The word “philosophy” means to be a friend of wisdom; to become wiser. In this context, a philosophy of writing refers to understanding and reflecting on your writing, with the goal of improving it. This inevitably entails questioning possible preconceptions and changing your mind.
Let’s start with one such assumption: What is the first image you conjure up when you hear words such as “writer,” “author,” or “writing”? Likely, you would give a description such as “a person using a typewriter,” “a notepad and a pencil,” or “a person using a laptop.”
These are all perfectly valid and understandable responses. We often use such images to convey the concept of writing—indeed, on this very page you are now reading. The thing is, such images focus on writing as an activity, not as a process. In other words, they emphasize those parts of textual production that are related to practicalities: outlining, typing, or editing.
In a way, approaching writing only as an activity—that is, focusing only on its practical aspects—conditions us to forget about what precedes these practical stages. We often talk about the right time to write or how much one should write per day, and for good reason: These are crucial aspects of writing. But they’re not the only ones.
Writing doesn’t begin with a laptop or a notepad. Writing—as a process that produces a meaningful and impactful text—involves intangibles that we sometimes take for granted: experiencing the world, inspiration and creativity, and the (sometimes desperate) attempt to comprehend what is intrinsically incomprehensible.
Before it reaches the stage of typing, writing has to march through abstractness, chaos, and a fair amount of creative madness. The more thoroughly writers understand these stages, the more in control of their texts they can be.
It would be fruitful to think of these intangibles as part of a philosophy of writing, approaching them from the perspective of discovering a bigger picture.
If all this sounds too complicated and theoretical, don’t worry! It’s pretty simple, actually—so simple, we tend to ignore it.
It All Begins With an Experience
Before an author writes about anything at all, they need to experience the world around them. People, especially nonwriters, often think that a writer is someone who basically sits at the computer and “comes up with stuff.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even when writing nonfiction—but especially with fiction, which is about stirring an affective reaction—an author needs to experience “the way things are” before writing about them. This is easier to understand with a little thought experiment.
Let’s assume two nonfiction writers are comparable in terms of diligence and skills. They both plan to write an op-ed on, say, the hardships and poverty rural families face in a given area. One of them travels there, talks to people, and perhaps even lives there for a while. The other writer researches the topic online, drinking wine in the comfort of an air-conditioned study.
With all other aspects being equal, shall we take a guess at whose text will be more engaging, disclosing what it really feels like to live in such a community?
You can imagine how much more important experiencing is with fiction—which, as I mentioned, is based on affect, that is, feelings, states of mind, and self-reflection. Fiction authors need to experience emotions before they write about them. And emotions, by their very nature, are not something you can simply research or read about.
Memorable experiences are everywhere around us, but we often ignore them because we are too preoccupied with the practicalities of everyday life. As a writer, you should approach experiencing as the core building block of producing a text. See new places, meet new people, try new things. Live and be aware of every moment.
Inspiration and Creativity: Ask the Questions
After going through a memorable experience, writers typically feel a rush of inspiration. At this point, perhaps … inspired by the title, you might wonder what’s the relation between inspiration and creativity.
The two processes are interconnected but not synonymous. Creativity, rather than being merely another word for inspiration, is instead what follows it.
Imagine you’re strolling down a boulevard during a hot summer afternoon, and you see a person eating some ice cream. You suddenly feel you’d like some too. The desire to have delicious ice cream is inspiration; your plan of how to find it, which flavor to pick, and where to go to enjoy it is creativity.
Each writer might have their own way of working with inspiration and creativity. There aren’t any universally right or wrong approaches, but there might be things that can work well or less well for your individual style.
One thing that has always helped me connect the dots between experiencing an event, inspiration, and creativity is questioning. What if this happened? What would this cause? What repercussions would follow if I stopped doing this?
I can make it specific and refer to my most recent novel, Illiterary Fiction. Its inception came as a result of the strong frustration—an instance of experiencing—I felt reading an appallingly written text online. That inspired me to express these feelings in writing, mostly to vent this frustration.
My creativity began revving up as I started asking some disturbing questions. What if most people actually stopped reading? What if there were professional readers, doing the “dirty job” and explaining things to those who wouldn’t bother? Illiterary Fiction had already begun to form in my mind.
This is only one example. As I said, there can be many great ways to go from experiencing, to inspiration, and then to creativity. The key takeaway is to be present, experiencing the world and noticing all the little things we tend to ignore. Ask the questions—whether they’re the ones I mentioned or your own—and wonder about the alternatives.
Ultimately, every author tries to makes sense of the world and imagine a better one into being. This brings us to the final stage, comprehending the incomprehensible.
Comprehend the Incomprehensible: Look for “Answers”
Art is about showing the invisible, expressing the unconfessed, and—you saw this coming—comprehending the incomprehensible. Or, as George Bernard Shaw said more eloquently, “without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
I described in the previous section how the connection between inspiration and creativity is often in the form of questioning. In effect, this is what happens when a writer notices the incomprehensible—the mysteries and wonders of experiencing, if you prefer.
Would you like to guess what might come next, forming the connection between creativity and comprehension?
Indeed. It’s answering the questions. Of course, this shouldn’t be taken too literally. After all, the grander and more attractive the mystery, the less likely a definitive answer. In this context—that is, having this philosophy of writing to improve your craft—an “answer” is more of an ideated path; a journey of self-reflection.
Everyone seems to have a theory of what constitutes a good writer, and more than one of them can be right at the same time. To me, a good writer is one who isn’t afraid to pose the questions and then attempt to find the answers. Good writers are honest with themselves.
To clarify, this applies to fiction and nonfiction writers alike. Let me reemphasize that the concept of an “answer” should not be taken literally; it does not refer to finding and displaying facts.
You can be a perfectly capable nonfiction writer who has thoroughly analyzed a topic and presented all the facts, and yet still lack “answers.” That is, you might have still not seen the bigger picture of your topic.
In this context, having answers is a matter of having clear ideological underpinnings; of understanding what you, as a writer and a person, feel about the text that timidly begins to appear in your mind. A great text is more than a mere sum of its parts—its author’s philosophy, personality, and voice float around every word and every sentence.
A Philosophy of Writing Is Not Merely About Understanding the World
Writers come in all varieties. Some are what I think of as “hired guns,” producing texts that are perfectly acceptable and grammatical, but lacking a soul. Others are true artists, who approach their texts only as pure meaning, without thinking about audience reception or marketing.
The overwhelming majority of us are somewhere between these two extremes. Which means, we need to strike a balance between opposing forces: quality versus deadlines, meaning versus functionality, and intangibles versus practicalities.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for word counts, no point in editing, and writing software would be useless—because our text would magically materialize from our minds into some sort of graspable and shareable reality!
Sadly, the world we live in is different. But guess what? As a writer, you can indeed change it. You can do that metaphorically in your text, and even literally, by contributing with your texts to social changes and paradigm shifts.
The reason we still read Sophocles, Shakespeare, or the Romantic poets is not only for their literary brilliance, but precisely because their writing brought about changes in the way we experience and think about the world.
Karl Marx, another brilliant writer and thinker, famously said “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” As a writer, you have the power to do that. So make every word count.