This afternoon on KUOW radio station in Seattle, Washington, I listened to a story about Seattle police who do their work on horseback. The officer who works in the equine division described a situation in which the officers and horses are in the street taking a break. He said something like this:
People look up at us drinking our coffee sitting on horseback and say, "Well, that looks like an easy job." But they have no idea how many hundreds of hours go into training a 1200-pound horse to be calm in downtown traffic. It takes a lot of hard work to make it look easy.
The same is true of dancing, skiing, acting, ice skating–and writing. Like so many activities that look easy when they are done well, writing is a skill. It takes plenty of effort to make it look easy.
Many people compliment my writing. They tell me it is so simple and clear. I accept that as high praise–it is so simple. As someone who has been writing for decades, I hope my writing does seem simple. But it isn’t simple doing it. As with the equine police, a lot goes into what you see.
Here is my "simple" recipe:
I spend at least 30 minutes on each entry to this blog. The longer entries take me more than an hour. If my topic involves research (Test: How to Address an Envelope, Formatting User Instructions, etc.), it may take me 90 minutes or more from start to finish.
My writing usually goes quickly because I know what I will write. I never just start writing. Sometimes, though, I start with a seed of an idea (for example, the equine police officer’s job looking easy) and see where the topic takes me.
Usually I write a first draft that includes everything but a conclusion. Then I reread and edit. In this step, I catch the mistakes I have made. Although I make a few mistakes in punctuation and grammar, most of my errors are lapses of logic–places where something I suggested does not flow from the facts I have provided. Other times I have exaggerated or misspoken, and my editing task is to pare down to the truth.
Once I have eliminated errors and untruths, I read aloud. I listen for places where the words are jarring, and I tinker with them until they flow. I also notice dull words and repetition, and I spend time polishing and thinking of fresh expressions. I cut whole sentences that may be well written but aren’t necessary. (For example, the paragraph above used to have another sentence about telling the truth. But since I had made my point, I cut it.)
Next I typically read through in search of a conclusion. Occasionally something brilliant comes to me quickly. Most of the time, though, brilliant is a level I don’t quite reach, and I settle for satisfactory. If you, my reader, were paying me a lot of money for my words, I would stay with it until brilliance blossomed. But since you are reading for free, I quit with only a satisfactory conclusion if it’s time to make dinner or watch my favorite TV show (or if my daughter announces, "Mom! You said you’d be done in 10 minutes!").
When I have written the conclusion, I do a final check for spelling errors, subject-verb agreement that may have gotten out of whack with editing, and any other tiny blemish. Then I publish.
The next day I read the entry again, and sometimes I find something that isn’t as clear as I had thought. So I fix it and republish.
I go through the steps above even though–or because–I have been writing for 20+ years.
Easy, isn’t it? Just like being an equine police officer.