I’m a rising junior at Yale, and I’ve written enough things that a rising sophomore asked me for advice about long-form journalism, procrastination, the fear of being boring, and various other things that plague writers of all ages. This was ironic, as is the title of this post. I know almost nothing about most things, and not much more about writing.
Even so, my reply to her wound up encompassing most of what I can claim to know about the technique of, if not actually writing well, making yourself write something.
I almost titled this piece “6 Ways to Beat Writers’ Block”, which might have gotten me ten extra hits, but the best thing about being a young writer who doesn’t yet need to live off of his writing is that I can do my work without thinking about search engines.
(If you’re reading this, Google-bots, I mean only the best. Tell the Doodle I said hi!)
My reply, with some slight edits:
Thanks for getting in touch. Writing is one of the most important things a person can do with her brain, and like many activities, can improve enormously through the application of a few habits. Not everyone can be (insert epic journalist here), but everyone should, as long as they have a story, be able to learn to tell it well.
It’s a total cliche that “the best way to be a writer is to write”, but cliches often get to be cliches by being true. Many days, all I want to do is read and read and read, and of course reading is very important (I keep Longform and Longreads open on my phone’s internet at all times), but I try to find ways to force myself to write.
This could mean taking a Yale writing course — anything where there is some stylistic freedom, even English 120 — and composing pieces in a journalistic style; I’m sure you’ve seen many essays that walk the line between personal journey and journalism. It could mean starting a club that helps you gather a group of writers each week for mutual block-breaking. Any writing you do that you know others will see will force you to put time into that work.
(Addendum: Even if you’re the only person who will ever see it, I do suggest starting a journal if you don’t keep one already — it becomes a treasure when you can look back on your own mind circa 2013 in 2023.)
It could also mean seeing something interesting in the world and deciding to research it firsthand, even if you’re not sure where to “put” what you write. I did this when I decided to revisit a national math tournament I’d participated in back in middle school, to see how it had changed, and how I had changed. I didn’t sell the story to anyone exciting, as had been my hope, but I found a small magazine for middle-school teachers that was glad to publish it, and this pushed me into writing the story when I might otherwise have let my notes languish.
I can’t give you much guidance on how to write well. My own writing is pretty badly flawed from the perspective of any expert journalist. But I’m also a psychology major with a focus on habit formation. So I can give you some advice on making yourself write things that have to be of decent quality:
1) Get a blog. A blog is a place where, if you think “I should write something about that!”, you can immediately put that thought into action. Immediately. The immediacy isn’t something I do terribly well yet, but this and this and this were made possible by the fact that I had somewhere to put them, and save them, and leave them open to the public eye. Don’t hem yourself in with a topic if you can avoid it; this blog is a place for free experimentation, to let your thoughts flow.
2) Try a “daily pages” approach. This is a classic method, and there are a few great apps to help you. First thing in the morning, or last thing at night, or directly after lunch — whenever, but keeping a consistent time of day is best — open a computer or notebook and start writing something. It can be stream-of-consciousness, or the seed of a story you’ve been thinking about, or something else. But you’ll be surprised how fast 500-1000 words per day adds up, and how much easier it is to return to a story than it is to start from nothing. Making “random writing” a daily routine gets rid of “start-from-nothing” nervousness.
3) Use an internet blocker. I have Chrome, so I use an app called Chrome Whitelist that blocks all but a few specific sites. But there are countless other options out there for every OS and browser. When you have fewer options for “what shall I do next?”, writing is more likely to become a priority.
4) Keep a “quote book”. Doesn’t actually have to be a notebook. Just a place where, if you read something that makes you say “oh, wow”, you can immediately save it for inspiration. I like to type in quotes by hand, which can help set the rhythm of good writing in a person’s mind, but that isn’t strictly necessary. This Tumblr is one way of doing things. You could even add photos and other pictures of art, if they inspire you.
Examples from my quote book:
- “A charming young woman vacations on a beach, where she is attacked by mysterious swarms of birds” = The TV preview text for a Hitchcock move. Someday, I’d like to write a poem/blog/story about all the different ways that sentence could have ended instead.
- “If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the mob never would have burned down the orphanage.” = The first sentence of an Irish short story. One of the best first sentences I can recall reading. The story lived up to it.
5) Keep a list of ideas. Mine is a Word doc titled “Story Ideas”. I suggest you start yours on a platform that is a bit easier to work with, like a Google Doc or an Evernote page, so you can add to it the moment an idea strikes (or use a paper notebook, I guess!). This is for absolutely everything. If you read an article and think “I want to find out more about this topic personally”, put it in the list (under a “journalism” subheading). If you think of a short story, put it under its own subheading. If a scene or a phrase makes you want to generate a piece of writing around it — be it a poem, a story, an essay — first put it in your quote book, and then add it to your list. Here are some examples from my own list:
- “Interview the best Soundcloud artists and Amazon reviewers on being famous online and nowhere else”
- “Follow Yale super-achievers with a pen/camera and find out how they do it”
- “Piece on New Haven kickball leagues” (they’re a thing)
- “A story on how the afterlife, to the protagonist, turns out to be just learning what everyone honestly thought of him all along”
- “A serial killer who murders hitchhikers picks up a hitchhiker who is also a serial killer”
- “What if that power outage at Yale had been across the country and not stopped? What would have happened at Yale?”
6) Have a writing buddy. Or two, or five. People to whom you can say: “I wrote a thing! Can you read it and tell me honestly what you think?” and you know they’ll be honest. Or to whom you can say: “I’m going to write a thing today and send it to you before I go to bed. Hold me to that?” and they will. This makes writing a “thing I have to do for other people” rather than “thing I have to do for me”, which isn’t necessarily the best mindset, but is certainly effective, at least in my case.
The world is full of people who consider themselves writers but don’t write very much. I have faith that you will not be one of those people, because you’re already putting in a lot of work (like that club) to ensure writing actually happens. But whenever you have a problem or a block, know that many other people feel the same way. And the world is filled with tools to help you, whether it’s a source of writing prompts or an app that cuts out every possible distraction. It’s all about setting up the right writing environment.
As for your particular project: Don’t feel like you need to have one. If you just want to generate stories about your travels, a blog should be fine — it lets you compose pieces on whatever passes your way.
If you want to specifically tackle something long and “researched”, I’d read some newspapers/blogs from your place/subject of choice, find an interesting topic, and start emailing sources ASAP. “I’m a student writing about _____, and I’m really interested in your work” is usually a powerful message. If you want, you can even look to get it published after it’s finished, at Yale or elsewhere. The more sources you contact, the more beholden you’ll feel to the piece, and the more directions you’ll have to turn.
Also keep in mind that there are very few “uninteresting” topics, if that’s your worry. I thought the math tournament, once I took enough notes and thought about it hard enough, was actually pretty interesting. One of the finest journalists of all time wrote a book about oranges. My favorite piece of writing ever is about the mediocre life of a decent-but-not-great professional tennis player. David Foster Wallace, of the piece in the previous sentence, wrote his last novel about what it is like to be an IRS office drone, and it was amazing.
I don’t think this “critiquing your own work” business you mentioned is especially complicated. Generally, putting something aside for a few weeks and then coming back is good enough for me. Having a writing buddy helps. Speaking of which, I’m happy to play that role for you. Let me know if/when you develop a plan, and when you’ve put some of my suggested environmental modifications in place. I’ll read anything you write. I might ask you to do the same, if you’re not too busy. How does that sound?
P.S. Feel free to reach out with any more questions. I am far from being an expert, but I’ve read a lot of writers talking about their own styles. The Paris Review has a terrific interview series, “The Art of Fiction“, on the same topic. And as an added bonus, here’s V.S. Naipaul with some sterling advice.