A famous line from the Jewish text, Chapters of Our Fathers, speaks to the spiritual necessity of interminable effort: We do not need to finish the work, but neither are we free to abandon it.

“The work” is both the effort, and the object of the effort. It’s the energy we put into manifesting any complex, intangible good–justice, peace, love, art–and it’s the intangible good, too. Justice, peace, love, and art are ongoing processes requiring endless renewal.

“The work” is necessary, and it’s also impossible. Each individual is compelled, in some way, to return to it, again and again, somehow in pursuit not of perfection but of progress.

We can engage with this work in many ways, by attempting it, undertaking it, toiling at it, grinding away at it, trudging toward it, struggling through it, forcing it. 

Or we can attend to it. We can stretch toward the work, direct our mind or observant faculties to it, listen to it work, apply ourselves to it, watch over it, minister to it, follow it, frequent it, wait for it, wait upon it, await it, expect it.

Attend is the operative word. As a transitive and an intransitive verb–as both an action complete unto itself and an action that must be directed toward something–it reminds us that we need not complete the work. We cannot complete the work. But we can attend to it.

Like a middle-aged patron holding a menu at arm’s length to read its scribbles, writers must manipulate the distance to make their thoughts legible.

But it’s hard to hold our own thoughts far away, much less figure out the relative success of our efforts. How do we know if we’ve explained ourselves sufficiently? How can we be sure we’ve rendered our internal monologue into something externally meaningful? 

It’s not easy–making the internal external is challenging enough without bothering about the answer to the question of to whom readability refers.

But it’s also necessary if we want our thoughts to be understood. As with other intimacies, when we’re too close, our view is obscured.

To gain more distance, we can practice the arts of alienation. Alienate can help us, etymologically, at least (ali-us is other/another, and -ēn-us is to see), establish the distance required to see an/other.

In contemporary usage, the word is negative–alienating something or someone suggests a hard push into an otherness so radical that the other can no longer be seen. But this usage is mostly only expedient for political ideologies that seek to hide the friction of distance and difference beyond the horizon.

The rest of us know that distance and difference are also opporunities. When we identify them for what they are, we can decide how and where to build bridges of common understanding.

Somewhat similarly, when we make our writing distant and different, we gain a perspective we can’t otherwise take.

We can do this in a number of ways: We can take time and space from a project, separating ourselves from and forgetting for a while our prior closeness. We can also use tools that make our work strange. Interrogative outlines are useful for this purpose. So, too, are AIs, which can make our writing so different and distant that we must work hard to build that bridge of understanding.

Wherever we’re standing in terms of our writing, it’s probably too close. By holding it out further, much further away, we may see opportunities to create common understanding.

The challenges writers face that feel so insurmountable are often habits of thought based on mistaken premises. 

One of strongest and most hidden beliefs we hold is that writing is a linear process. It’s not. It’s iterative.

To loosen our hold on this strong opinion, we have to first see that we’re holding it. 

Then, we can confront it.


While some writers approach revision as a set of fun problems to solve, most approach it as a set of high-stakes, anxiety-producing riddles. 

Revision, like all writing, requires both thinking and doing, or, in John Warner’s more evocative words, “expression and exploration.” Because we tend to subtract when we think, but add when we act, the work of writing is particularly difficult. To write–and revise–well, we must strategically wield apparently opposed forces.

Our subtractive thinking is represented by heuristics, those mental shortcuts that slice through the abundant inputs we take in every second of every hour of every day that we’re alive and awake. Heuristics subtract; they help us move from the potential paralysis of contemplation to the decisive movement of action (while also abetting our many and diverse biases). 

Meanwhile, our actions, particularly when directed toward object transformation, are frequently biased toward addition. In the linked study, participants were asked to change a Lego structure to make it more stable. Most participants, unless explicitly cued with directions to “streamline” their structure, added to it. They only rarely used subtractive strategies, though those typically yielded greater stability, and were more efficient. 

If (to adopt a gritty heuristic), we subtract when we think and add when we act, how should we handle the work of writing and revision? 

Primarily, we should separate the work into separate processes. Writing and revision both mean doing transformative thinking, but addition and subtraction serve each activity differently. Writing is all about adding–if we prioritize subtractive thinking and heuristics, we risk subtracting meaning.

Revision, however, should be understood as an implicit directive to “streamline” the object of our thinking. We practice efficient revision when we apply our subtractive powers to the writing we wish to transform.

Ultimately, when facing the challenge of revision, we may need to subvert our instinct to add more to stabilize our work. We should first consider the sum of subtraction. Subtractive revision makes the additive force in/of further action possible. Once we’ve taken out the extras, we can see what else should be included.

Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Attica, Greece.

No matter how dense the subject, complicated the field, or convoluted the material, every interested reader should be able to access and understand the argument in any nonfiction book.

This can be a difficult imperative to accept. When we’ve spent years/decades/a lifetime gaining expertise, we usually bury the assumptions, connections, and relationships that make up the foundation of our work. If we condense that work into a book, we implicitly demand our readers do the work of excavation.

But readers won’t.

Even so, authors often resist the directive to make their argument more accessible–protesting that it’s a directive to dumb things down or pander to casual passersby.

This is not true. Accessibility is not synonymous with simplicity; it’s synonymous with functionality. When it comes to argument-driven books, functional means readable, and making a book readable is an authorial responsibility.

Authors of functional, readable nonfiction books adopt the conventions by which thinking can be shared. Importantly, they explain the foundations of their argument and expose the scaffolding from which they’ve built its tenets.

This is harder than it sounds. The foundations of complicated arguments tend to be deeply buried and are hard to unearth. Many authors give up their search during the drafting stage, deciding that if readers can’t do the work themselves, then they’re either not sufficiently motivated or the author’s thinking is too complex.

Possibly. More likely, though, this is what we tell ourselves to avoid what we prefer to see as unnecessary effort.

While it’s true that not every reader will be interested in evolutionary biology and the future of genetics, or in the philosophical foundations and future of AI, those who are interested enough to purchase our books are already motivated to follow the most complicated of thoughts.

We write for these readers–interested, motivated readers–readers who have sought out our work and want to know more. However, to understand our thinking, they must be able to access it.

Feedback is an integral part of any big project. Ideally, we solicit feedback from functional experts, neutrally review their notes, and integrate their applicable suggestions. In practice, however, we often solicit feedback from our friends, review their notes somewhat defensively, and search in vain for usable insights.

Feedback is always helpful, but it’s not always helpful in the ways we expect. Though we typically use feedback as a tool for finding solutions to our project’s problems, it’s more effective (and more reliable) to use feedback as a tool for verifying our project’s problems (and determining which of them require our attention). 

We do this by looking for the feedback behind the feedback. Readers’ suggestions are often motivated by the emotional friction they experienced when encountering our project. When we look in the background, to the feedback behind their feedback, we can identify this friction and deduce the problems that generated it.

Let’s take a comparative look. Here, a list of solutions from a reader of a working draft:

  • Consider taking out chapter 3–it doesn’t seem to fit.
  • Chapters 8 and 9 seem a bit long and meandering–consider combining them into one chapter.
  • Some chapters start with stories and others don’t–consider using the same structure for every chapter.
  • There are so many citations–I’m not sure where your argument begins or ends.
  • The story in the conclusion is very interesting–move it up.
  • The chapter examples are repetitive–consider mixing it up more. 

These might be helpful, but they might be arbitrary. Is deleting chapter 3 a good solution? It’s hard to say when we haven’t identified the problem beyond “fit.”

If we look behind the feedback, though, we find more generative feelings:

  • I’m confused, and I’m not exactly sure why. Chapter 3 seems confusing.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because some chapters have different forms than others.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of interruptions in the sentences. 
  • I’m having a hard time following this argument. I’m confused.
  • I’m not interested in this argument until it’s too late. / If I’m totally honest, I find this a little boring.

What’s the friction motivating our reader? Confusion and, potentially, boredom: They can’t find the argument’s throughline. They don’t find the argument interesting. They may not find the argument relevant.

The feedback behind the feedback can feel harsh (which is why readers don’t offer it and writers don’t seek it out), but it points the way to the underlying issues keeping our project from completion. Sometimes, useful solutions are in there, but in the background. We need to look behind the feedback to find them.

Writers are intimately familiar with the tension between the fresh-start promise of a potential story and the perpetual pain of a blank page. But when the new year turns over, most of us feel the discomfort between productivity and paralysis, too.

The calendar may be a construct, but we’ve tacitly agreed it’s a construct that renews itself on January 1. The implication of renewal suggests a new opportunity to rewrite our beginnings and endings, making plain the latent tension between doing and dormancy.

While we frequently discharge this tension through resolutions—declaration helps to provoke the momentum we need to act—resolutions don’t really work. This may be because resolutions borne out of a desire to discharge discomfort miss the mark.

It’s uncomfortable to feel caught between possible action and perpetual paralysis. But we shouldn’t seek to relax this feeling. We should think instead about trying to heighten it. 

The push-pull tautness of desire—I want to act; I don’t want to act; I want to act—is elemental. We rely on it, especially the uncomfortable friction it generates, to negotiate a generative balance between activity and rest. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s popular line suggests something similar: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Reframing irresolution as generative orients it to the future, aligning it with action. Withstanding such tension mistakes the locus of power. When we foster such tension instead, we open wide the world of possibility: “One should,” Fitzgerald writes, “be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

This year, it might be worth resolving to work toward the generative balance that tension makes possible. In doing so, we sustain the conditions of imaginative possibility, which gives all action meaning.

Writing a book feels like—because it very often is—solitary work. But a published book is the result of coordinated teamwork. A roster of readers, reviewers, editors, copyeditors, production managers and production assistants, marketing managers and marketing assistants—and sometimes an agent or two—are responsible for binding a sheaf of pages into a brand new book. 

Some or all of the following people often have a hand in shaping a rough-draft manuscript into a clean-copy book:

    • First, the writer
    • Then, usually, a reader
    • And another reader
    • And another reader
    • Then, frequently, a more critical reader-reviewer
    • Next, often, a developmental editor
    • Then, after revision, another, second- or third-round reader-reviewer
    • Often, next, a copyeditor
    • And another, third- or fourth-round reviewer
    • At this point, possibly a query reader-reviewer
    • Or, a query editor
    • Upon submission, an editorial assistant
    • Then, an acquisitions editor
    • Next, an editorial board
    • Then, the acquisitions editor, again
    • Then, a developmental editor
    • Next, a copyeditor
    • Then, a production manager
    • Then, production assistants
    • Also, a marketing manager
    • Then, marketing assistants
    • Along the way, an agent might also read and shape words, sometimes serving as a reviewer, a developmental or other editor, and maybe as a copyeditor, too.

The point is this: We often feel alone, and this feeling of alone-ness can be amplified in the process of writing a book. Perhaps we assume we must go it alone. Perhaps we feel as though we really are on our own. But, in truth, no one writes a really excellent book alone. It takes a team of interested, thoughtful people to bring forth a book that matters.

When we’re faced with disappointments on a project to which we’ve committed time, effort, money, and emotion, it can be hard to know when to persist and when to quit.

On the one hand, grit can get us over the finish line, argues Angela Duckworth, even when our lungs are labored, our legs are heavy, and the race is too long. 

On the other, quitting the race can save us from overvaluing persistence for its own sake, claims Annie Duke. Why should we keep running, Duke asks, when we know we can’t win, and when a loss means more than just a hit to our pride?

To dig deep and show grit, or to pull up short and quit? It’s a timeless question many of us must ask about the commitments we care about, whether it’s a project, a job, a race, or a relationship.

It’s a hard question to answer because we often assess the costs and benefits of persistence versus abandonment only when things go wrong. Yet, when things go wrong, we’re not especially good at neutral assessment. The sunk-cost fallacy and other cognitive biases typically limit our thinking and confine our actions. We end up overvaluing our investments when they aren’t paying off, or blowing long-term equity in a short-term fit of pique.

Because life is uncertain and so many variables shape our experiences, there’s no easy way to decide when to show grit or when to quit. But we can get closer to the least-wrong answer by identifying the root of resistance. Ask yourself:

  1. Am I saying no (or, I don’t want to; I can’t: I don’t feel like it; I prefer not to; uggghhhhhh), more than I’m saying yes?
  2. What are my reasons for saying no?
  3. Are those reasons bounded by time and space, or are they existential and timeless?

The preceding exercise won’t tell you what to do, but it may give you enough clarity to make a plan. For example, if your resistance is rooted in overwhelm, take a break, or take steps to reduce contextual chaos.

If, on the other hand, your resistance is related to the possibility that we are mere drops in the swelling ocean of humanity, that there’s nothing new in its depths, and that nothing you say or do can really change the rhythm of the waves, well, quitting isn’t going to change that, so you might just need to make a plan to comfort yourself before keeping on keeping on.

Garden shears isolated on a white background

Producing quality writing depends on successfully wielding two opposing forces: creation and destruction (addition and subtraction; expansion and reduction). On the one hand, you have to make it. On the other, in the process of making it, you have to let go of some of what you’ve made.

Unsurprisingly, the letting-go part of the process seldom gets its due. Writers refer to it as “killing your darlings” or “the cutting room floor.” Though the pain of the effort is communicated through verbs like “kill” and “cut,” it is a fundamental part of producing quality writing.

In fact, journalist Kevin Sullivan, in conversation with journalist Chip Scanlon, cites it as the best writing advice he’s ever received: “Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut.”

It’s hard to let go of our brilliant turns of phrase, or our tightly crafted paragraphs. It’s harder to let go of whole narrative arcs. But Sullivan confirms that quality writing requires us to recognize that what we’ve created will almost always benefit from what we can cut.

To make it easier, save your cuttings as clips. The benefit is practical—you can consult your clips to develop new darlings. It’s also emotional—you can keep what’s not currently required, saving it for another creation.