On the path and in the weeds: find a writing balance


In a charming little piece, Upside of Distraction, Benjamin Nugent describes how he became ironically less productive when he focused solely on his writing, editing out television, internet and non-writing friendships. When he reintroduced normal, modern-day distractions, his writing became more lively and interesting.

But most of us never achieve the pristine (flat) focus he describes in the “before” section of his essay.  We spend most of our writing hours desperately training our eyes away from the blinking, beeping and pinging reminders of other things to do.

To combat this distraction, try using state dependent memory. Find a place and time that help you focus. Write in that space and time over and over, until your body and mind remember it. Make it ritual. Coffee first. Smoothie second. Shutters open. Music on. Sunlight shining on desktop. Go.

But then, after you have completed that ritual work time, open yourself up to unpredictable, spontaneous discovery by moving outside, to new places, around new people, to prevent your thinking from going flat.

As Nugent suggests, in writing, you need to balance narrow focus and open receptiveness. A walker can get where she’s going efficiently by minding the already-worn path. She will be less likely to trip on stones and twist her ankle. But if she only ever stays on the path, never steps into even a little bit of the unpredictable, she will rarely find that interesting nest or that strange blue bug that live in the weeds.



Shiny little bits and pieces: Plain Language Twittery

Take a look at this elegant little collection of recent  posts about writing, gathered and designed by plain language goddess Cheryl Stephens.  Lots of good thoughts in here.


I was especially interested in the Language Lab’s “Profanity and the Power of Language: When Words Offend,” given the many squeamish years I spent moderating a teenagers’ Banned Books Club.  Turns out that even 16 year olds can conclude that when you overuse profanity, it loses its rhetorical value.

If, even so, you are interested in facilitating your own Banned Books Club, here is a link to a three-month series that really worked for one group of sophomores.


Writers, listen to readers

This week, the beginning of my new semester at Sacramento State magically aligned with a plain language workshop I was giving and a library book club I was leading.  At first, alignment was the last thing I expected. I was meeting with three very different groups.

At Sac State, I had five sections of twenty-something students dreading a semester spent focused on essay writing.

At a big energy company, I had fifteen economist PhDs, struggling to make their complicated ideas understood by others outside their domain.

And at Arden-Dimick library, I had fifteen mystery-loving library-fans.

In all three places, though, the participants circled back to the same idea. If you write well, you can thrive in most any workplace. If you do not, you spend too much time and energy hiding that weakness. You fail to persuade your customers to buy your product or idea. You struggle to clarify your thinking for your colleagues or supervisors or teachers. You find yourself dreading writing days, almost as much as you dread the days when you hear back from your readers. Your organization probably suffers as a result.

The library group reminded me what happens when a writer is unclear. The reader puts down the book. Or the memo. Or the essay.


It was good to get such a timely, explicit reminder why we work so hard to tell complicated stories plainly.