Academics, educators and business professionals write a variety of texts, including, monographs, articles, cover letters, course outlines, reports, newsletters, brochures and grant proposals. Many write because they have to — for academics, promotion and tenure usually require evidence of publications and/or a teaching dossier; for others, writing is an unavoidable part of running a business or part of their job specifications. Indeed, writing, in some form, is the preferred means of communication for large segments of the academic and business population and often a means to different ends along the spectrum of possibilities in such careers. But while some professionals may enjoy writing some of the time, few, if any, enjoy writing all of the time, and a growing number of my clients confess to not enjoying the process of writing at all.
For most of us, writing is often a painstaking and time-consuming process that requires careful attention and effortful practice in the form of research, actual writing, and editing. And then we must do it all over again, and yet again, until the text is ready. The definition of ‘ready’, of course, will differ across individuals, disciplines, and contexts. For some, ‘ready’ means polished, top-quality texts, ready for publication or circulation; for others, it may mean ‘good enough’, or even ‘passable’; yet others may define ‘ready’ as all set for professional editing. Whatever your experience with writing, and whatever your definition of text ‘readiness’ may be, here are some myths that I believe affect the quality of scholarly and business writing today.
Myth: The frenzied writer
We all know this one. This myth suggests that good or excellent writing will only happen in frenzied spurts. Another version of this myth is that writers must be driven by passion in the moment of writing in order to write well. Many writers of fiction often describe their writing process in similar terms. George Orwell, for example, explains: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand” (“Why I Write”). And Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul claims that unless “driven by great necessity, something even like panic, [he] might never have written” (“On Being a Writer”). But fiction and academic or business writing are usually (but not always) distinctly separate genres of writing; best practices for each genre vary.
While I don’t dismiss the role of passion in fuelling excellent writing, there will come a time when passion is not enough, and persistence and discipline is what will actually see you through. Naipaul also acknowledged this in his writing advice to his father: “I do hope you are keeping up your writing. For heaven’s sake do. . . . if you write merely one page a day, you will shortly find that you have a novel on your hand” (Between Father and Son: Family Letters). The persistence and discipline required to write even one paragraph regularly is a desirable habit that the best writers practice across writing genres. This is an especially important ritual for when you begin to lose interest in that half-finished article or report sitting on your desktop.
The myth of the frenzied writer, particularly popular among gradate students, is a productivity dampener: it provides a reason for why you are not writing and therefore an excuse not to write; and, consequently, it robs you of valuable opportunities to develop productive writing habits. Rather, aim for disciplined practice. Plug away at your text even when you don’t feel like it. One common advice is to try to write at the same time each day, whether or not you feel the urge to write, so that you begin to develop a more disciplined approach. And by all means, when your passion for your topic strikes, write away. But don’t wait for that elusive writer’s feeling to come in order to be productive. You may find that for some writing projects, it may never come at all! In the beginning your writing does not have to be polished or even completely coherent to anyone but you. But it must start from somewhere.
Myth: One run is all I need
Very few writers create a polished text in one go. Yes, we all know people who claim they wrote their piece in one sitting, and that there was no editing involved. But while fiction, and other genres of writing, may sometimes allow for organic structures and experimental syntax and even experimental vocabulary (Guyanese writer Wilson Harris comes to mind), it is extremely difficult, risky, and generally not advisable, to write a course syllabus, grant proposal or conference presentation in one go, without ever editing your work, or to use experimental structures without purpose.
I have no doubt that excellent organic, free-form academic writing can and does happen: some academic activists and artists, for example, have challenged the status quo by interrupting the norms of academic genres through their writing. And businesses frequently challenge narrative norms as a way to reboot their brand and market to younger audiences. But while some journals, publishers and online audiences welcome experimental writing, some do not. For scholars, especially beginning scholars, you will need to follow more traditional genre-appropriate and discipline-specific writing and editing routines for particular writing tasks. And of course, business writers need to have a keen sense of their audience.
A traditional writing and editing routine is recursive, rather than linear. So while, in general, pre-writing (for example, brainstorming, research, outlining, documentation) will be followed by writing, which will then be followed by editing, the process does not, or should not, stop there. At any stage in the writing process writers may need to do additional research, or edit what they wrote. And well-written documents need to be edited as many times as necessary until they are consistent, correct and coherent, and they meet the communication requirements of the author, genre and, when applicable, publisher. So good writing does not have to begin as polished writing. In fact, it seldom does. Rather, it is the product of a disciplined, recursive practice of pre-writing, writing and editing.
Myth: The no-outline approach
Free writing, that is, writing without consideration to constraints of grammar, punctuation, syntax, ordering of ideas, etc., can be an excellent pre-writing tool. Free writing, however, is not polished writing. Both scholarly and business writing (even when it mimics informal speech, such as is some website content) require attention to genre and other parameter constraints. To ensure that you spend your time wisely, and focus on exactly what you need to be writing, a writing outline is invaluable. Without it, you run the risk of going off point, and wasting days and even weeks of precious writing time.
I like to think of an outline through the metaphor of a recipe, not because academic texts are to be consumed, but because a recipe allows for varying degrees of flexible interpretation. For beginner cooks, and even more experienced ones, it helps to have the ingredients and instructions in a succinct document to guide them as they prepare their dish. Of course, the more experienced the cook, the more comfortable and adept they may be at taking risks while still producing a desired result. These more experienced cooks can veer away from a recipe, but the original recipe always remains as an artefact, a reference point to which they can return time and again to gauge how far away from the original they have ventured, or to remind them of certain instructions that they still wish to follow. The same is true of a writing outline.
This recipe metaphor conveys the fluidity of the author-outline relationship and leaves room for the organic changes that writers may choose to make as their text evolves. The form that your outline takes, however, is up to you. I find detailed outlines work well for me and many of my clients by helping to keep our writing on track; you may find that less details may work for you. With practice, you will see what works and what doesn’t. For all but the most experienced writers, save yourself time and effort, and work with some form of outline.
Good writing is often painful, but it can also be meaningful and fulfilling. And a large part of your professional life will require that you do some form of writing. Best practices, such as the selection I have touched on above, will not make writing easy but perhaps they will help to make the process a little more enjoyable and the outcome more successful.