The Hardest Part of Writing
The playwright and poet Richard Sheridan, from whom we have the legacy of "malapropisms," wrote:
You write with ease to show your breeding,
And Samuel Johnson wrote, "What is written without effort is read without pleasure"
But easy writing's vile hard reading.
I admire, even envy, the few writers I have known who can create brilliant and easy to read prose seemingly without effort. Isaac Asimov was one. He wrote hundreds of essays and possibly as many as 500 books. In one five-year stretch, it has been claimed, he wrote 200 books. That's nearly one a week.
I worked with Asimov once, on an educational film script for Chevron. In the course of the project I visited him in his apartment in New York, where I learned how he produced so vast a quantity of work.
He was, first of all, compulsive: a workaholic who kept to a rigid schedule, writing eight hours a day, seven days a week. Asimov wrote non-stop, at the time on IBM Selectric typewriters, using rolls of paper rather than sheets; he thought it would be a waste of time to insert new pages in the machine.
On the day of my visit, Asimov was upset that one of his typewriters had been in the repair shop for several days. He worried that another mechanical failure might interrupt his work. Then he showed me a closet in which were three more identical typewriters, all in fine order. I offered that he seemed to have little reason for worry, with four functioning machines at his disposal, but he insisted that it was entirely possible for all of these to fail--and then where would he be?
He often explained that his ability to write well and quickly--with little re-writing--was the result of propitious genetics.
Few of us are so fortunate.
Dr. Lee was my instructor in English 1A. He began every class session asking, "What is writing, class?" In unison, we would reply "Writing is hard work, Dr. Lee."
"And what is the hardest part of writing?"
"The hardest part of writing is re-writing, Dr. Lee."
No doubt most of my fellow students thought this ritual a bit silly, but writing is hard, and never before had any of my teachers proposed that re-writing was even a part of the process--let alone the hardest part and the most important.
That was in the days when cutting was done with scissors and pasting with glue and neither was expected of high school English students. Computers changed all that, making the revision of sentences and documents easy and natural -- but they are not the cure for poor writing. Roy Blount: "The last time somebody said, 'I find I can write much better with a word processor', I replied, 'They used to say the same thing about drugs.'"
The point is that writers must review their work critically, think not only about what they mean to say but how readers will receive it, recognize confusing, inaccurate or pretentious language, and perceive opportunities to improve their work. They have to make an effort.
When a draft is done I like to follow some more of Dr. Lee's valuable advice: to let the piece "refrigerate" overnight. I leave the work alone for a while so I can review it with fresh and critical eyes, preferably the following day.
Succinct writing is often the hardest kind. Mark Twain once apologized, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
Thomas Mann noted that "Writing is that craft which is most difficult for those who know how to do it well." That's because good writers seek perfection and are trained to recognize its absence.
Writing is hard work. Despite Asimov's contention, writing well is not merely a natural talent. That's what Alexander Pope proclaimed in his "An Essay on Criticism":
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
In the end, the writer's struggle may pay unexpected dividends, for as Jessamyn West wrote "Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter."
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
I wonder how many times Ms. West revised that sentence.
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