Otto von Bismarck famously said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
Megan McArdle suggests that the same principle applies to good writing, and to many other kinds of work.
A writer friend of hers described his process:
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
When students study writing in school, they do not witness this process. They do not see the revisions and the edits. Since they mostly see the end product, they tend to believe, McArdle continues, that it all flowed directly from the writer’s mind on to the page in its final form.
They do not learn an important basic principle: It takes an enormous amount of work to make something look effortless.
To sustain this illusion, children are now being taught that talent is all that matters. They believe in inspiration, not perspiration. They have been told, from their youngest days, that they are special, uniquely talented and utterly brilliant.
McArdle does not name it as such, but this delirium derives from American self-esteemism. Children learn that unearned praise is more important than competition.
Often enough, those who excel are not the most talented. They are those who work the hardest.
Research has demonstrated, as I have been at pains to report, that a child who is told he is exceptional tends to be lazing about exercising his abilities. A child who is told that he has limited talents and that he can develop them by making an extra effort will do better on actual tasks.
Effectively, we have replaced a work ethic with a love ethic. Or better, with a love-yourself ethic.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
Apparently, this is called the impostor syndrome. Writers, for example, do not hand in work because they are afraid of being exposed as impostors.
On the other hand, the writing process itself is none too pretty. And it never runs smooth. As in many other areas of life, the proof is in the product. If the work product is good, it does not really matter what went into getting there.
If the case of the writer McArdle described, he was not really procrastinating. Perhaps, all that walking around and doing chores and talking to his wife was part of his work process.
If he gets his work in on time, I, for one will not tar him as a procrastinator. In fact, the notion that a writer can sit down and just write is entirely unrealistic. Writers do better when they embrace their process rather than beat themselves up for not spending all their time at their desks.
Why do writers distract themselves, walk around the room, turn on the television, chat with their friends, surf the web and perform a variety of meaningless tasks while they are working on a piece?
Several reasons suggest themselves.
First, writing is a sedentary activity. Sitting at a desk for long periods of time is bad for your circulation, bad for your brainpower and bad for your health. Getting up and walking around is the least you can and should do.
Second, writing is a solitary activity. Unless you are dictating to a secretary, writing is unnatural. It isolates you. Eventually, your writing will be read by someone, but for the present, you are alone with your work. Being alone does not facilitate thought; it demoralizes. Don’t feel bad about finding ways to take breaks and connecting with other people.
Third, good writing involves a great deal of editing and revision. It does not just flow. It is cobbled together through numerous drafts. To perform this task well you need to be able to look at your writing with fresh eyes. You need especially to gain some distance between how you were feeling when you were writing and how you feel when you read it over.
The problem does not lie as much with a fear of being an impostor as with the discovery that while you were convinced that you were churning out page after page of brilliant, mellifluous prose you were writing self-indulgent, barely grammatical junk.
Good writers must have strong stomachs.
Inexperienced writers often believe that the quality of their work has a direct relationship to how they felt while they were producing it. If you feel great while you are writing something, if you feel that you are in a groove, you might naively believe that you are doing great work.
If you cannot detach yourself from that feeling, you will fail as a writer. If you cannot deal with the disconnect between the quality of your work, as seen through objective eyes, and the feeling you had when you were writing it down, you will never succeed.
It’s an acquired skill. Good editors will teach it to you. A good editor will tell you to put your writing aside for a few days or a week or a month. When you come back to it you will discover, to your eternal chagrin, that it is really, really bad, and that its quality has nothing to do with the way you felt when you were writing it.
This applies to many other types of work. The idea that seemed so brilliant when you were working it out last night turns out, in the light of day, to be banal.
Scientists are better equipped to deal with the process than are many writers. They are taught to have an objective reference, not a subjective standard. They know that their hypotheses are only as good as the experiments that prove or disprove them. They are trained to allow reality to pass judgment on their talent.
Apparently, young Americans have lately been showing that they do not have the psychological and emotional skills to cast a cold eye of judgment on their work, be it writerly or unwriterly work.
McArdle describes it:
About six years ago, commentators started noticing a strange pattern of behavior among the young millennials who were pouring out of college. Eventually, the writer Ron Alsop would dub them the Trophy Kids. Despite the sound of it, this has nothing to do with “trophy wives.” Rather, it has to do with the way these kids were raised. This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.
In a strange way, today’s young people do have a work ethic. Yet, their work ethic does not allow themselves to put themselves out, to take an initiative, to take a risk. They are allergic to being judged.
Today’s new graduates may be better credentialed than previous generations, and are often very hardworking, but only when given very explicit direction. And they seem to demand constant praise. Is it any wonder, with so many adults hovering so closely over every aspect of their lives? Frantic parents of a certain socioeconomic level now give their kids the kind of intensive early grooming that used to be reserved for princelings or little Dalai Lamas.
A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully. That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.