A Tricoastal Woman: How I Write

typewriterBack when I was in high school, I had several English teachers who believed in outlines. On occasion, one of them would require us to turn in our outlines along with our finished papers.

I am, by nature, a pantser. This applies to everything I write, not just fiction. My approach to a research paper – or, for that matter, a legal brief – is to read as much as I can on the subject and then sit down surrounded by my materials and notes and start writing. Eventually, the work starts to take shape.

My solution to the outline requirement was simple: I created the outline after I finished the paper. Though I have the vague recollection that one particularly diabolical teacher required the outlines in advance. I cannot recall what I did in that case, since the odds are that I didn’t write the paper early so I could do the outline, but I’m sure I fudged things somehow.

I think my resistance to an outline is similar to my resistance to any set of rules: the minute someone tells me something has to be done this way, my immediate response is “no, it doesn’t”. That applies even when the person telling me to do it this way is me.

But it’s also because I am, at heart, an improvisationalist writer. I write things down, look at them, think “that doesn’t sound right,” and change them. And I keep doing it until they sound right.

I was reading some of Tim Harford’s book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, and his description of the work of various musicians – including Miles Davis and Brian Eno – resonated with me. They pulled high level professionals together, and then put them in situations where they had to soar instinctively. And they did.

He also recounts how Keith Jarrett gave the performance of a lifetime on an inferior piano, because he had to compensate for the instrument’s deficiencies and that allowed him to do something new.

I do think it’s telling that the musicians in question were already very good at their art. That is, while being a pantser may be a writer or other artist’s natural style, that person must master their craft before their instincts will give them the right answer. Martin Luther King Jr. gave some great improvised speeches – including “I Have a Dream” – but he had spent years doing serious preparation for every sermon, every talk.

Being an instinctive sort of writer, I don’t know how to tell anyone else to master the craft. For me, learning to write was a combination of reading a lot and writing a lot. I would read things and realize that certain phrases spoke to me or annoyed me. I read some books on writing – generally essays by writers, not how-to books – and found certain bits of advice rang true.

I just stumbled on an essay on writing by George Saunders that was full of ideas that rang true for me.  Entitled “What Writers Really Do When They Write”, it is one of those rare articles that gives us what the title promises. Here’s one line that caught me:

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done.

I can’t give you any specific bits of advice from this essay. I just know that reading it gave me some thoughts I tucked away in the back of my mind as things that might be relevant when doing my own work. If someone were to ask me how to become a writer, my current instinct is to give them a copy of this essay and suggest they read it and think about it.

This is probably why I don’t have any desire to teach writing. I don’t know how to explain this stuff in specific terms – in outline form, if you will. I get it by osmosis.

It is necessary that I credit growing up in a journalism household with a mother who was one of the world’s great editors. Having her go over my school assignments gave me my starting instincts.

But that’s all I understand about the process. Read a lot. Write a lot. Get someone who understands writing to read what you’ve done. Revise. Repeat.



A Tricoastal Woman: How I Write — 9 Comments

  1. We’re all patterners in one way or another. I think it can be helpful to identify what type of writer we are (even if that is a collection of traits)–for instance, I’m visual. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out my weaknesses. But once I did, I find it enormously helpful to get beta readers to tell me what they’re seeing, if anything. If I haven’t managed to get the inner movie across in the way I wanted, I know what to do to get it there. Even if it takes a few tries.

    We do learn through trial and error. The process of revision can be so empowering!

    • I don’t think of myself as a visual thinker, but I find that a lot of my stories start as images. I suspect that one reason there isn’t enough description in my stories is that I know what the place looks like, but don’t know how to describe it. (Meaning that thinking about what you said just gave me an idea of what I need to work on.)

  2. I’m a pantser too, and while I’ve taught writing, I do better in a workshop setting where I can respond to material before me (it’s that “tweaks what she’s already written” thing).

    I just finished a brief collaboration with my daughter (!), and found, as often is the case, that I am now able to explain the why of a choice I’ve made, because over the years I’ve absorbed some ideas–rules, even–about how or what I need to do through all those sessions of revision and tweaking. When your co-author is an opinionated 21 year old, explanations are sometimes not optional.

    • It occurs to me that I can probably figure out the “why,” but it takes a lot of energy. And, opinionated though I am, I never argued with my mother the editor about anything related to the written word. She was always more likely to be right than I was.

      And, btw, having seen your contributions in workshops in action, I can confirm that you’re very, very good at pointing out the places in a story that need attention.

  3. I am convinced that it is a spectrum. Some of us are far over on one end, and some are on the other. Most writers hover somewhere in the middle. It is rare to find a writer like Diana Wynne Jones, who could not be asked how the work was going. If she thought about it, it stopped immediately.

  4. Oh sing it sister! I had that teacher, too. I handed in perfectly good english essays which got marked down because they didn’t have that blessed outline before them. So I did the exact same thing you did – I wrote the essay first, and THEN I wrote the outline, and then I copied both out in neat form with the outline in front as the teacher required, and handed them in. And my marks soared, and the dimwit said with a self satisfied smirk, didn’t I see just how much better it all was when I did my outline first like he said. I think if I had been a little older or a little less deferential and polite as I had been taught to be towards my elders I might have taken up something hard and smote him on the noggin. As it was, I just shrugged and left him trammelled in his fond illusions. I handed in the post-essay outlines dutifully for the duration of my time in his class and when we parted ways I never did an outline again.