Five Things I Have Learned as a Writer

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

For the last three months I have been working on a personal goal to write over one hundred articles in 100 days. It is coming close to the end of that time and its valuable to ask, what have I learned? This article is nestled into a series I have written for new writers, especially geared towards new writers of nonfiction. Looking back, I would highly recommend that all new writers, especially new writers for nonfiction, should consider creating a similar challenge for themselves. Evolving out of these hundred days there are five lessons that I take with me.


Write Every Day: Or Rather Do What Works

All authors on writing say the same thing, you have to write every day. I think this is a matter of routine, and some of us actually live lives where we have a solid steady day by day routine. I am not one of those people and the complexity of my life does not allow me to develop that routine anytime soon. My life is more like blocks of time where one kind of routine is lived interspersed with other blocks of time that have a completely different flavor. As an example, I enjoy getting up in the morning and writing first thing but that is impossible during a spurt of travel. Because I am tied to my virtual life through the keyboard and dictation system, I don’t find it useful to do a lot of writing longhand. Even though I love my fountain pens and lovely journals when it comes to real work they double the process, causing me to transcribe what I have written into digital formats. Therefore, what works for me is to have my writing in my mind every day and to find it acceptable to build up to a session where I would write multiple things. At the end, I come out of the hundred days realizing that the underlying truth of the ‘write every day’ is the encouragement to writers to keep their writing constantly in their lives, rather than coming and going. The end goal, after all, is to produce writing, and the complexity of our lives probably means that there are lots of ways each of us can attain that goal.

Organize What You Write As You Go

Very quickly, I realized that organization was a must. Several types of organization patterns emerged: by topic, by the website where they would be published, and by date were the categories that made sense to me. As time went on, I had to recruit virtual assistance, because the articles I wrote for were to be published in multiple formats and places. I simply did not have the time, along with maintaining a full-time work environment, to write and publish. This added an extra layer of organization as my database had to be set up so that work could be passed from one person to another. Every writer’s needs will be different as will be their approach to both writing and publishing — some of us send our work off to others and others do it all ourselves. However you fit in this continuum, my lesson would say think about how you will organize the body of your work early on because it’s time-consuming to go back and impose organization later. 

A Growing Mass of Work Rather Than Individual Pieces

A hundred articles is a lot of writing, a daunting task really because very quickly you begin to think that you’re running out of things to write about. This caused me to develop new segments of my writing: all about life in Ireland and travel here, articles for doctoral students, articles for people reinventing their lives, and occasional commentary on how to get through a particular challenge often using action research. An overview though would put a different light on the same body of work, pointing out a massive amount of writing an action research compared to other things. In other words, when I look at my work as a mass rather than as individual pieces, a new vision emerges: that of myself as a writer about the usefulness of action research across a complex set of potential problems. I could not have gotten to this understanding any other way than by just producing a lot of work and sorting it out as I went. There is great value in having a growing mass of writing to reflect upon.

Rewrite and Re-Figure Whenever Possible

The fourth lesson actually came pretty quickly in the process, about the time I started to get pretty drastically behind in my one article per day count. About the time I started the database I went back into old files and pulled out all the beginnings that could be reworked for this challenge. At the end I’m not sure whether or not it is easier and faster to rework something old, rather than to start something new, but it helps with total figures at a period of time when you have a dearth of ideas and it reminds you of previous ideas as yet unfinished. As an academic, I’m used to rewriting but it comes after peer review. Here I had to be my own reviewer. When I enjoy the luxury of writing as a full-time occupation I would like to find money to investigate developing a group of people who regularly read and review each other’s work. In the meantime, looking back at my own work and refiguring it proved to be valuable both in adding new ideas to my list of possible articles, and in honing my writing skills.

Lifting More Weight: Writing More Than One Article a Day

I would never have previously considered writing three articles in one day. At the end it seems natural to have spurts of writing and production interspersed with periods of time when I can’t get to the keyboard. My ideal is still to write one article a day and, since they don’t take as much time as they used to, I can often squeeze an article in by just getting up a little earlier, or writing on the plane, etc. Nevertheless, I am more often a few articles behind rather than a few articles ahead. This necessitates multiple articles being written and published quickly.

Much has been said elsewhere about chunking material into smaller bits of writing and therefore getting three articles out of the one. A confession I make is that I am not yet at that point as I find a certain beauty in developing a complete thought. An analogy in my life is that I can’t pack for a long trip in a small bag. With laughter I have to admit that both these failings come from my desire to have everything I need with me, whether it is ideas or things. What I can do however, is to go back into my more detailed academic writing and pull out several small ideas worthy of a few hundred words each so perhaps this talent of chunking will develop over time.

I don’t want the reader of this article to think that I have mastered all of these lessons. Rather, like much of life, they all remain a work in progress. Still, I highly recommend the process that has led me to even entertain these lessons. If you are a new nonfiction writer and you want to quickly improve your craft I highly recommend that you create a similar personal goal to challenge yourself.