Advice on Writing
By David Henderson
In my post on favorite books yesterday, one book I highlighted was Albert Ellis’s A Guide to Rational Living. I pointed out that it, and Roger Callahan, the psychotherapist who recommended it, helped me with my extreme case of writer’s block.
In response, a regular reader of this blog who is a graduate economics student wrote me. I offered to give advice on writer’s block and he wanted it.
So here’s my advice. I’ve edited it a little since emailing him.
The basic idea is to think on the margin.
Aspire to write 6 days a week. This is sometimes hard because you’re researching, not writing, but even there, when you find important things in your research, write them down in a Word doc. By the way, Word, and software programs generally (I much preferred Wordperfect) make writing so easy because you can jot things down in the same file and then connect them up later.
Some days you may have just an hour. So spend that hour writing. Other days you will almost certainly have more time. For days where you have more time available, have a minimum goal of 2 hours of writing. But if, at the end of 2 hours, you’re on a roll, keep going.
Also, if you’re going along and you’ve already hit your 1-hour minimum on those busy days or the 2-hour minimum on the other days, stop when you’re at a point where you perceive that you can quickly complete the thought(s) the next day. This makes it easier when you pick it up the next day not to have any writer’s block at the start. (I realize that this slightly contradicts the on a roll thing above. So do some of the “on a roll” but not all of it.)
When you’re going along writing and you need a reference for something you’re saying but you’re 70% or more sure that you have the idea right, don’t stop and check the reference. In fact, put a little TK in there with a note or two about the reference(s) you want to check. (The editors at Fortune taught me this trick when I wrote a lot for Fortune in the late 1980s.) Then on days where you’ve done your 1 or 2-hour minimum, use some less cerebral time to fill in those references.
Also, you may be writing on one idea and then you think of something else that belongs in the chapter but not in the part you’re writing. Write it down. That will also help jog your thinking when you get to that part. And the beauty of it is that it’s already one quarter or one third done. That’s the beauty of writing in 2019 instead of 1976, when I did most of my writing on my dissertation. Word is a wonderful software because it’s so easy to just stick things in and move them around.
Sometimes when writing, you decide that you don’t like the way you said something and want to say it differently. Instead of deleting what you said, start a new file. And label the versions. So maybe you’re working on V3. Then you realize you don’t like a paragraph. Delete the paragraph and write the new paragraph the way you want. Then save the file as V4. The reason: sometimes you will change your mind and decide that you liked the paragraph in V3. And it’s already there.
Jon Murphy, the graduate economics student who asked for my thoughts on writing, has given me permission to name him.