As someone who writes regularly as he teaches, and who also frequents philosophical and other academic seminars and events, I sometimes get asked about advice for writing. After all, this shouldn’t be a surprise as I’m a contracted essayist and editor—notwithstanding the extensive freelancing I do.
The first bit of advice for writers, especially aspirant writers, is to actually engage in the project of writing. One must enjoy, love, writing. Why do something that is tiresome or boring? There must be a passion, a drive, a want to write. In fact, that is also important considering the fact that some publications, even well-known ones, will not pay you for your essay or article. A writer should write, first and foremost, because he or she loves to write and – at least in my case – also wishes to help teach and guide others in the wonders of whatever subject the writing concerns itself with. While it is understandable that one also wishes an honorarium for their work there are many wonderful publications that platform writers for the creative heart and desire to write—writing shouldn’t be seen as a job, but a joy and part of one’s own being (making money should be seen as a bonus, frosting on the cake, as it were). If you’re wanting to write for purely mercenary reasons, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Don’t write if all you want to do is score some bucks for it.
But the most important advice I always give is the same advice my old philosophy professor and advisor gave me as an undergraduate. I didn’t quite understand it then, but I certainly do now: Writing is always a work in progress. Just because you wrote something once, turned it in, got a grade; or, submitted it, and it got rejected; doesn’t mean you should leave it at that. A paper is always a work in progress. As I explain, some of my cited academic articles started off as undergraduate papers. It then expanded. It was then submitted. It was then rejected. Rather than scrapping it in frustration or spite, I held onto it. I returned to it. A paper started in March 2013 for an undergraduate course in philosophy, eventually exploded into a 20 page academic paper published in the Winter of 2017. Perhaps only 5% of that original paper remained – and the first rejection (as an undergrad) was a blessing in disguise. In short, writing is always a work in progress. There have been numerous essays of mine that have started off slow, in the midst of other projects, and completed months – even a year – later; but the always a work in progress is the most important advice writers need to hear.
Moreover, just because you wrote something for class doesn’t mean you need to leave it for class. This is especially true for young writers still in university or just having graduated from university. A paper you may have written for class might be worth revisiting for publishing. A number of my own publications, I can testify, have been papers written for class which were revised for submission after return. Again, a paper is a work in progress and never has a definitive termination date. Just because you “finished” it doesn’t mean you should shelve it or never revise it. In fact, I would advise writers that a paper is never finished.
I’ll give another example of this. Sometimes I’ve had new writing projects flowing out of an original paper. For instance, a very insightful passage or comment in one paper – which, for thesis reasons, I couldn’t expand or spend too much time on – becomes the basis for an entirely new paper or essay. That “finished” paper was, in this respect, unfinished because some of its content became the basis of a new essay. That essay then spawned more insights for another paper.
This is also useful advice in reading. As a scholar of the classics, especially Homer, Plato, and St. Augustine, I learn more and more every time I revisit them and reread them. Just because you’ve “finished” a book doesn’t mean you should never return to it. In fact, I make it a habit to reread a number of books and authors on a regular basis. As you grow older and sharper, you start to pick up on a lot that you previously missed. And what you glean now may very well be the springboard for writing just as one or two or three really insightful comments in an old paper will be the springboard for a new paper.
Papers grow out of each other. So writing, in that respect, never “finishes.” Never have the thought that something is “done.”
Lastly, especially for writers trying to publish, never get deflated by a rejection or multiple rejections. Keep trying. Hell, I still get rejected from time to time. But that doesn’t mean the paper is dead. Keep trying. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep submitting. The writer’s life, just like a paper, never ends!