Writing and Recipes

Writing is not a recipe. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. Writing is individual, idiosyncratic, subject to each mind’s own whims and wanderings.

Writing and Recipes

Writing, of course, fascinates me. How we go from some kind of experience or idea in my mind to replicating that in your mind via a series of symbols on a page or—perhaps even more miraculously—a backlit screen that is the interpretation of a series of 1s and 0s that have traveled across great stretches of space-time to reach your retinae, should, at the very least, cause your eyes to pop.

I’ve made it a topic of interest, over the last decade or so, to collect information about how writers write. Many writers, but not all, love to talk about writing and love to think about their writing processes. Maria Popova has collected such information over at Brain Pickings, and you can find little tidbits of it here and there if you read the works of different writers as they write about writing. The most popular of these works, at present, is probably Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s been around for a while, but it offers a fascinating mix of autobiography and tricks of the trade. My copy rests on the bookshelf just to the left of the desk where I do most of my writing. I quick scan of that shelf reveals texts that pull back the curtain for several different authors:

  • Annie Dillard
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Natalie Goldberg
  • Benjamin Percy
  • John Gardner
  • Ron Carlson
  • Anne Lamott
  • Milan Kundera
  • Karl Ole Knausgaard

If I search through all of my books, I know that I’ll find more because I can think of essays by others like Ursula Le Guin that are not included here.

Some of the tips that we get on writing are idiosyncratic. Stephen King, for example, writes about how he begins his stories with a character in a situation. Then, like a paleontologist, he removes layers of dirt and dust from a story that’s already there. He’s not creating so much as excavating. Anne Lamott describes how, faced with a novel that her editor feels wasn’t working, she lined up pages and notecards all along the floor and tried to walk her way through the novel as she rearranged and rewrote it. Ron Carlson’s little book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, takes the reader inside Carlson’s process. As he writes a short story, he shares the story with you and then explains how he made the decisions he made, what he knows and doesn’t, and why he trusts his instincts as a storyteller.

Other books veer toward the theoretical. John Gardner, for example, wrote two books (that I know of) on writing. In The Art of Fiction, he does offer some tips to writers, but he also spends a great deal of time thinking about what fiction is and what categories govern fiction.

Some works on writing are intended to inspire. The writing of Natalie Goldberg, for example, in works like Writing Down the Bones and Thunder and Lightning, leaves the reader feeling like she can write anything! These books fill us with a sense of wonder about the writing process and affirm us in our quest to communicate. Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing fits this bill too. Like King’s book, there’s some fascinating autobiography in here—e.g., typing the manuscript of Fahrenheit 451 on rented typewriters in a university library—but mostly the book encourages the writer to keep going. Bradbury famously says that a writer should write a short story each week. Of the 52 stories you write this year, not all of them can be bad, right? That’s the law of averages! (Challenge accepted, Mr. Bradbury!)

Some writing advice gets down to a nuts-and-bolts level, focusing on tricks and tools of the trade. For example, I have been helped by writers like Shawn Blanc over at The Sweet Setup. His posts about how he uses Ulysses to write for his blog have helped me to increase my productivity. (Thanks, Shawn!)

There is no shortage of advice about writing out there, and I’m perhaps the least qualified person on the internet to be doling out my own advice, so I’ll (mostly) spare you that here. Instead, I want to ask a question, and that question is largely inspired by the work of Dr. Jo Boaler, an expert in the teaching of mathematics at Stanford University.

In her recent book, Limitless Mind, Boaler shows that students who have fixed ideas about what math is—e.g., that there are only certain ways to solve certain problems or that math is just a series of arithmetic facts—tend to grow less in their mathematical competency than students who are creative and flexible in their approach to mathematics. In one memorable scene in the book, a scene that I’m sure I’ll return to in future blog posts, Boaler asks a conference room full of Udacity employees how they would go about solving a simple piece of multiplication: 18 x 5. The Udacity employees are struck and amazed, in Boaler’s recollection, by the myriad approaches that their colleagues took.

In short: There’s more than one way to solve a math problem, and the sooner we understand that math isn’t a set recipe book, the sooner we’ll get on with providing better math education to students.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think about what we often call “The Writing Process.” As a teacher, I talk about it all the time with my students. I’ve sat in meetings with other teachers and stressed it. “We have to teach them the process,” I’d say, “We can’t focus solely on the product!”

That’s all well and good, but I’ve begun to wonder about the idea of the writing process.

Can you tell where this is going?

It’s a misnomer, isn’t it! There’s no such thing as the writing process. It’s a recipe that we’ve created, well-intentioned and based on experience, but it’s a recipe nonetheless. Some writers will, no doubt, benefit from “the writing process.” Many, however, will not.


Writing is not a recipe. There is not a "right" way and a "wrong" way to write. Writing is individual, idiosyncratic, subject to each mind’s own whims and wanderings.

The Writing Process is the product of a fixed mindset, a point-of-view that believes there is but one method.

As a teacher, I shouldn’t be teaching students that there is only one way to write. Instead, I should be encouraging them to find their process. Try on different methods, steal what works and ditch what doesn’t. Your process will be your process.

In fact, if you’re a person who believes that you can’t write, perhaps a student who believes she is doomed to live out those Cs on term papers, you aren’t a failure! You just haven’t yet discovered your writing process! Throw off the shackles of the process that’s been taught to you and go find the one that works for you!

Go back to that collection of books I mentioned earlier. These authors have collected so much wisdom, but none of them writes in exactly the same way.

Based on my reading, I’d say that there are only a couple of hard and fast rules that they all agree on:

  1. Writing is hard and takes practice.
  2. If you want to write something good, you’ve got to be willing to go through the work of rewriting it. That’s where the art is!

Happy writing!