Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Via Arts and Letters Daily, I came across Michael C. Munger's list of "10 Tips on How to Write Less Badly." Munger specifically addresses writing (and thinking) as a skill needed to succeed in academia, but what he says applies to almost anyone who sees writing as either a long-range pursuit of its own or as otherwise integral to his life's work. What I like about his list is that Munger understands both the exploratory nature of intellectual pursuits and the frustrations attendant on communicating exactly where one is during the intellectual development that comes with the territory of such pursuits.
Munger starts off each paragraph with a bullet, which he then elaborates upon. His points, taken from these first sentences are below.
- Writing is an exercise.
- Set goals based on output, not input.
- Find a voice; don't just "get published."
- Give yourself time.
- Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant.
- Pick a puzzle.
- Write, then squeeze the other things in.
- Not all of your thoughts are profound.
- Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.
- Edit your work, over and over.
5. Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is. We have all met those glib, intimidating graduate students or faculty members. They are at their most dangerous holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, in some bar or at an office party. They have all the answers. They can tell you just what they will write about, and how great it will be.If you are a writer -- or simply someone working on a long-range project, particularly if it is of a somewhat exploratory nature -- you should make time to read the whole thing. I'm glad I did, both for the advice and for the encouragement.
Years pass, and they still have the same pat, 200-word answer to "What are you working on?" It never changes, because they are not actually working on anything, except that one little act.
You, on the other hand, actually are working on something, and it keeps evolving. You don't like the section you just finished, and you are not sure what will happen next. When someone asks, "What are you working on?," you stumble, because it is hard to explain. The smug guy with the beer and the cigarette? He's a poseur and never actually writes anything. So he can practice his pat little answer endlessly, through hundreds of beers and thousands of cigarettes. Don't be fooled: You are the winner here. When you are actually writing, and working as hard as you should be if you want to succeed, you will feel inadequate, stupid, and tired. If you don't feel like that, then you aren't working hard enough.