Writing advice from Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

In view of last week’s death of American Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I am re-running a column I wrote in 2017 focusing on some of her writing advice….

I have long admired the feistiness, clear writing style and commitment to hard work displayed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But when I read a recent piece of hers in the New York Times, headlined, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living,” it occurred to me that writers could use her advice, too.

Here is one suggestion, taken directly from her column.

[I am] often asked [the following] question when I speak in public: “Do you have some good advice you might share with us?” Yes, I do. It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. “In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.

I like this suggestion, and I try to follow it assiduously, too. It’s often useful in life to be a little deaf, but it’s a particularly handy tool for writers when so many others are eager to leap in and criticize our work. I think this occurs because most people read and thus believe they are fully qualified to pass judgement on the written word. Sometimes I wish I had been born good at math rather than English. So many people are so easily intimidated by numbers that if you have sway in that domain, no one is going to argue with you.

To become better at writing it’s important to tune out most of your critics and focus instead on what you want to try to accomplish. But notice I’m not saying you should ignore all criticism. This is the beauty of Ginsburg’s carefully crafted phrase, (Vladimir Nabokov was one of her writing teachers!) “be a little deaf.”

Be deaf to anyone who isn’t qualified to critique your work. But don’t be the least bit deaf to the handful of experienced editors and talented critique buddies who can suggest ways to make your writing better.

And here is a second suggestion, again taken directly from her column:

Work-life balance was a term not yet coined in the years my children were young; it is aptly descriptive of the time distribution I experienced. My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her. After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.

Switch Ginsburg’s phrase “work-life balance” to “write-life balance,” and I think you’ll get the idea. Many people who want to become better writers or who aspire to write a book seem to feel that they need to quit their jobs or devote a minimum of four hours a day to the task.

Nothing is further from the truth.

You do not become a successful writer simply by focusing on writing. Instead, you do it by making a modest amount of time for daily writing and then living your normal life. Did you know that if you write only 300 words (a moderate-length email) per day, five days a week you will have 78,000 words — a book — by the end of a year?

Sure, you’ll still have to edit it, but you’ll have your crappy first draft which you can then turn into something much better. Never allow yourself to become so overwhelmed by the idea of writing that you fail to do it all. Instead, just make yourself a little bit of time for it every day.

If this idea appeals to you, consider applying to my next Get It Done group — a program that gives book and thesis writers the accountability they need to achieve their goals. You can see more information on the group here.

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An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 30/17.

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My video podcast last week addressed how to choose between competing great writing ideas.  Or, see the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Are you able to be a “little bit deaf” to the writing opinions of others? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/20  will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!