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HOW TO WRITE

© Rodney Stark 1994 - used with permission

Perhaps the most disabling myth about intellectual activity is that writing is an art that is prompted by inspiration. Some writing can be classified as art, no doubt, but the act of writing is a trade in the same sense that plumbing or automotive repair are trades. Just as plumbers and mechanics would rarely accomplish anything if they waited for inspiration to impel them to action, so writers would rarely write if they relied on inspiration.

You I can to write by writing, just as you learn to plumb by plumbing. And just as any ordinary person can learn to plumb well, so can any ordinary person can learn to write well If you want to become a good writer, you must write. Regularly! Ideally, you should write every day.

In my teens I began to work for newspapers. Nobody taught me to write. I just began to try to do it every day. At first I was slow, and my prose was not very clear, let alone elegant. But just as one learns to make professional pipe joints as one gains experience, so one learns to write more clearly, cleanly, and easily by writing.

Never wait for inspiration; it seldom comes. Approach the job of writing as you would approach household chores, as something you do regularly and routinely. For many years I have been in the habit of getting up at the same time every morning; as soon as I have had coffee and read the paper, I settle down to write for about five hours. I never have to ask myself if I feel like writing any more than I have to ask whether I feel like brushing my teeth or not. it's just what I do at that time of day.

If you write regularly, you not only get better and better at it but you also get a great deal written. Students often fall into the habit of writing under pressure-of putting on a huge last­minute sprint to get a term paper completed. That's a bad way to write. It mixes writing with anxiety. When you write, you should be able to give your undivided attention to what you are saying, not to impending deadlines. Moreover, when you write regularly, you will find how easy it is to write a lot.

lt would make me a nervous wreck had I tried to write this textbook in a series of crash sessions, trying to avert impending deadlines. The experience would have been so terrible I would have probably tried to avoid writing anything again. But that's not the way I did it. I sat down every morning and calmly knocked out 4 or 5 pages and then quit. That doesn't sound like much, but it is. In just 100 days that adds up to from 400 to 500 pages, or about half this book. Clearly, then I would have been content to average only 2 pages a day (and I write more only because I have practice so long that I am very fast now).

So if you want to write, you should think of it as a routine task, to be approached regularly and calmly. You will be amazed at how rapidly you improve.

When you write, don't agonize over finding the best word or the best phrasing. Get the ideas down no matter how poor your prose. After you have your ideas on paper, then worry about improving the style. When you have a draft, no matter how crude, you can work on improving the writing without getting sidetracked. You do not risk forgetting where you are going as you seek a word or wrestle with a sentence. Indeed, what you are doing now is not writing but editing.

If you are considering graduate school, no matter in what department, keep in mind that you are essentially choosing to be a writer. Great ideas do not become great sociology or great chemistry until they are written and published.

Reprinted by permission of the author. Read the full text of the original in: Rodney Stark, Sociology, Belmont, Wadsworth, third edition, 1985, pp. 644-645.

 

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