When is Writing Not Writing?

February 22, 2021 Blog

I saw a quote today that made me angry. This is not uncommon, of course. What was unusual was that it wasn’t political. It was a quote about writing.

“Planning to write is not writing,” it began. “Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

While this quote is factually correct, it’s wrong in every other respect. All of the aforementioned activities support the writing, inform the writing, encourage the writing; if you do only the last with none of the former, it’s likely you’re not even writing, you’re just typing. My own mother—who no one can accuse of not writing all the damn time–in several of her books on writing talks specifically about the importance of “gathering days,” those times of thoughtful wandering, deep musings, and other activities that aren’t actual writing but are important to the process nonetheless.

Additionally, I have a problem with any quote meant to denigrate those who don’t write in whatever way the latest author deems the One True Way to Write. As if their method was carved into a tablet next to Strunk & White and carried down from the mountain by Long Bearded Writer Guy and recited to the idolators. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. All of them are valid. All are trying their best.

Now, having looked up some more of the quote author’s views on the craft, it’s clear to me that this quote does not truly encapsulate his opinions on writing. I imagine the quote is drawn from him talking about the importance of developing a writing habit. He seems to regularly tell his students that they need to write every day. I, too, believe in developing good habits, though I quibble with the “every day” bit; I need to take my weekends off from work or my family gets cross with me.

But again, I feel as though quotes like these can do more harm than good. One can encourage a writing habit without putting down the very activities that will improve the quality of that habit. For myself, when I began writing, I tried to follow the advice of the ancient Roman, Quintilian, who said, “Write quickly and you will never write well; write well, and you will soon write quickly.” I wrote very intentionally and slowly for a long time. But now, when I’m mid project and cranking out 2k-4k words a day, I do it with the confidence that I won’t have to rewrite them all.

But even that quote is problematic, as it implies that quick writers can’t be good writers, which is far from the truth.

I guess the only truth about people who make stuff up and write it down for others to read is that even when we tell the truth, we lie. And though we’re paid to lie, we try to tell the truth while doing it.

Make of it what you will and take every bit of writing advice—including mine—with an entire tablespoon of salt.

 

 

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