How I write

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific writers in the English language, is alleged to have once said that a writer's first million words are just practice. When I heard him speak at MIT, he described his writing technique. He fed a sheet of paper into his typewriter, typed until it was full, pulled it out, and placed it face down on a pile. He kept doing this until whatever he was composing was done. He then picked up the pile of pages, put it into an envelope, and sent it off to his publisher. He never proofread, never corrected, and never revised. That's one way to write over 500 books in your lifetime.

Maybe Isaac Asimov could do it that way, but I certainly can't. I always correct, revise, and improve. I don't necessarily write in order - I might start with the conclusion, then write the introduction, and then go back and fill in the middle. I also "age" my writing, like fine wine. That is, I save it at least overnight, and re-read it the next day. It's a rare page that doesn't have one or two sentences that need improvement. The worst case: once, on the next-day's reading, I found a sentence I had written the day before that was completely incomprehensible. But that has only happened once (so far).

My most common problem: sentences that are ambiguous due to poorly placed modifiers. Consider, "She was a blond woman in a dark blue suit named Edith." Note 1 It's amazingly easy to read over such a sentence several times without noticing any problem, when you've just written it, and you know exactly what you meant. But come back and read it the next day, and you wonder what the woman named her other suits. How to re-arrange the sentence is obvious.

When editing, I frequently reduce the number of words in my text by as much as 30 percent. Filler phrases such as "We can see that ..." almost always come out, although I sometimes leave in expressions such as "Well, ..." or "Of course, ...", to create a more informal, breezy style.

What has changed over the years is not so much the way I write, but the technology that supports me. Many people my age like to write their first draft longhand. But since in Junior High School Note 2 I learned to type faster than I can write with a pen, I've always typed my first draft. Back in the days of typewriters, I might then cut the pages up in order to re-arrange sections by sliding them around on the table, and then taping them in the desired order. Hey, kids, did you ever wonder why those word processor operations are called "cut" and "paste"? We used to do that literally. I generally used tape, but newspaper editors would literally paste columns onto a mockup of a page, which was then used to create the actual printing plates. Note 3

Back to my own first drafts: edits were made on the (possibly re-arranged) text in red pencil. The second draft was then typed from that - yes, it was necessary to completely retype the entire document (who could have imagined a word processor?). For much of my writing, the second draft was the final version. For more important writing, it was further edited and re-typed to create the third and final version. That's how my Master's thesis was done, for instance, with the final copy being typed by a professional typist Note 4, on Eaton's Eterna Bond acid-free archival paper. This was in 1964.

By 1970, when my Ph.D. thesis was written, I was using a computerized word processor. Low-cost word processors were not yet available to the general public, but as a graduate student in Computer Science, I had access to word processing programs on a time-shared PDP-10 (mainframe) computer. All that had to be done was to feed the pages one by one into an attached high quality printer, a job that was actually performed by my about-to-be wife Margie. If I'm recalling correctly, the printer was a Selectric typewriter modified by IBM to be a computer output device, so each page had to be fed by hand.

And now we have the word processor, which first hit it big as a dedicated machine from Wang, and which is now just a software application that runs on our personal computers. We never need to type anything more than once, and once we fix an error, it stays fixed (in the past, having to retype drafts would introduce errors into perfectly fine text). The word processor helps us correct our spelling errors. It allows us to mix in words in italics or other fonts (that used to require stopping our Selectrics to change the type ball, and was impossible on simpler typewriters). We can move text around freely, without the use of scissors and paste.

Some of these advantages bring along pitfalls. The spelling checker only does part of the job, but it can lull users into a false sense of security. The use of too many fonts can result in an unreadable mish-mosh (a poster in the Kronos documentation department read, "Whoever dies with the most fonts wins"). Moving blocks of text without care can scramble your train of thought.

But every power tool has its dangers. You wouldn't build a swimming pool without a backhoe, but if you swing it in the wrong direction, it can knock down part of your house. There's no excuse for not proofreading.

Unless you're Isaac Asimov.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted January 11, 2010

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   This example was taken from the "Sic!" column of an edition of World Wide Words, which in turn found it in the Robert B. Parker novel Bad business.   [return to text]

Note 2:   In the school systems of my youth, the standard sequence was kindergarten (ages 4-5), elementary school (grades 1-6), junior high school (grades 7-8), and high school (grades 9-12). I typically added five to the grade level to get the age at which children finished each grade.

Education is even more faddish than obstetrics - it's always on the move. Now (as I write this in 2010), the sequence is more often kindergarden, elementary school (grades 1-5), middle school (grades 6-8), and high school (grades 9-12). However, some middle schools include the fifth grade as well.   [return to text]

Note 3:   There were entire books devoted to the art of the "Paste-up". See, for example, Rod van Uchelen, Paste-up, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976 (ISBN 0-442-29022-5). The book jacket states, "Paste-up is the focal point, the single indispensable element, in all graphic industries ...".   [return to text]

Note 4:   The final copy of my Master's thesis is 112 pages long, including 11 figures, and six photographs. Four appendices and a bibliography add another 62 pages, although the included computer programs in appendices 2, 3, and 4 did not have to be manually typed. The final document was completed in a marathon session that went late into the evening, with the typist hard at work as I completed the figures. Hence the acknowledgments include, "The author is also much indebted to Mrs. Jane Look, who typed the manuscript."   [return to text]