Why writing is so hard – all those paths not taken

The trouble with writing is you have to pick a story line and stick to it. What you want to tell could be viewed a fragile net, with many interconnections, but at some point you have to pick it up at a single place and shake. When you shake, the story changes, because many links will break, causing some glittering pieces to fall away, forever forgotten. You have to let those pieces go, or the impatient reader will flounder in a sea of unconnected language. By shaking, you are left with a linear structure that allows you to write, paragraph by paragraph. A well-told story flows logically, with one piece following naturally from the next.

My husband is a brilliant writer, with a knife-sharp structure. He writes an outline and follows it carefully. If a different approach becomes compelling, the entire piece gets rewritten. Once the structure is in place, he polishes and polishes, so every word tells. Every sentence is clear; every paragraph follows so well, the writing seems effortless and obvious. This kind of writing is a joy to read. Even when the science being explained is complex, his clear writing makes it seem like a sunny day.

Writing is not so easy for me. I find it harder to let those pieces fall away. They are shiny pebbles and I want to share every one. Here is an example. I’m about to write about a birding trip we took on Saturday. What should the main thread be? The importance of peninsulas and points in migration? I could talk about the concentration of migrants we saw on the little point between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. We saw a clot of 24 rough-winged swallows waiting on a dead branch over the Missouri river before flying south. This thread could lead to a discussion of other slivers of land jutting into the water, concentrating birds and birders. Point Pelee was one of the first points I birded, back when I was an undergraduate and had to choose between buying binoculars and buying a camera. I chose the binoculars, choosing experiencing over recording. What I remember from that trip was hundreds of monarchs, but that is a digression, should have fallen to the floor. I could also talk about Whitefish Point in Lake Superior where in June two years ago we saw so many bluejays still flying north, loose groups disappearing into the fog over the lake. Wouldn’t points make a nice topic?

But there is another framework clamoring for my attention that would also be fun. The migrating groups of birds we saw were mostly females and immatures. The American redstarts that flashed their yellow tail feathers in the bushes, for example. The mallards in the ponds back from the confluence were moms and their broods. One mom was with young of two different ages. I could look up the research on why males go south first and talk about that. To me it is more obvious why males go north first – to set up territories for mating. I guess they also need territories on their winter grounds for feeding. Or maybe this is a false generalization, and those were just confusing fall males. Either way, it is an interesting topic.

But neither of those structures would leave a place for describing the second year eagle we saw on a low branch, hanging its wings as if to dry them. Nor would it allow me to describe its lumbering flight once it took off. Nor could I talk about the juvenile eagle we saw last year at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge in Texas on our class field trip. That eagle was chasing a duck it had no hope of catching. Wherever it flew huge clouds of other birds flew up and swirled, then settled back down. We laughed at that teen-ager eagle. To talk about this I would need an eagle-centric structure.

Is it worth sticking to a structure and letting so many lovely pieces fall away, even jettisoning entire story lines? I have to say yes, strongly. Think of the reader. She was not with me on that Saturday trip. She did not eat the peaches we bought at the roadside stand. He did not struggle to identify the pectoral sandpipers, or wonder if he was attracting ticks or chiggers. Instead, the reader wants to know something new about something specific, relevant to him or her. Wandering fluff is boring, without depth, perhaps only interesting if you are the writer’s parent. So, pick a topic, research it carefully, then give that net a vigorous shake, leaving only a clear, single structure. The reader will thank you. Save the best of those pieces on the floor for another time.


Rough-winged swallows migrating south along the Mississippi, 10 Sept. 2011.


Blue jays migrating north at Whitefish Point, 13 June 2009.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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