Writing as Driving

Building on the last post, the following are a few simple rules for writing taken from the task of driving. Readers are invited to suggest additions in the comments, and to call me out any time that I violate these rules on the blog.

Know your point of departure. If the prompt (be it your own or someone else’s) does not specify the position you are to take, you need to make your initial position clear to the reader. What do you expect the reader to already know about this topic?

Know your destination. Getting in the car just for the sake of driving can sometimes be fun. You are not, however, allowed to kidnap people and take them with you. If you want your reader to be a willing companion on the journey, give them an idea of where you are going.

Provide a roadmap. You may want to take the scenic route, or to get there as quickly as possible. If your passengers don’t know which way you plan to take, they may have different expectations than you do. Let them know how you plan to get to your destination (the conclusion of the paper) so that they can be fair in saying whether or not you got off track.

Stay in your lane. Keep one consistent train of thought throughout the paper. Side trips can be interesting too, but you must justify to the reader why they are important and how they contribute to the final destination (a stop for gas or snacks, say).

Headlights or windshield wipers? There are concepts in your writing that may be unclear to you because of your own (lack of) experience or personal bias. For these, you need windshield wipers: have someone else read the paper and tell you where your thinking was unclear. Other times, the path you are traveling may not be illuminated because few people have travelled it in the past. For these kinds of topics, with which general readers are probably unfamiliar, provide background detail and be even more clear than usual about the contribution you are making.

Don’t run people over. Causing someone’s untimely death is neither an expeditious nor expedient way to reach your destination. If you are going to critique another writer’s views or arguments in your paper, do so–but don’t attack the person.

Deliver the goods. Your passengers expect to get to the destination in a timely fashion, according to the roadmap you gave them. With writing, you have an opportunity that you don’t have in real life. If you did not reach the conclusion that you expected to, you can go back and set realistic expectations before asking other passengers to join you. Many road trips would be saved if this were possible in real life.