Writing Nuggets of truth and intent

That to This

I remember the moment I stopped writing in cursive. Second period World History with Mr. Hickman. My thought as I stared at my writing, “I hate looking at my cursive. I’ve always hated my cursive. Why must I hate my own writing?”

Monday, January 10th, 1984, 9:15am. Halfway though my inane essay on the Nazification of Germany…

that to this

These radical, personal, creative transformations rarely happen. We want them to happen, but there are mostly a lot of false starts because changing a creative habit is a long grind-it-out process.

This time of year hope springs eternal regarding change as we stare a bright and shiny new year full of potential. Your thought is: “Clean slate. Haven’t fucked this one up one yet. Ok. Ready? Go!” Resolutions appear in this soup of primal excitement encouraged by the presence of an endless, aggressive, and seductive set of Top 10, How To, and Best Of Lists.

The intent of these lists is honorable. Someone is trying to synthesize and prioritize the world for you, but these lists, combined with your fine set of resolutions, won’t magically make it easier for you to sleep or vastly improve your productivity. These nuggets of truth and intent will only point you in a direction. It’s up to you to start walking.

It’s in this spirit that I offer a brief list of ways I’ve learned to improve my writing over the past year. These ideas have been slowly collecting on a set of stickies on my second monitor for the past 12 months, which, not surprisingly, is the length of time since I last wrote this type of list.

My first impression is that this list is more appropriate for reasonable-sized weblog articles, but who knows, this may help your book:

#10 Steal. A lot. Passing a stolen thought through your fingers makes it yours.

#9 Love one idea, one word, or one paragraph of your article. If this hasn’t happened yet, ignore your article for a month. If it fights its way back into your consciousness, there’s something to love.

#8 Repeat your favorite idea throughout your article.

#7 Create compelling gaps in your thoughts where the reader is allowed to fill in the spaces and create their own experience. Writing is the art of choosing what not to say.

#6 Delete liberally. Anything important that is accidentally deleted will come back.

#5 Find an editor. Find an editor. Find an editor.

#4 Repeat your favorite idea throughout your article.

#3 Never publish what you haven’t slept on.

#2 If you can’t find an ending, repeat the beginning.

If you want to examine change, I invite you to glance over to the first few months of Rands in Repose. Scroll down to Spring of 2002, which is a scant five years ago. Most of those articles are barely readable to me. The ones I can read are those I either rewrote for the book or ones I rewrote for myself because I couldn’t stand to see my thoughts conveyed like I’d written them on the back of a napkin.

Perhaps the biggest change between then and now, between that and this, has to do with time and work. Clearly, I’m publishing less on a month-to-month basis, which is odd, because I’ve never written more. This fortunate contradiction is a result of the most important bullet item:

#1 The more you work on your writing, the more you’ll care.

There are eleven partial articles sitting in the “Latest Rands” folder on the desktop. My guess is you’ll see half of those. Five years ago, they’d already be published in all of their disjointed napkin-worthy glory. The difference isn’t a list of ten writing tips; the difference is constant, creative insistence to care more about what I write.

15 Responses

  1. Roland 16 years ago

    That’s quite a fitting moment to make the switch from cursive to print, since the Nazis banned Fraktur and other cursive forms in 1941.

  2. Thanks for caring.

  3. Federico: I’m pretty sure that is intentional. Notice that the mis-numbered entry is “Find an editor. Find an editor. Find an editor.”

  4. No, the mis-numbering is an error… a fixed one. See article re: editors.

  5. Federico 16 years ago

    #0 Use Markdown so your lists don’t go: #6, #6, #4 🙂

  6. Hey Rands, I just wanted to let you know that, as a writer and a writing teacher, I’ve always gotten a lot out of your articles on the subject, and every now and then I pass them on to my students. My freshmen comp kids read “Weblog Writing” last semester, and my business writing kids will read “A Hook and A Glimpse” this semester. Keep it up.

  7. Simon 16 years ago

    Again referring to #5, may I draw your attention to the beginning of the second paragraph: “Halfway though…”

    As a long time reader and first time poster I’d also like to thank you for a lot of great articles and The Book, which I picked up a couple of weeks ago.

  8. Point 10 is interesting. Stealing sort of coincides with one of my favourite ways to get me writing – reading.

    Sometimes words seem to be hopping around my head but not hitting any grey matter. These are the times when I know what I want to say, but can’t find the words or the coherence to write it down. This is when reading behaves like the priming aid to get the writing flowing. Sometimes reading material about the content I’m trying to write also makes it easier to find those words that are on the tip of my tongue but don’t want to get out.

  9. Mike Sanders 16 years ago

    How do you find a good editor? I have tried five people, but none were worth anything.

  10. James 16 years ago

    Thanks – you are rewarded now by knowing that I consistently weed out my blog garden to leave only those healthy, thoughtful individuals who care about what they are writing and probably have an editor. I’m always checking with eager anticipation to see what new blooms have burst out at Rands in Repose.

  11. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious. Thanks.

    NB: The moment I thought of printing this out and pinning it on my work board, Philip Toshio Sudo’s “Zen Computer – Mindfulness and the Machine” sprang to mind, and I immediately retrieved it from my bedside table draw.

  12. Bill Coleman 16 years ago

    I made a similar transistion away from cursive when I was in high school as well. But it was for an odd reason. I was learning to copy morse code above 15 words per minute and had reverted to a simplified print.

    Today, I copy morse in my head, not on paper, but I still use simplified printing to take notes. It’s ugly, but it is quick.

  13. You must be crazy not to use cursive. Its purely a speed and efficiency thing which I thought any dev would want.

    You might say your non-cursive is as fast as another’s cursive but seriously, it would be like a hunt-and-pecker comparing themself to a touch-typist.

  14. Bravo for endorsing the blindingly obvious — cursive is dead! Your article inspires me to throw away the manuscript workbooks in our homeschool which can only result in a much happier family. All three girls are excellent printers and increasingly rapid and accurate typists. There is no practical purpose to forcing them to loopy loo over and over again until they can generate a satisfactory ag combo. Thank you, Rands.

  15. I know it’s not really the point of your post, but I think you’d be a lot happier and more productive if you developed a decent cursive hand. I recommend Teach Yourself Better Handwriting by Rosemary Sassoon. It’s aimed at adults, not kids, who want a faster, more readable, adult-looking (but not necessarily pretty) cursive handwriting style. I worked through the book in spare moments, filling up a notebook with practice exercises. In the end my handwriting got more legible and consistent (but otherwise didn’t change much). There are fewer VOIDs in my check register now.