For Writers, Writing Is Never a Waste of Time

“What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.” So said the novelist Thomas Wolfe.

I once was asked to mentor a writer I’ll call Christine. Christine had little experience as a copywriter and none as a copywriter for the Web.

I decided to approach mentoring Christine the way I had approached teaching college writing many years before. I would create assignments that focused on various aspects of effective writing, in this case effective writing for the Web: clarity, relevance, brevity, scannability, consistency, accuracy, and good integration with design.

It didn’t take long for Christine to protest. After two assignments, she told me that she felt she was wasting her time not doing “real work.” I explained that, for a writer, all writing is “real work,” that no act of writing is ever a waste of time.

But I could tell she didn’t buy it, and the truth was that I had too much to do and needed her help.

So I gave her a real project. In the previous month, our company had hired nine employees from all over the country. I asked Christine to write a 250-word article with the working title “Cross-Country Hiring Blitz.” I suggested that each new hire get a bullet point 20-22 words long and that the introduction and conclusion together total 60 words or so.

Her first draft didn’t hit the mark:

  • It exceeded 250 words.
  • It often left out the most important or most relevant information.
  • It contained very little variation in sentence structure.
  • It failed to mention when employees were from out of town.

So I marked it up, we talked about it, and she revised it. I edited her revised version, and she revised it again.

By the time the article had gone through four iterations, it was clear, relevant, concise, scannable, consistent, and accurate. I suspect it was the most arduous 250 words Christine had ever written, but she had an excellent article to show for it.

Then word came from the company’s president: The article contained information he didn’t want competitors, headhunters, or the press to read.

And so, though it was possibly the finest piece Christine had ever written, it never got published.

For a veteran copywriter, it was all in a day’s work, but Christine was irate. “All that work for nothing,” she fumed.

“Not true,” I told her. “Writing is never a waste of time. Every minute you spent on that article made you a tighter writer.”

I don’t know whether I convinced her — she left the company soon after.

Two weeks ago, I attended the CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. I was sitting in a ballroom waiting for a panel to begin when Steve Krug, author of “Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” walked in and sat several rows in front of me. I’d attended one of his seminars, read his book, talked about him in an article, and exchanged a few emails with him, but I’d never met him.

I moved up to his row and sat three seats away. As the panel started, I pulled out a business card and began writing a note to him to introduce myself. Simple enough, you’d think. But I wrote five drafts of that note on five business cards before I was satisfied with it.

It may have been a waste of business cards, but it wasn’t a waste of time. You should have seen the smile on his face when he read it.

Whether it’s a five-draft article that never gets published or a five-draft note scribbled on a business card, nothing writers write is a waste of time.

And it was my husband who taught me that it isn’t a catastrophe when my laptop crashes and I lose an hour’s worth of revisions. “Whatever you’re writing always turns out better when that happens,” he tells me. And frustrating as laptop crashes are, I know he’s right.

Because for writers, the act of writing is an end in itself. Writers must write continually to write well.

“Being a writer,” said writer/producer/director Lawrence Kasdan, “is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

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