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Sometimes, the most mundane habits that are the most useful. So it is with note-taking. 

The note-taker spectrum is broad: There are the desultory note-takers, the doodling note-takers, the distracted note-takers, the ambivalent but obliged note-takers, the hyper-efficient note-takers, the graphomanic note-takers, and everything in between. On one end, the devoted declare themselves by their proximity to their favorite notebook; on the other, the reluctant announce their status with random dates recorded in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, note-taking can serve important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, note-taking extends our distance to a subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between the subject and our sense of the subject. The resulting divide offers—sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Third, while note-taking enables intimacy and distance, close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t necessarily the taking but the notes. Note-taking is the means by which we accumulate records. A repository of what we noticed stands as a material memory of the things that mattered enough, to us, at least, to be written down.

This is the case whether notes are clear or confusing. Ask any archivist: Notes are observations’ receipts, and those who collect receipts are the record-keepers upon which narrative power depends.

Consequently, taking notes and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for writers and narrators. Start or renew your note-taking efforts by having an always-open doc, always-available app, or always-ready notebook available in which to observe details, retain dates, and manage projects. The practice may act as an aid to productivity, but it will certainly provide past evidence for future meanings.  

Asking for feedback isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody, and it’s especially not easy for writers.

In our workaday professional lives, feedback is a necessary efficiency. It offers an opportunity to put in a targeted effort when it’s still useful to do so. We may grit our teeth and assume a protective position, but we ask for feedback anyway. Perhaps we’ll find our efforts have been sufficient and well-placed, but we know to prepare for the possibility that more, better effort is necessary.

In our writing lives, however, soliciting feedback and critique can feel a bit more impossible. Although writing is a professional pursuit, it often requires intensely personal inputs, not just the proverbial blood, sweat, tears, but also hours of time and muscular effort. When you have tried very hard for a very long time to express a very difficult idea that’s very important to you, it can feel almost dangerous to find out if those efforts have been well placed.

In addition, writers, whether part- or fulltime, nonfiction or fiction, often feel a deep sense of intimacy with their work. Passion projects, career capstones, or manuscripts that have been years in the making are frequently imbued with a writer’s hopes, dreams, and desires. Once a manuscript takes shape, you may feel it contains too much of your essential self to be offered up for critique.

Do it anyway.

We all know that feedback (almost) always makes its object stronger. This is particularly the case for writing, where feedback can help writers widen the gap between their experiences and their representation.

As previously discussed, this gap is necessary: We want the gap—we need the gap. Without it, our experiences are too insular and singularly referential to be meaningful to others. Feedback can let us know if our writing offers a real and useful guide through our interiority.  

Feedback’s value is ultimately universal: It’s (almost) always an aid to efficiency, enabling  that targeted, useful, and necessary effort. Writers may need to assume a protective position and armor themselves, but they should take every opportunity to solicit feedback, too.

If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.

Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool. 

For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.

Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.

Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.

Therefore, aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.

By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.

The propinquity effect describes the likelihood that interpersonal relationships develop—and develop more deeply—according to proximity. We’re more likely to forge friendships and develop deep relationships with people who live near us or with people we frequently see.

This may be unsurprising, given that physical proximity provides so many opportunities for, and thus expands the time we spend in, conversation (an effect made abundantly clear during the pandemic). More surprising might be the propinquity effect’s relevance to book development.

In my last post, I advised authors with underbaked, underdeveloped manuscripts to take a break. A break aids consolidation, which in turn enables authors to return to work with newly accrued knowledge and a fresher perspective. (Also, sometimes it just feels good to take a break, even if we don’t want to or don’t feel like we deserve to.)

But a break doesn’t need to be passive. Authors can help themselves (and maybe extend their enjoyment) by activating the propinquity effect. By identifying and reading the books with which their work is in conversation, and by producing imagined responses, authors establish deeper connections between their work and the proximate books with which their work is in relation.

By making the most of propinquity, authors enlarge their perspective and view their work’s particular qualities and strengths more critically. This not only  benefits their manuscript, it also helps refine extratexual efforts such as query letters or marketing materials.

In fact, the propinquity effect should be considered an incentive for taking a break. Authors may benefit from a pause in their work, but their manuscripts benefit when authors develop the connections between their manuscript and proximate titles.

Sometimes, authors seek editorial work for a manuscript that isn’t yet ready for the editing stage. (And oftentimes, authors are surprised to hear this feedback.) But what if your manuscript is underbaked (or unformed or underdeveloped)? What can you do to prepare your manuscript for eventual publication?

If your manuscript doesn’t qualify for developmental work, you’ve received good news and bad news. The good news is simply the fact of feedback. Manuscripts are many and editors are few: If an editor responds to your work—even to say it’s not yet ready—something in it caught their attention.

The bad news is the manuscript is underdone. It could be the argument lacks precision, illustration, or evidence. Or it may be the treatment of argument, illustration, or evidence lacks depth, detail, or distinction. Regardless of the cause, after the hyperintense effort of writing, you may feel frustrated or demoralized by the prospect of a return to drafting.

What should you do? You should take a break.

“Take a break” sounds like an ineffective or childish intervention, but findings from brain-based research are robust: When it comes to periods of acute skill acquisition, emotional engagement, work productivity, and of course muscle activity, taking a break is imperative for mental, emotional, or physical consolidation.

Taking a break from the work also clears brain congestion to enable more efficient neurological processing. This, in turn, might help you see your manuscript more clearly, and through the critical perspective required for self-revision.

So, if you’re an author with manuscript feedback that amounts to “not yet,” fully enact that assessment: Take a break.

Oh, look at those young women up there! It’s hard to believe how much has changed since Jessica Knight and I began Modern Writing Services: Houses bought and sold; babies born and grown; and, of course, business growth and change. 

This year marks the first full year without Jess. In 2019, she transitioned from her role at Modern Writing Services to that of a full-time research writer and analyst at United Health Group. While she still consults at MWS, she does so in a bespoke capacity. Here, she talks about her move:

Q: What precipitated your decision?

A: There’s not really one why, though going in-house is something I’ve thought about for a while. I was interested to see what it would feel like to have a longer-term stake in my work than I was able to have as a consultant. It can be tough to pour your heart and soul into a project and then have very little control over what happens to it after you turn it over to a client! I was also ready to step back from the business-ownership side of…well, owning a business. And I knew Molly would continue to do great things with MWS. Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of new clothes!

Q: What’s your new position like?

A: It’s really challenging, and really interesting. It’s been a huge learning curve, and I imagine that’s going to continue pretty much as long as I stay in this job, since developments happen so quickly in the healthcare and R&D worlds. My role involves very diverse work, from conducting literature reviews and writing white papers for our business and scientific leadership; to working with our data scientists, statisticians, and clinicians to help them develop research questions, analyze results, and create narratives of their research; to collaborating with our subject matter experts to refine conference presentations and papers for publication.

Q: How is it different from, or similar to, your MWS work?

A: It’s a ginormous company, which has benefits and drawbacks. To some degree, the R&D group feels like its own little island with an independent culture, but even within R&D I have a couple hundred coworkers. And the work I do is very collaborative across research teams and roles, so the day-to-day feels a lot different from what my day-to-day was like at MWS, when my projects were almost completely solo ventures.

However, the job draws on a surprisingly similar skill set to a lot of the work I did at MWS. While it’s obviously all healthcare focused, the research, writing, and editing that I do isn’t so different from the kinds of work that I did for nonprofits, universities, and presses with MWS.

Q: The best part?

A: The energy and intelligence of my coworkers—it’s really exciting to work with such smart people and to be tasked with trying to solve such challenging problems. I’m constantly learning—and I love that constant learning is a foundational part of my job. And the food. We have weirdly good food at our office!

Q: The worst part?

A: Hands down it’s the commute. I’ve gone from rolling out of bed and into my home office, to slogging through a 30–60 minute drive each way. I can work from home, but it’s often just easier to be in the office. I listen to a lot of books on tape, which, thank god for books on tape, or I’d be a totally rageful driver. I do my best to be zen about it, but it’s for sure a drag to spend so much time in the car.

Q: When will you work with Molly again?

A: In my head, I still work with Molly. We collaborated on everything we did for six years at MWS, so I think there will always be a little piece of my brain that operates on a WWMD (what would Molly do?) basis. And I jump on any chance to actually work together againI’m always available to come on board for special MWS projects

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I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram post on the top-ten of effective writing.

Of her successful, audience-tested suggestions, a few merit special attention, especially #1: Tell your story TO someone; #4: Don’t worry if it’s good, just finish it; and #9: What gets you [to keep going on a writing project] is not pride but mercy.

Although Gilbert’s expertise is in memoir and memoir-adjacent genres, every writer I know (including me) can benefit from the reminder that a story is always for someone. If you haven’t yet determined their identity, it’s you. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself your story, but the choice of audience will rigorously shape your delivery, so don’t abrogate the power.

Of course, it’s easy for a bestselling author to tell us that we shouldn’t worry if our work is good. But Gilbert is right: Perfectionism is the enemy of good; the challenger of completion; the rival of fulfillment. Getting the words down on paper is often the hardest thing writers do, but words can be revised, refined, and rarefied. Simply put, if you can’t get the words out, you can’t make them good. End of story.

Because getting the words out is so hard, writers do well to show themselves and their work mercy. Writers often write in spite of the difficulty and weakness of words, in spite of their inevitably truncated expressions. But writers who learn to view their efforts as temporary rather than permanent failures are better prepared to view revision as a compulsory part of their work. Unlike the writer motivated by pride and tripped up by missteps, a compassionate writer already understands that their words will never be quite good enough: They aim instead to make the words as resonant and meaningful as possible.

Writing is hard, but as Gilbert intimates, it can also be easy: Just pick your story, your listener, and your words…and then keep going until you’ve reached the end.