I tell college students that by the time they sit down at the keyboard to write their essays, they should be at least 80 percent done. That's because "writing" is mostly gathering and structuring ideas.
Obscured within this idiotic and irresponsible statement are two important ideas. The first is the useful reminder that "writing" involves an awful lot of thinking (and reading and researching) that goes on apart from the time spent at the computer or with pen in hand. The second is that the structure of a piece of writing is as important as the ideas it expresses.
But for most people, writing, developing ideas, and deciding on structure are mutually constitutive and not easily separable into distinct stages. Brooks seems to believe he's giving his students the same advice as John McPhee, whose elaborate and idiosyncratic approach to structure is the subject of a long New Yorker essay from last winter. But even a casual read reveals that McPhee does a tremendous amount of writing even as he's still figuring out an article's structure. Personally, I know writers who do extensive preliminary outlining and who spend days or weeks ordering their ideas in their heads and on notecards (or dry-erase boards, or whatever), but only a small number then find the subsequent writing an efficient and straightforward process. If this is true of Brooks, then that's terrific--but it isn't really what McPhee describes and it certainly isn't true of most writers. Indeed, I've found that for less-experienced writers, a preliminary outline often winds up foreclosing possibilities: students are anxious when their ideas start to go in directions that don't fit the script, and so they decline to pursue those ideas--or they keep them, but in a structure that no longer makes any sense.
Because I actually teach students writing semester in and semester out, and because I know how inclined they are to cling for dear life to whatever pronouncements previous instructors have made or whatever frameworks they've provided (DIE, FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY, DIE), I don't say stupid shit like, "80 percent of your writing happens before you write" or "writing is just structuring ideas." Writing is how most of us have ideas, not simply the end result of them.
For my part, I teach students that structure is vitally important, but that the right structure isn't always apparent until later. It might make sense to start with an outline, but whether or not they start with one, they should take a hard look at the structure of their essay once it seems done and see what might need rearranging or reconsidering. (I tell them that I often outline my own essays only after I've written a good, coherent draft, in order to better see what the component parts are and to understand the larger logic at work; it's a way of stepping back to see the big picture.)
Writing is hard. Teaching writing is harder. But everyone who does both knows that there isn't a single right way to write--the right way is the way that works for you. We benefit from hearing about other people's processes and strategies and trying them on to see which might be helpful, but no method should be presented as definitive. John McPhee doesn't do that in his essay, and I'd thank David Brooks not to do it either.
And with that rant, I close out 2013. Catch ya on the flip side.