Better Writing: Imaginary Writing Isn’t Writing

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E. L. Doctorow did several things in his life, but he’s best known for his semi-historical novels. My favorite is Ragtime. He’s also known for advice he shared in an interview with The New York Times in 1985. Here it is.

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

You may have heard that quote in different form or attributed to someone else. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Neither planning, nor outlining, nor researching, nor talking to people about writing is writing. Neither is imaginary writing.

Imaginary Writing

My clients do this all the time. So do I. You probably do, too. It happens when you’re working on a writing project and you think about what you will write. You imagine the opening, think through the first couple of paragraphs. That’s imaginary writing.

That’s not writing. Writing that’s all in your head isn’t writing because you don’t have to wrestle with the meaning and word choice and other details.

Real Writing

Real writing is putting words on a page or in a page-like file. It’s choosing specific words and phrases. It’s constructing sentences and paragraphs. It’s hard work.

Real writing forces you to turn hope into reality. Your thoughts seemed clear but they don’t work so well when you try to put them down on a page. Only real writing is writing.

The Work of Writing

The work of writing includes activities that are not writing. Writing work includes planning and researching and thrashing out ideas with other people. It includes thinking about what you will say and trying out different phrases in your head. Those things aren’t writing, but they’re important.

You are writing when you are wrestling the angels of meaning onto a page. Otherwise, you’re not writing.

Bottom Line

Real writing is hard work. It’s getting ideas down so you can make them better. It’s turning out awful first drafts that turn into better second drafts that get revised into pretty good third drafts that might become even better down the road. If you plan to write a book, remember that you must write. And only writing is real writing.

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