in the evening (I can’t remember if he ever typed things out or if he left that to a secretary).

    My first ‘real’ attempt at writing a book was to take some time off from work and put together a ‘vomit draft’ where I just wrote and wrote and wrote and forced myself not to edit. That was two months ago and I have been scared to open the file back up and do edits because I’m worried I will hate all of it and the time will seem wasted.Report

    • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      it’s totally okay to hate everything you’ve written. KEEP WRITING, anyway. You’ll get better.

      Besides, you think that professionals don’t have gross and inappropriate errors all the freaking time? I know editors, I know better. (nearly all the time the good writers submit stuff that’s completely unreadable without editing).Report

  9. Roger says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this, especially coming from someone whose writing style I so admire.Report