How Writing Leads to Thinking

1 03 2010

Lynn Hunt has this article up over on the American Historical Association site that any non-fiction writer – or aspiring writer – should read.  (Hat tip to Mark Grimsley via Facebook.)

A few tidbits from Ms. Hunt: 

  • My first rule…is not to look at notes. In the era of digitized databases, digital photographs of manuscripts and archives, and digital copies of notes taken of books and archives, such a rule is yet more imperative.
  • You want the number of your pages to increase steadily over time, culminating in the completion of a first draft. Whether you use an outline or not (I jot down bullet points in no particular order as a way of starting), what really counts is momentum, not momentum as in a jet racing forward to the completion of its route but rather momentum as in three steps forward, two steps back, two or three pages written (maybe even five!), then revised the next day while another one, two or three are added, and so on.
  • …life is short and if you want to write more than a dissertation or one book or two books and so on, you have to limit yourself to what can be done in a certain time frame. You cannot accumulate pages if you constantly second guess yourself. You have to second guess yourself just enough to make constant revision productive and not debilitating. You have to believe that clarity is going to come, not all at once, and certainly not before you write, but eventually, if you work at it hard enough, it will come. Thought does emerge from writing. Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.
  • …writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions.
  • Nothing is more important to writing than the weeding, thinning, mulching, and watering that is known as revision. Sometimes another eye provides the added sunlight needed for new growth.
  • Most problems in writing come from the anxiety caused by the unconscious realization that what you write is you and has to be held out for others to see. You are naked and shivering out on that limb that seems likely to break off and bring you tumbling down into the ignominy of being accused of inadequate research, muddy unoriginal analysis, and clumsy writing. So you hide yourself behind jargon, opacity, circuitousness, the passive voice, and a seeming reluctance to get to the point. It is so much safer there in the foliage that blocks the reader’s comprehension, but in the end so unsatisfying.
  • When you are reading a book that grabs you, consider how the author accomplishes that effect. What is it that draws you in? What makes you think it beautiful or forceful or astute? Which quality do you cherish most? What can you learn about writing from it?
  • In short, one is not born a writer but rather becomes one. Learning to write well is a lifelong endeavor.

That’s a lot to chew on.  Maybe time for some introspection.

Lynn Hunt, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a former president of the AHA. Among numerous books that she has written, the most recent are Measuring Time, Making History, and Inventing Human Rights: A History.

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