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How to Write a Lot About Politics and Almost Anything Else
There's probably too much writing out there. Here's how to add more to the pile.
I’m taking a break from writing about politics this week because I’m keen to answer a question I often get: How do you write a lot?
I do write a lot. Too much, but that’s how writers pay bills. And after years of working on pieces from blurbs to books — and reading tonnes of books and posts about writing — I want to share some that have helped me and might help you.
First and foremost, I’m a politics writer, so that work informs the advice I give here. But I’ve written about all kinds of stuff, in all kinds of ways. I write politics columns, book reviews, travel pieces, and social commentary. I write podcast copy. I want birthday cards. I have written a dissertation and scholarly articles. I wrote a trade press book. So, consider this general advice.
Remember Neil Gaiman’s rules
Yeah, my first tip is to listen to Neil Gaiman. It’s a good one. In his commencement speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Make Good Art, Gaiman shared three rules to getting and keeping work as a freelancer.
“People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance,” he says, “because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time.”
There is no better advice than this. You should aim to meet these three goals. Do good work. Do it on time. Be nice.
Read a lot (and mix it up)
This is a common piece of advice for writers. Stephen King offers it in On Writing. Read a lot applies to every genre of writing and to every writer, including you. As soon as you think you don’t need to read a lot, you’re done for. You might keep writing, but that’s the moment you become frozen in time and space. From there on in, you’re only going to become a worse writer. Reading a lot, especially from a variety of perspectives and sources, encourages you to consider things you might not otherwise consider, increases the odds of connecting (unlikely) dots, generates ideas, populates your world with sources to consult, and gives you the raw material from which to build your own arguments (cite the stuff you read whenever you can). Beware of cognitive or ideological autopilot. These are the writing killers.
Use the Pomodoro technique
When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I started using the Pomodoro technique — or as my friend and I called our sessions, pom poms. I still use it today. Every day. I do my pom poms. I’m doing one now.
You can look up various approaches and apps to help you use the method, but the fundamentals are simple. Set a time limit, set a timer, start the clock, and then work on the thing you’ve got to do until the timer ends. Then take a short break. Repeat this cycle several times, then take a long break. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You can start slow and work up the timer length. I do 45 minutes of writing and then take a 15-minute break to snack, walk around, pet the dog, say hi to my partner, play on the internet, or whatever else I please. I try to do three or four of these sets and then break for an hour or two, during which time I eat, run, play video games, read, or clean up around the house. It works wonders. Give it a shot.
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Don’t try to multitask. You can’t. Trying makes a mess
You can look up any number of articles — including primary research, if that’s your jam — that says multitasking is an illusion. You don’t do two or three things at once. You do two or three things (poorly) one after the other in rapid succession, with your brain task-switching in-between. It’s exhausting and ineffective and it produces sub-par work. Don’t do it. Not even you — yes, you — ya big genius. Sorry, that’s how brains work.
Build networks, talk to sources, ask for help
Remember when President Obama said ‘You didn’t build that’? He caught all kinds of shit for it, but he was right. He was talking about how businesses are collective endeavours built on state and worker infrastructure, capacity, and labour. That’s roughly true of writing, too. There’s no such thing as a solitary writer, despite all the old macho bullshit and affected nonsense about the brooding solitary genius. The truth is, our writing is socially conditioned and relies on community, even if a single person is the one doing the typing. Moreover, good writing typically relies on some combination sources, data, interviews, fact checkers, editors, proofreaders, and so on. As a writer, you need networks.
Note: As a politics writer, you need, need, need sources. If you’re writing about politics, you should be talking to people — on and off the record, casually and formally. Vary the people you talk to. Don’t become stagnant. Prepare to have your mind changed or your perspective muddied. Most people will talk to you, and most are friendly, so don’t be scared to ask them to chat. But respect their time, expertise, and privacy — don’t burn them.
Learn the basics
Get good at the basics. This includes grammar and spelling. There isn’t a lot to say about this one beyond the fact that you should do it, except to point out there’s always a little room for style and rule breaking. Also, you should use the Oxford comma because it solves every problem. It’s how we got to the moon.
Actually write, then re-write
I’ve met a lot of “writers” who spend an awful lot of time talking about writing, but never seem to produce anything to read — that is to say, they don’t write. I get it, it’s romantic and cool to talk about the craft and beauty and pain of producing, of scratching deep into your heart and bleeding out words on the page and blah blah blah. Drop the pretense. Just write. And then fix the bad parts until they’re good (with external feedback, ideally). When the thing is done or close enough to done for the deadline, release it into the world (or put in a drawer, if you prefer not to publish it) and then start the process over again. Then you’re a writer.
The point here isn’t to say that you shouldn’t talk about writing. The point is that writing is an iterative process of transferring thoughts from your head onto a page. And, so, to be a writer you must do that, even though nothing will ever be perfect. That’s a sub-rule. Expect and befriend imperfect. Let it wash over you.
Reading your work out loud (to another person or to yourself) is an effective way to edit. I do it whenever I’m taking a piece particularly seriously (for instance, my book). It’s probably not ideal to try this in public, though you could mouth the words. Reading aloud will help you work out the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs, catch typos, avoid poor or repetitive word choices, and eliminate awkward bits. It works wonders.
“Kill your darlings”
Before Stephen King wrote “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings,” William Strunk instructed writers to “omit needless words.” Each of them is correct. The most annoying writing is baroque writing in which the writer feels they need to swing for the fences with every sentence. Like a Baroque Babe Ruth.
I once wrote “Napoleon had a proclivity for bellicosity.” I was a student journalist at the time and obviously not secure in my writing. I’ll never forget that sentence, no matter how hard I try. Learn from me — and King and Strunk. Avoid overly complex sentences. Eschew long and fancy words unless they’re absolutely necessary. Don’t try to show off. We all love you no matter what. Also, above all, never use the word “utilize.”
Try to keep a routine and ritual, and avoid distractions
For all kinds of reasons, routines aren’t for everyone. But if you can, writing at or around the same time really helps the process. This is common writing advice, and for good reason. It works. Your body and brain get trained to write. When I was writing my book, I wrote at the same time every day, to the same music (Brian Eno’s Music for Airports), and I lit a fancy candle that smelled like the ocean. I closed my blinds and silenced my phone. I poured a coffee. Then I started my pom poms (see above). Several months later, I had a book. In fact, I still do.
Find a few writers and writing styles you like and study them
Especially when you’re new to writing, observing and studying the writing style of folks you like to read (or don’t like to read) is a powerful development tool. You’ll learn what works for you and what doesn’t, what captures attention and what distracts, what’s new and what’s clichéd, etc., etc. From that, you can develop and adapt and refine your own style. I’m not saying you should emulate others straight up or rip them off wholesale. But no one’s style is unique or sui generis. Writing comes from somewhere and that’s going to be a place we share (that, for instance, is a great example of a bad sentence; see above).
Ask for help, offer help
As I said above, writing is a social endeavour in one way or another. I’ve become a better writer because people helped me to become a better writer. I now spend time helping others in return. I’ve asked for much of that help — and people have said yes. Try it. And when it comes time, return the favour.
A short, non-definitive bibliography
I’ve read more articles and books about writing than I can recall, many of which have influenced the tips in this piece. I can’t include them all here. Instead, here’s a sampling of some of my favourites in no particular order. Note, sometimes the advice in these books will be in tension with some of bits of advice or will be incompatible. In these cases, you journey alone. Choose…wisely.