How Well Do You Write? (2)

As I said in my last post, if you want to see how well you write, you have to disentangle your writing competence from your knowledge competence. You do this by picking something to write about that you know well. Decide to define a concept, describe a fact, or tell a story that is familiar to you. Make this decision the day before in the form of a simple declarative sentence you know to be true. Then get up the next morning resolved to compose the best paragraph you can muster within 18 or 27 minutes. The time limit is important because you want to set yourself a goal within reasonable limits. The whole point is to appreciate your finitude and then set about expanding your domain of mastery.

Start on time. That is, start at exactly the time you said you would when you made the decision the day before. If you said 9:00 start at 9:00, not a few minutes early or late; then keep at it until 9:18 or 9:27, not whenever you feel you’re done. Produce the best paragraph of prose you’re capable of within the time limit you have set yourself.

Think of your reader, a knowledgeable peer. Ask yourself what difficulty the key sentence poses for them. Do they find it hard to believe, or to understand, or to agree with? Support, elaborate or defend accordingly. (You might want to consider the case of the elephant in the lobby, perhaps also the fourth difficulty.) Spend the first half of your session writing as many sentences as you can. Then spend the rest making them sharper, more precise. You want to end up with at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Three or four minutes from the end, read your paragraph out loud, fixing minor mistakes as you go. When the time is up, stop.

Make a little note of how you feel, but don’t evaluate the product. Take a three minute break and get on with your day. Put the paragraph out of your mind for at least a day. Then give yourself nine minutes to look at it carefully. Read it out load again. Mark any errors of style or grammar or reasoning. Ask yourself whether it supports, elaborates or defends your key sentence as well as you had hoped. Don’t overthink this. Confine the experience of self-criticism to those nine-minutes. When you’re done compare it the feeling you had when you finished writing. (It’s good to test the accuracy of that emotional response.) Then take a one minute break and, once again, get on with your day. Repeat this whole process — of deciding what to write at the end of the day, writing it the next day, and critiquing it a day after that — a few times. You are facing the difficulty of writing from the center of your strength. You will learn something about how to improve. But also remember to enjoy it.

2 thoughts on “How Well Do You Write? (2)

  1. I found this quote by Scott Alexander interesting:

    “People used to ask me for writing advice. And I, in all earnestness, would say “Just transcribe your thoughts onto paper exactly like they sound in your head.” It turns out that doesn’t work for other people. Maybe it doesn’t work for me either, and it just feels like it does.”

    He has more to say in this blog post:

    I would venture that most people feel like that. I don’t personally have too much difficulty writing fluently but it is not like writing down what is in my head. Writing is more like an act of cocreation. Combining what’s in my head with what is possible to express. Perhaps the subjects I write about are impossible to fully know until they are written down.

    I know that you make the distinction between writing down what you know and writing to discover what you know – which I find very useful. But I still find that no matter how well I think I know my subject, I discover new things by trying to write it down (at least with anything worth writing).

    I would not be surprised if the experience was similar for many struggling writers. They would find that in fact they don’t know the thing they thought they did as well as they thought. Discouraging them further.

    So perhaps, people who are struggling with the basics should go through more specific steps: 1. Describe what’s in a static picture, 2. Describe what’s in a picture with a sequence of events, 3. Describe a cartoon joke in words. OR 1. Write down instructions to using your oven. 2. Write down how you first used the oven. 3. Describe an ideal oven that would fit all your needs. THEN Write the above and make sure you use words like: ‘thus’, ‘without doubt’, etc. Ideally, they would work in pairs and compare each others’ work.

    I found a story in Ericsson’s ‘Peak’ of a skilled stylist starting out just by copying what other people wrote and then slowly modifying it later. This sounded very similar to the advice musicians give to beginners. Just copy others, learn songs, and use that to develop your own style. And practice your scales and routines.

    I recently found this video of a piano practice session instructive: (if lightyears beyond my skill levels). Could we make similar suggestions for writers at different levels? Or maybe some videos of people writing and then narrating the process.

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