How I Write

by I.A. Isherwood

I haven’t written much lately because I am in the midst of writing a book and I have been avoiding distractions. Not that blogging is a distraction, but it is time-consuming, and I get a little neurotic about time, which causes me all kinds of frustrations and weirdness and bla bla bla. Writers are strange beings and we all have our quirks and eccentricities. One of mine is writer’s guilt, so I’ve been on the book wagon (and off the blog wagon). Once the semester begins, I will have more to say in this venue.

photo 2

Action shot.

As it so happens, I have exactly ten minutes to spare before going to back to editing. And it is that subject, editing, one which is so very important but looked upon with such trepidation, that I want to deal with. As I was sitting outside yesterday, with sixty or seventy pages of manuscript on my lap, pen in hand, it occurred to me that I was actually enjoying myself. I was taking a document and shaping it; tinkering with word choices, rephrasing awkward language, and thinking about how to say what I wanted to say the best possible way. This process was actually fun (or maybe the heat is getting to me).

I give all kinds of unsolicited writing advice to my students. As a humanities professor, my job is to help them to become better writers, and I give all kinds of tips that few people actually write down (Pet peeve: if meeting with a professor, make sure to bring a pen and paper. Even if you don’t write down anything we are saying, we like to feel important, so at least act like you are paying attention.) Here are a few tips that I think make a real difference.

  • Read aloud as you are writing. This feels eccentric, but writing is largely about voice, even in academic writing. Begin by putting words on the page. Read them over softly. Revise them as you write them.
  • Put exact and full citations in immediately as you are writing. I am terrible at this (but getting better!). There are few things as discouraging as scrambling about for hours trying to find a reference that you know you had three months ago but somehow have lost. Avoid at all costs.
  • Once you have a draft, print it out, walk away from your computer, go to a nice quiet chair somewhere, and mark it with an actual pen. Read it softly to yourself. Do a funny voice if you have to. Sculpt your sentences. Polish them. Make them as specific and clear as you can.
  • Rest.
  • Go back to your computer with your printed manuscript, place it next to your computer, and work your revisions.

This method is time-consuming, but it is the only one that works for me. Yesterday, I spent three hours marking text outside. This morning, I spent three hours putting those corrections into the original document. Though time-consuming, I know that the draft today is better than it was yesterday. Tomorrow, it will be better than where it is today. It will never be perfect, it will never be as good as I want it to be, but it eventually will be finished.