Usually, I try to block out some time during the day. If I’m first starting on a book, I’ll try to block out perhaps two to three hours; if I’m in the throes of finalizing a book, eight hours. Optimally, I try to write early in the day. But all-too-often, I’ll wake up to critical emails, so my writing slides into mid-morning or even mid-afternoon. Some days, as when I’m teaching or in heavy travel, I can’t write at all.
I have a love-hate relationship with Microsoft Word, which I use for all my book and script writing. The View/Outline feature allows me to expand and compress a document or move chapters or snippets of the material around with ease.
I’m an “absolute quiet” kind of person. If I’m writing at home, and there’s any noise at all, such as my wonderful hubby puttering around and coincidentally clearing his throat, I wear my Peltor Sport Ultimate 10 Hearing Protector Earmuffs. I’m so used to them that when I need to concentrate, I put them on even when there isn’t any noise. Earmuffs are like a signal to my brain—Okay, focus! On planes, I often wear noise canceling headphones.
When I first sit down to write, I often do a bit of intellectual squirming. Writing is usually not easy for me until I get into it.
My ritual is that I get out one of my quadrille ruled engineering pads and a sharpened Palomino Blackwing pencil (I keep a Staedtler manual pencil sharpener beside me), and I set out three short tasks. One of them is doing a Pomodoro (25 minutes) on whatever I’m writing.
The funny thing is, once I get started on the writing, I usually get into the flow and go for at least several hours. Then I do the other two little tasks. Then it’s out for a walk (if it’s not snowing) and back to make a list of three more things to work on. I start early in the day, around 6:00 or 7:00 am, so I try to quit around 4:00 pm and watch a television show with my hubby. By 5:00 or 6:00 pm, I’ve switched to a more relaxed mode where I try to get away from the computer and read or study.
Of course, on the days I teach, it’s a very different schedule that centers on my classes and class preparation.
I’m writing this while sitting on my bed here in my apartment in Kyoto. Next week, I’ll be writing while sitting on my bed in a hotel room in Bogotá. My favorite writing is when I’m perched at home on my bed, overlooking our garden. I just plop my laptop in my lap, put a quadrille pad with a hard backing beside me, and run the mouse over it. I probably shouldn’t write while sitting up in bed, but I like it.
It depends on what I’m working on and the stage of the project. I’d say when I’m book-writing or script-writing (I do scripts for massive open online courses), I’ll often sit down with a goal of 500 words in that day. If something big is due, I might set a goal of 1,000 words in a day.
Probably three-quarters of what I ultimately produce might see print. But it’s worth noting that I’m a compulsive editor, so a lot of what I write is thrown out or altered during the lengthy creative process. I don’t like it when I have to produce an article on a short deadline because I don’t have much of a chance to edit.
On days when I’m teaching or giving a speech somewhere, I don’t worry about writing.
What goes through my mind varies. Many times I begin by editing my previous day’s work. That aligns me with my previous intellectual trajectory. It’s a simple matter to keep going once I’ve edited a couple of paragraphs or a page.
When I’m starting something fresh, what goes through my mind is, What is my main point? Then I try to come up with the words to best introduce that point. Next, I almost invariably think Agh, the words I have in mind are so bad. I make myself write them anyway. Surprisingly often, the writing is not as bad as I thought it would be. Of course, sometimes it’s even worse. But at least I’ve got something down that I can go back and change.
I don’t have set rules for editing. Sometimes I’ll write a day’s worth of work (500 or 1,000 words, depending on what I’m working on), and then towards the end, I’ll start going back and begin editing. But sometimes I’ll write a paragraph or two and then go back to edit. Editing is little like being a verbal sniper—you’re going back to readjust your aim continually. So I don’t necessarily like to get too far in front of myself without having edited the piece. Sometimes I’ll reread and edit 30 times or more. (Of course, you’ll probably still catch typos in this writing!)
I admire many writers—Cormac McCarthy, Walter Isaacson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Robert Massie, Jack Weatherford, Cal Newport, Susan Orlean, James Gleick, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. I don’t try to emulate them consciously when I’m writing, but I’m sure they have influenced me subconsciously.
If I don’t feel like writing, I write anyway. Some of my best writing has come out of times when I felt hopelessly unable to write coherently. Of course, some of my worst writing has also come out at those times. I chose to believe that I might have rough times in getting myself to write, but I never have to worry about writer’s block. This approach works for me.
There have been times in my life, however, when there is just no way to write. When my father was dying of Alzheimer’s, for example, I was trying to manage his terminal illness while simultaneously working towards tenure as an engineering professor and making sure our young children were receiving supportive parenting. There were several years where it was simply impossible for me to write anything except the requisite technical papers I needed for tenure.
My big sister told great stories at night after the lights went out. I would beg her not to stop, no matter how late it got. She wanted to be a writer when she grew up—naturally, I wanted to be a writer, too. I kept diaries through my childhood and teens, which helped build my writing ability.
I also read about writing and took workshops. A book published in 1972 by Dean Koontz, Writing Popular Fiction, helped set the tone for my writing career. Koontz strongly recommended writing books to become established—he wasn’t keen on articles, essays, and short stories. So that’s why my first real writing emerged as a book—Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler.
In reality, it’s possible to start a writing career with either with books or smaller pieces. Like many people, I only really learn what I think by writing about it. Most of the topics I find myself interested in—such as the learning process, or why “evil” people do what they do—needed a book, or several books, to do them justice. So my writing life has inevitably centered around writing books.
A real challenge for me as a professor with a busy day job is finding the time to keep studying the craft of writing. It’s sometimes all I can do to carve out the time to learn and write about the subject itself.
Cormac liked my tongue-in-cheek but seriously researched book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. We got to corresponding about it and my subsequent book, Cold-Blooded Kindness. Cormac is like a kindly uncle. When we talk, he doesn’t interrupt—instead, he listens intently. He has a gentle touch with editing, (except when it comes to semicolons).
Cormac started out studying engineering—he comes from a line of brilliant engineers. But eventually he felt that his writing was better than his engineering, so he switched to head for a career involving writing. He’s so low-key about everything that when you talk to him, you feel like you’re just having a fun, easy-going conversation. It’s only after you’ve finished the conversation—which may last four or five hours—that you go, My God, that man knows everything! His ability to recall and recite poetry is uncanny. Whether entropy, auto mechanics, the evolution of language, or the philosophy of Wittgenstein—you name it, he knows it, and has an interesting take on it.
Cormac McCarthy is the real deal—a true polymath genius. His writing is like an iceberg—what you see above water is only small part of what is manifest in his extraordinary intellect.
In engineering, if you get a theory wrong, the plane goes down and everybody dies. The type of training we get keeps us in tune with facts. When I’m working on a book, I uncover facts that will let me understand the real story. Sometimes I have to completely revise my understanding of the story in light of what the facts tell me. Unfortunately, some non-fiction writers simply start with their chosen story. Then they cherry pick their facts accordingly. If their chosen story angle happens to be wrong according to some well-known research findings, for example, these writers just ignore those findings and cite what supports their story.
I believe my engineering training helps keep me honest.
Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., is the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University and the author of the new book Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential