The writer feeds his book, he strengthens the parts of it which are weak, he protects it, but afterwards it is the book that grows, that designates its author’s tomb and defends it against the world’s clamour and for a while against oblivion.Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Leonardo da Vinci wrote backward (mirror writing) because he didn’t want others stealing his ideas. Writes Da Vinci biographer Rachel A. Koestler-Grack:
“The observations in his notebooks were written in such a way that they could be read only by holding the books up to a mirror.”
But did a genius who combined art and science so brilliantly really need to hide his work? Perhaps it was practical: as a lefty, he didn’t want to smudge the ink. As a contrarian, Da Vinci also strived to be different. As blogger Walker’s Chapters writes:
“Do you really think that a man as clever as Leonardo thought it was a good way to prevent people from reading his notes? This man, this genius, if he truly wanted to make his notes readable only to himself, he would’ve invented an entirely new language for this purpose. We’re talking about a dude who conceptualized parachutes even before helicopters were a thing.”
Writing is like wrestling, a tug of war with words that only make sense when we put them down.
We anticipate the next letter, next word, the next sentence, with the prayer that it all comes together: grammar, structure, and meaning.
Perfection is futile. The only fight we win is taking on the resistance that begs us to quit and move on.
But a writer is who we are, what we do, compelled to inject letters, words, and sentences into a jigsaw puzzle with pen and paper and screens galore.
And then we beg for cohesion, only to be lucky if anyone else gets it.
“Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye— is the great invention of the world.”Abraham Lincoln
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Like photography, all writing is in the edit.
When you fall into writer’s block — a myth, by the way — you should move freely between devices, formats, and even different places in order to shake out of it. Here’s one recommended writing approach I encourage you to try:
First, start writing on paper to help generate ideas. Anything goes. Then type out what’s worth keeping on to your phone to finesse your text. Better yet, throw the first draft onto different apps like WordPress (read why I recommend WordPress for blogging here), Byword, Bear, or iAWriter and then process it for grammar through the Hemingway App or my favorite writing assistant, Grammarly.
- Write everything out on paper
- Type your notes out on your phone or computer
- Copy-paste written text into an app like Grammarly for proofreading
Blogger Michael Lopp sums up his writing process nicely in How to Write a Blog Post:
Repeat until it starts to feel done in your head. If it’s handwritten, type it into a computing device. When you are close to done, print it out on paper. Sit somewhere else with your favorite pen and edit your work harshly. If this piece is important, let someone else edit harshly.
That’s right! Print it out and edit it in a different place altogether. Some writers think better to the hum of the coffee shop, JK Rowling included. Others need absolute silence, preferring to stare at a wall so that the only work to look at is the one being created in the mind’s eye.
Write with intent to publish
Do you do your best proofreading after your writing is out there in the wild?
Write with intent to publish. Hitting the publish button forces you to scrutinize your work more closely. If you’re lucky it’s a blog post you can go back and edit. If it’s a tweet or an email, you might be fat out of luck.
The writing process is a messy one that includes not only different formats but also different writing environments. Sometimes a great sentence starts on paper; other times it starts on your smartphone. Just be ready to review it a few times before you hit publish.
They say write to be understood. But what’s the point in spelling it all out?
Said author William Faulkner in an interview with the Paris Review:
Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?
Read it four times.
Write to be misunderstood?
It doesn’t hurt to make an arcane reference here and there to keep the reader guessing. Obscurity is luminosity.
Said author Jonathan Franzen in lunch with the Financial Times:
“I think you have to have a few things that you have to kind of chew on to get.”
When you first listen to a new Radiohead song, something about it sounds off. But after a few listens, the sounds in between appear and ameliorate Thom Yorke‘s mystical voice. Nothing makes sense, but the emotional tug works, the same way laughter doesn’t need thought.
It shouldn’t be the author or musician’s goal to demystify everything. The maker is often still figuring it out himself, recasting their own interpretation.