Writers Talk About Writing
Daphne's New Writing Book!
Daphne Gray-Grant's advice and wisdom about writing has made her a sought-after writing coach -- and one of our most popular columnists here at the Visual Thesaurus. Now Daphne's bundled her know-how into a new book: 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. We love this book. A concise, easy-to-digest and, most importantly, easy-to-put-into-action guide, every writer -- student to professional -- can profit from it. We spoke to Daphne about her book and how to write, well, faster and better!
VT: Are people born to write?
Daphne: When it comes to writing, I think people are born one of two ways. There are, yes, people who are the "born writers." And then, and this is the category I put myself into, there are the "born editor" types. What I've seen with my coaching clients is that the born writers can churn out the stuff, but have a great deal of difficulty imposing the self-discipline to go back and edit it and fix it up. On the other hand, if you're a born editor, it's extraordinarily difficult to write.
I came out of the womb editing. It just came naturally to me and I loved it. When I was doing schoolwork as a child and started to write, I would write a sentence and then edit it. I would go on to the next sentence and I'd do the same thing. Then I'd go to the sentence after that, and then I'd go back to the first sentence again and start the process all over. It was a very, very slow, laborious, horrible process. Unfortunately, even working in a daily newspaper later in life didn't cure me of it.
I know there are a lot of people like me around. I think it comes down to a problem of mixing up the writing and the editing process. My theory is that these are two completely separate jobs and that if you mix them up, you're going to get yourself into trouble as a writer.
VT: How do you overcome this?
Daphne: One of the tricks that I recommend to people, which is usually met with gasps of horror when I announce it at the workshops that I do, is to suggest that they turn off their monitor when they write.
VT: I'm gasping!
Daphne: The purpose of this exercise is to stop yourself from reading what you've just written. When you're making the connection between your brain and your hands, the words come out of your brain through your fingertips and go into the computer. If you're not reading what's on the screen, you're not getting sucked into the editing process.
One of the metaphors I use in the book is that writing is a bit like driving a car. Everybody knows that only one person can drive at a time. And if your editing brain is driving, then your writing brain is in the backseat. And, conversely, if the writing brain is driving, you don't want the editing brain to be sitting there, too, trying to grab the steering wheel -- that's the way to get into an accident. Science has shown that we have different parts in our brains responsible for different activities. It's not quite as simple, as the left brain versus right brain. But there are distinct and separate areas of the brain that are involved in creativity.
Editing is an interesting job, and it takes skill, but it's a linear kind of job. Writing, on the other hand, is creative. It's the kind of job where you want to be making connections, you want to be thinking new and interesting things. You want to be coming up with metaphors and similes and analogies. And those sorts of things will only happen if you are in your writing brain. And you cannot be in your writing brain if you're in your editing brain. They're two separate areas.
VT: Why 8½ steps?
Daphne: The reason I think it's important to think about writing in a step-by-step fashion is that the order in which you attack the steps is relevant. The central metaphor I've used for the book is that of painting a room. You don't start throwing around paint on the walls until you've prepared the room, until you've done with the sanding, the cleaning and all those types of jobs. And similarly with writing, you need to engage in preparatory steps in a very specific fashion. If you do, your writing will be faster and you'll get a better result.
VT: You're taking the fear out of writing.
Daphne: People tend to think of writing as hard and painful. My argument is that most people haven't been taught how to do it. Most people haven't been given a system. The problem that happens in schools, I find, is that people just get turned loose on writing. There's an assumption that writing is kind of like talking, that you'll just learn how to do it by exposure to society. That works for some people. Just as some people are natural athletes and some people are naturally musical, some people will naturally and easily figure out how to write.
But I think it's a real shame that there isn't a more systematic attempt to teach writing. So that's what I've tried to do. I've tried to give people a process that they can use that gives them a step-by-step guideline for writing, so that they're not sitting there, staring at a blank screen. In the book I included a quote from Gene Fowler, about writers "staring at the page until beads of blood form on their forehead." That's the traditional way people have written. I remember that very well from my university days. Producing my thesis was one of the hardest, most horrible things I've ever had to do in my life because at that point, I just did not understand the process of writing.
Even when I was a daily newspaper journalist I didn't have a good process for writing. I realize now, in retrospect, that many of the people around me in the newsroom didn't, either. With a process, you have a step-by-step plan that you can follow. Writing can be challenging work and it does take discipline. And it takes a commitment to improve and to actually do it. But it's not as mysterious as many people believe. You just need a system.