The Occasional Writer
By Dr. John Lavelle
The title of this little blog contains a zeugma. The word occasional has two meanings within the same sentence. The occasional writer may mean one who writes occasionally or it may mean one who writes for an occasion. In this case it means both since almost all writers, even those who only write occasionally, write for an occasion, the reason for writing whether it be to explore, persuade, inform, or deliberate.
I am hoping this blog, on occasion, will discuss different aspects of writing delving into not only scholarly or academic writing, but creative writing. I’m also hoping on occasion I can convince others, who are experts in their field, or those who feel they have something to contribute, to take a little time and become a guest editor.
What I’d like to speak (write) about in this secession is something rather general, (general is a good way to start) the messy and neat writer. These are two poles on a continuum of writing styles and most people will fall somewhere in between. The messy and neat writer exist in both scholarly and creative writing. The messy writer, which I happen to be, writes all over the place, while the neat writer seems to go in one direction. The messy writer has an idea as to what he or she wants to write about, but only an idea. The first draft is usually exploratory whether the writer admits it or not. It, at best, is a focused free-write, a way to get all the ideas bouncing around in the writer’s head down on paper. The writing goes every which way and usually doesn’t seem to work toward a conclusion, sometimes even contradicting itself.
This is fine and in fact is an opportunity to explore ideas and come up with something more interesting than the writer might have started with, or to understand the subject better discovering insights that might not have been obvious at the beginning. However, there is also a danger someone else, those authors you’ve researched, will end up unduly influencing the writing or actually writing the article/paper.
The other great danger, a trap many students fall into, is to think that this focused free write is a draft or for the students, somehow a finished piece. A note to students here who might be reading this blog. Ninety-nine percent of you cannot write a paper the night before it’s due. The truly neat writer is rare. Though in your other classes you can cram and regurgitate information back on to the test paper, stress and fatigue lead to more mistakes in writing. Messy writers need time. They need to do it, leave it, forget about it, and then come back to it. As first year writing coaches are found of saying a messy writer needs to re-vision it, to re-see the paper.
One of my professors said to me while I was a struggling undergraduate, “You’ll never know what you’re writing about until you’ve written the paper five times.” It turned out to be fairly true. If a messy writer needs to give him or herself the right to write anything including really bad stuff, the messy writer must also allow him or herself to throw out anything, hopefully the bad stuff. In this way the writer writes and revises, writes and revises, not unlike a sculptor adding and removing clay.
The neat writer does all this messiness in his or her head. The writer does not suddenly sit down to a keyboard and write a finished piece, but contemplates, (free writes) mentally, finds the focus as he or she researches and then moves the research more in focus as the research goes on. The neat writer, many times, makes a formal outline. Many create note cards (the neat equivalent to the paragraphs of the drafts of the messy writer). Thus when a neat writer sits down to write everything is prepared. The difference could a comparison of two people cooking dinner. The neat writer would be that person who lines up everything needed for dinner on the counter before starting, all in neat little bowls, the main ingredients already chopped up. The messy writer, when contemplating fixing dinner, in this scenario, would be heading out the door with a gun or basket wanting to see what the main course might be.
Most writers fall someplace between the two poles of the neat and messy writer. The point is to understand which one you are and to deal honestly with that. If you strive to be a neat writer, you’re going to have to do “neat” things, prepare extensively before you write, use copious notes and a formal outline. Actually writing the paper becomes the end of the process. If you fall into the messy writer category and would rather not change, and there are very good reasons not to, you will need to make time for multiple drafts, for putting the drafts away and coming back to them for revising.