Word Count

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.


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Comments from our users:

Friday May 9th 2008, 6:13 AM
Comment by: Jeff T.
Daphne, you are so right. I assist my wife in preparing sales pitches and marketing materials for her business. She wants to tell me what font, size, justification, and so on to use as she develops her story. As you know, this takes a long time and the results are not as good as one would like, in part because you lose ideas in the process.

Slowly, I'm getting her used to the idea of 'stream of consiousness' writing and editing as separate activities. Of course, you have to have some idea of where you are going; in other words, a plot. Otherwise, it's like trying to paint and trim a house as you are building it. So, I like to have a general outline in mind firstâ??one with just a handful of major sectionsâ??and then drop ideas either into it, or into an idea pool from which, later, I can take them and then insert them into the outline to flesh it out.

The last thing to worry about is the mechanics of sentence structure, grammar, layout. and the like. On my day job, I do a lot of technical writing; there I have templates for virtually every document type I need. That constraint actually helps me be more creative because it frees me to think about how I want to say something rather than; the structure is already defined so that, in the end, all the needed information is present, and is presented in some kind of order.

Friday May 9th 2008, 9:02 AM
Comment by: William A.
Ms. Gray-Grant is right on when she urges preparation before writing. One of my mentors is Edward Bono, who proposes a lateral approach to construction of expository writing. In short, don't write down the page. Create an actual or mental outline of the three to five main points of the piece, horizontally; then return to fill in, support, expand and combine. Write your introduction last, after you know just what you are introducing.
Friday May 9th 2008, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The idea of writing, writing, writing, entered the English Language classrooms (Language Arts?), while I was still teaching.

I never used the notion as doing a daily bit of writing which I was not to read or correct didn't seem to advance the quality of the writing at all.

It might work for some; it didn't for my classes.

I used imitation for various techniques. We worked on a structure and through a structure, and there was a system in place for peer consultation for grammar and spelling... or asking me. I'd check rough work. In fact, a rough copy included was part of the assignments at first.

If I discovered a natural writer, he or she was let loose to run with his or her own methods. I didn't want to kill a Shakespeare, but I did know that if these youngsters were going to conduct civil conversations, write sensible and sensitive letters, and perhaps, to write long theses, they would need 'the basics'.

This has, I think, ceased for the most part in our schools here. I know universities teach more remedial classes than they used to do.

I hope there is a return to the real basics of the sort you espouse.
Friday May 9th 2008, 11:05 AM
Comment by: cynthia B. (marathon, NY)
As a beginning writer I find myself constantly re-reading what I have just written. I did not realize I was editing while writing. I believe I will try writing with the monitor off. I think at first it will prove difficult, but it will be interesting to see if my words flow easier.
Friday May 9th 2008, 11:46 AM
Comment by: David D.
This piece is so correct! I have always had the problem of wanting to write but having to edit. My ideas are always getting lost while I restructure a sentence and select exactly the right word ... before the tale is even close to being told.

I am very glad to have my problem identified. Now maybe I can do something about it. Thanks for the clarity.
Saturday May 10th 2008, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Janet M.
I was born an editor with a writer inside just begging to be let loose. Love the concept of writing with the monitor off -- brilliant, magnificent idea. I will do this -- it's the only way I will be able to get the words down. Then I may or may not let the editor go to work. Thank you, thank you!
Saturday May 10th 2008, 1:36 PM
Comment by: CLAUDIO L.
I feel myself fortunate reading this concept: writing with the monitor off. Doing so, you exercise visualization, not sight.
Thanks a million.
Sunday May 11th 2008, 1:48 PM
Comment by: miao
I know my own writing process changed forever when I first got my fingers on a computer keyboard. Before that, the prospect of re-penning each and every word sure licensed my own internal editor to intrude. Now she is pretty easily shushed during first drafts, but still I'm intrigued to turn off the monitor and see what results. Now how do I do that on a laptop?
Sunday May 11th 2008, 8:17 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Mia,

Daphne here. With a laptop you don't have to turn off the monitor. Just tip down the screen so you can't see it! (Yup, I still have to do this from time to time, myself!) -daphne
Monday May 12th 2008, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Mikki
Hi Daphne

Thank you for this innovative writing tip. I have put it to use and found that a soft (flannel-like) pillowcase slides easily over a laptop monitor.
Thursday May 15th 2008, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
LOVE the pillowcase idea. Very creative!! -daphne

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