What creative writers can learn from professional writers
Since I embarked on a career as a freelance writer and a teacher of writing about four years ago, I’ve learned lots of things about the art, craft, and business of writing. One of the most useful and surprising has involved the breakdown of supposedly impermeable barriers between different types of writing.
I want to share how these observations have informed my writing process as both a professional writer and as a writer of fiction.
(Note: This turned into a massive (2,300+ words) post so I am charitably hiding the bulk of the post below the fold. You’re welcome!)
While I’m very lucky to be teaching creative writing and fiction classes at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe this fall, most of my teaching has been in other areas of writing: composition courses, mostly at the Community College of Allegheny County and at the University of Pittsburgh. The class I’ve taught far more than any other, at Pitt, is Written Professional Communication (WPC). Until the spring 2018 semester, I think I’d taught it every semester that I’ve been working as an instructor.
WPC is geared toward writing in the workplace. Over the course of the term, we cover resumes and cover letters, business correspondence, various kinds of reports, proposals, social media, and writing for the web, among a few other kinds of writing. It’s a “writing intensive” class, which at Pitt is a graduation requirement; WPC itself is not required, but some writing-intensive course is, and because this one has a relatively low course number and a reputation for being Actually Useful (not to say easy, although I think it has that reputation in some quarters), it’s a popular course, taken by lots of pharmacy, engineering, physical therapy, and computer science majors.
Teaching WPC was a natural fit with my experience as a professional editor and writer, and my growing moonlighting career as a freelancer. But I definitely thought of it as existing in another realm from my creative work. How could you not, when you’re talking and thinking about informal reports, the three-paragraph pattern of correspondence, and the nuances of the cc and bcc fields?
But from teaching writing in such a practical way, to people who aren’t necessarily interested in the inherent mysteries of the act of writing, I’ve ended up adopting new ways of viewing what I do when I sit down to write creatively.
Here are the key lessons I’ve absorbed, in hopes they may be useful to others—especially those who, like me, might think professional or business writing has absolutely nothing to do with creative work:
Revision Is King: One of my chief goals in the WPC class (and this has bled into every single writing class I teach, whether it’s a higher-level fiction class or freshman composition) is to get students familiar and comfortable with the idea of revision as being at the very heart of the act of writing.
In WPC, I find this exciting to talk about as an iterative process because while very few college students (especially non-writers) truly approach writing in the way their English teachers have stressed for years—brainstorm, then draw up an outline, then write it, then revise it—they often have examples of using an iterative process in their “real work,” whether that’s in a chemistry lab or working on a team engineering project.
One student, a computer science major who hoped to launch his own tech start-up, described a mentor at an internship sitting down with him and, before writing a single line of code, going through what a piece of software was supposed to accomplish; once that was done, they went through what each command should achieve, in plain English; only when that had been finished, and they’d checked it for errors, did the student begin to write actual code.
The reason revision is so important, and that I get so excited about it, is that it totally shifts your emphasis as a writer, and removes a ton of pressure on that first draft. In the example of my student writing code, he got to try and fail to articulate what should happen overall, then at each stage of the programming process, before he got into the dense work of coding.
Like most of the college students I have encountered in WPC classes, my collegiate experience of writing was to sweat out a draft of a paper, look it over for spelling and grammatical errors, and then print it out and turn it in. But when you get comfortable with the idea that you can not only fix things about that first draft, but can revisit, rethink, and rewrite everything about it, you don’t sweat that first draft nearly as much. Recognizing that iteration is a key component of business writing, as well as many other professional processes, has helped me to commit to revision as a central part of my approach to writing.
Something I tell students, especially in creative writing classes, is that real, deep revision is challenging in part because it’s hard, at first, to fully grasp what it is. We’re so used to approaching revision as cleaning up smaller errors, making the fixes a teacher or peer reader has suggested, the very idea of going in and reorganizing whole paragraphs, or choosing new theses, is so daunting as to be literally unbelievable—for a very long time, I simply didn’t believe that “real writers” rewrote the same story, essay, or poem more than once or, among the real fanatics, twice.
In a related vein: Come Back to It Later: I always prefaced this advice by acknowledging how unlikely it is that college students will follow it to the letter: when you’ve finished a draft of something, set it aside for a “cooling off” period and come back to it.
So often, we as readers of our own work view our writing not as a text translating thoughts into words, but as a shorthand reflecting back our own thought process. When a piece of writing is fresh in our minds, every sentence functions as a reminder of what we were thinking when we wrote it. The effect is perfect understanding of what the writer—you—meant to say.
Ironically, this is the last thing we want. We want to have to engage in that act of translation again, so that we can see where our wording is clunky, our meaning is ambiguous, or we use an example that’s just confusing.
The same is true with creative work. You may put down a short story or poem and feel that it’s the best thing you’ve written, but no reader, no matter how sympathetic, is going to come to your work with the same enthusiasm and emotional attachment. Put it aside for a while and come back when your words are just words.
Also relatedly, Share Your Work: This is well known to creative writers, but sharing your work with others, getting feedback from peers, is practically axiomatic. In my WPC classes, the reason I tended to emphasize was that your peers are likely to see things you don’t see: omissions, unintentional slights or even offensive phrases, etc.
While the concerns with creative writing are different, I’ve always said that one of the chief benefits of a writing workshop is simply the “market research” aspect that comes from seeing how others react to your work. I recently had the eye-opening experience of learning that people in a workshop thought my main character was nasty, vengeful, and thoroughly unpleasant, when I hadn’t viewed him that way at all. Oops—but it was crucial to find this out now and not later.
Respect “Writing Mode”: One of the more granular tips I liked to share with students in WPC was to think about their mental state when they got started writing something as a special one, to be protected against distraction. We’d talk a little about turning off the internet or hiding their phones, but mainly what I cautioned against was clicking out of the word processor where you are composing your proposal or report to check the exact price of 500 pounds of concrete. Even though this is directly related to your writing, a search like that might as well be “Who sang the 1988 pop hit ‘Wild Wild West’?” because it’s going to open up the same exact wormhole of internet temptation. (Answer: Escape Club.)
More to the point, jumping out of your document to do research pulls you out of that mental space. I have no scientific basis for this, but I’ve always maintained that getting into that writing head space initially, and then getting back into it after something has pulled me out, costs a real mental effort, and takes time.
The solution I advocate is simply leaving yourself notes: “At [price per pound] for 500 pounds of quick-drying concrete, we’d be looking at a total cost of [total].” You should be checking your work over closely enough that you don’t worry about turning in a final paper riddled with these kinds of brackets and missing facts. And a strategy from the world of publishing is to use the tag “TK,” which stands for “to come.” If you ever get your hands on a publisher’s galley copy of a book that hasn’t come out yet, you’ll see things like an introduction, or maybe the author’s biography, listed as TK because the publisher hasn’t gotten them yet and they’re not going to slow up the whole production process—sending out copies to book reviewers and bookstore owners and buyers—because the author hasn’t figured out how to phrase the biographical statement, or whom to thank in the acknowledgments section.
(I know “TK” doesn’t work as an abbreviation of “to come,” but the rationale that I’ve heard is that the combination of those two consonants happens very, very rarely (if you can think of an incidence that doesn’t involve someone named Atkins, or the hip hop group Outkast, let me know!) and so searching the text for “tk” will basically lead you only to these missing elements.)
On a later pass of the piece, when you are not drafting, you can take advantage of that different mindset in order to jump around, doing research, citing examples, formatting titles correctly, etc. (One way I often used this technique on the job while a public-relations writer at Pitt was to write something like “[title] Boris Becker of [department]” and then later to get the exact title of the professor and his department. These titles were always very specific, and people took them very seriously, and it always took an annoyingly large mental effort to stop writing a press release and go get the correct title and the correct name of the person’s department.) Now that you’re not writing original material, these little omitted pieces of information are just so many little boxes to check off.
Over the years I’ve taught WPC, I’ve come to leave myself more and more notes, not just in my freelance work but in writing fiction. I think there is a limit to how much and what kind of content you leave yourself notes on—I don’t think it would be helpful or very encouraging to come across “[awesome battle scene between pirates and werewolves]” as you work on the second draft—but if you can’t think of the exact right adjective at this very moment, or you’ve listed two fantastic character details and feel certain that a third would really nail who this character is, why not leave yourself a little note and go on, instead of getting hung up on it?
This may feel weird and dirty to writers who view themselves as courting the mystery when they write, but I like this approach because it goes perfectly with the prior note about putting revision at the center of your work. I’m under no illusions that I’m going to reach the end of this first draft, type “The End,” and send this mess off to The Paris Review, so why should I agonize over every word choice and comma on my first pass? (Or my second, or my tenth . . .)
Help Your Future Self: This is an extension of the prior note, but you’ll inevitably find that you run out of time, or energy, or for some other reason must stop a writing session before whatever you’re working on is complete. Even if you get through a full draft and are knocking off for the day, if you’ve seen the light on revision, this finished draft is probably not the end of your work on this piece.
Just as falling down an internet wormhole of “Wild Wild West” song lyrics, Escape Club trivia, and the 1988 Billboard pop chart will mean that when you return to your writing you have to get back into the proper mental state, getting back to that place the next time you sit down to work on the writing project will also take some effort and time.
Be good to yourself and plan for that moment by leaving yourself notes about where you’re going next, what the next scene or paragraph should cover, and anything else that you may be thinking about now, in the heat of your writing session, that you’ll likely have forgotten by the time you get back to your desk tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.
Along with those bracketed notes, these notes to yourself will help you get up to speed quickly, telling you exactly what you were thinking. Along with reading over the prior few paragraphs, this should be a big time-saver when you get going on the project again.
Wow. Who knew I had so much to say about this topic?
I’m surely not the first person to point out that, beneath all the niceties and conventions of different styles and modes, writing is writing. But hopefully this post offers a few ideas to people who are open to the idea of getting away from their feathered quills and ink pots and embracing a more pragmatic, less dogmatic approach to writing.
For anyone who is truly interested in this stuff, I can recommend the textbook we used in WPC, Writing That Works, for your reference. Good luck!