Lessons I Learned About Writing by@roxanamurariu

Lessons I Learned About Writing

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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others.

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?” 

Annie Dillard – The Writing Life

As I started writing articles for this blog for over a year now, I thought to review the lessons I learned about writing during this journey. 

When to Write 

What started as stealing time to write, here and there, progressed into a much more organized framework. Most of my writing is done during lunch breaks or on weekend mornings. My husband and my daughter go on the weekly grocery shopping, and I stay home, trying to take advantage of this time as much as possible.

I do not write every day, as I research heavily for some of my articles. Sometimes, I spend two or three days a week simply recollecting and organizing notes from the books and articles I read over the weeks, with no time allocated to writing posts. 

I tend to enjoy the company of my thoughts, so when I go on a walk or do cleaning, cooking, etc., I focus my thoughts on the articles that are in progress. What is the main idea of the article? Is this argument weak? Do I need to research more this concept? 

I can’t seem to produce anything of value in the evenings. Thus, I try not to write articles after my daughter falls asleep.

The Writing Ritual

I keep my writing ritual straightforward: start the cold turkey application to block websites or disable the Internet connection and write during Pomodoro cycles. 

Listening to podcasts or music (even study music) seems to distract me, so I don’t listen to anything while writing. 

I try to write as intensely as I can during these sessions, and timeboxing seems to be working efficiently (timeboxing is time blocking with boundaries. 

Consistency 

I planned to write an article per week. This strategy worked most of the time, but sometimes I found that I needed more time to tackle some of the more profound ideas I wanted to explore. That meant I needed to bend my rules and write only an article in two weeks. 

Other times, especially when words feel like rivers with ice floes in spring, I publish two articles in a week.

Over the weeks, being consistent helped me battle the … 

Writer’s Block 

I read somewhere in Mason Currey’s books that there is no true writer’s block but a case of not reading enough. I somewhat agree with this idea, as I currently have about 20-30 drafts in the backlog that evolved from the notes I collected from the books and articles I read. 

But I noticed that writer’s block is also a case of procrastination for me. Sometimes, article drafts resemble marble to be sculpted, and I don’t know what will I find inside that rough marble block. This freedom is a blessing for some of my creative writing articles, and other times, the same freedom silences me, as I don’t know what am I trying to say.

In such cases, I tend to postpone writing that article until the weekend comes along and I have to publish something. And so, I learned that not every idea I have is worthy of being published. Better to delete that draft and go on to the next.

Poetry 

Along this year of writing, I experimented with poetry, and then I realized how much truth was in this quote from Paul Valéry, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”. 

I got scared by how consumed I was by writing poems, especially writing Insleepia. I would wake at night when better scenes, words or rhymes came to my mind, and I would rewrite the poem compulsively.

As expected, when I am working on nonfiction articles, I don’t get bothered while sleeping with any feelings burning me inside, aching to flee.

Still, I revise all my pieces thoroughly because 

You’ll never make your mark as a writer unless you develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive. 

William Zinsser – On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Essays  

Some of my articles are long-form, and I was told many times to reduce their length. But after some experimenting, I discovered what I like to write about at this stage in my life: essays. I take an idea, look at it from different points and construct an essay about it. 

Blogs were all the rage a few decades ago. Now, accessible, consumable TikTok-like video content is king. Still, I believe long articles have a decisive advantage over videos: readers can quickly scroll over the whole article, anchoring their eyes on bold words, subheading titles, ending phrases.

On text, it is much easier to grasp the ideas of the content and decide if the article is deserving of our time. On video or audio, we don’t have such luxury of rapidly registering the entire content in a matter of seconds. 

Another reason why I publish long articles is that I undoubtedly suffer from impostor syndrome. I am not classically trained in psychology, neuroscience, children’s pedagogy, etc. What credentials do I have to write articles about self-improvement, neuroscience or childrearing? None. The fact that I am a white, middle-class parent of a neurotypical, able-bodied, smart, happy, little girl doesn’t make me a parenting expert.

And so, I go into much detail in these essays while putting quotes from other’s people works as either validations or rejections to my ideas. I do my best to be mindful of my biases and not cherry-pick evidence to boost my articles.

But first and foremost, I write these articles primarily for my daughter or me to explore concepts I find interesting. Also, I reread my articles when I feel like I have lost my balance. 

Give it All 

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard with seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath like well water.

Annie Dillard – The Writing Life

I tended to keep some of my better phrases or thoughts for yet another article, another time, another me. And then I read The Writing Life from Annie Dillard. How much truth is in this concept: write it all, and inspiration will replenish itself as it makes way for other thoughts.

Messy First Drafts 

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something —anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. 

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird

The beauty of this advice is that I don’t have to produce excellent content from the first try because, at its heart, writing is not about writing but editing. 

Editing 

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. 

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird

In his On Writing book, Stephen King has a formula for editing:

the second draft = first draft – 10%

or that

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

The last quote from King is, in fact, an adaptation from another variation of the same advice (“In writing, you must kill all your darlings”).

The editing to kill my darlings is a harsh reminder to ruthlessly eliminate any expressions or paragraphs that won’t help the story, especially excessively embellished parts.

I apply King’s formula by looking at the “Reading Time” information at the top of the article. If a draft shows a reading time of eight minutes, I try to edit and make it at most seven minutes.

As my native language is Romanian, I am very conscious of my limitations related to writing in English. The appeal of English is that I have a much larger platform to express my ideas, as people from places all around the world can find and read my articles.

It was a rough adaptation as my Romanian husband is my editor, reading and commenting on my drafts. I will never forget the first editing sessions where he slaughtered my articles. My grammar was atrocious, my choice of words horrendous. I was thinking in Romanian and unconsciously translating my articles into English.

In time, I learned to enjoy the merciless editing process where messy content starts to grow into a somewhat publishable article.  

Before publishing an article, I read my drafts aloud, careful of how sounds and words cling together. Can I find a better synonym? Can I express this phrase more simply? If not, delete it. Grammarly Premium is invaluable at this stage of editing. 

Paragraph 1 is a disaster — a tissue of generalities that seem to have come out of a machine. No person could have written them. Paragraph 2 isn’t much better. But Paragraph 3 begins to have a somewhat human quality, and by Paragraph 4 you begin to sound like yourself. You’ve started to relax. It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself. 

With each rewrite, I try to make what I have written tighter, stronger and more precise, eliminating every element that’s not doing useful work. Then I go over it once more, reading it aloud, and am always amazed at how much clutter can still be cut. 

William Zinsser – On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Ending an Article 

Knowing when to end an article is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choose your last sentence as you did to your first. Well, almost as much. 

The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it.

For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit. 

William Zinsser – On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction

I cannot state how much help I got from these quotes. I do my best to make my articles sing with a finisher note, especially in a symmetric way that captures the essence of what I have discussed in that article.

I noticed that ending the article on a solid note combines well with the “give it all” concept so that I know that I didn’t hold anything for me, but freely sharing what freely was coming to me.

Know When to Hit the “Publish” Button 

Your ambition is not to write the Great American Novel. Your ambition is to finish the damn book. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. It’s true of so many things in our lives. Because we’re afraid of failing, sometimes we turn away from it and don’t do it at all.

I had to surrender to my own mediocrity. I’m going to write as well as I can. The measuring stick is not, Do other people love it? Did it win the National Book Award? But rather, Did I do the work? And, Did I do it as well as I could? Answering yes to those two things is my guiding light. 

Cheryl Strayed – Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

A good enough published article is better than a most polished but never published article. Reading this advice from Strayed reminded me of how important it is to keep my perfectionist tendencies in place.

There is a sweet spot where I think, breath and take the whole article in my mind. But then, it is time to let it go into the streams of the Internet and work on another piece.

Reading 

Becoming a writer can also profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard to make it look effortless. You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you.

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird 

Books that have that magical quality of sharpeners to my crayon mind or of water flowing from letters on pages to vivid imagery are so much dearer to my heart now after I started writing on my own. I write the quotes I loved, I memorize them and talk to them. I also became less patient with other books, as I consider finishing a mediocre book optional. 

This blog is not my first attempt at writing. Nor the second. Across the years, I started and abandoned multiple blogs because quoting Cheryl Strayed, “I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.”

There were many ideas kept inside me that wanted a way out, and expressing myself through words is a medium that feels raw and true and works perfectly as a recharging self-care activity. 

Some of my articles and poems might look laughable to others, but I will keep them online to remind myself how my timid writing in a language that is not my native one has changed over the years and has grown in aliveness from sentence to sentence, from week to week, from me to another me.

After all, we are never quite finished with becoming ourselves.

Previously published here.

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