“Do the duty which lies nearest thee,” Which thou knowest to be a duty. Thy second duty will already have become clearer.” Thomas Carlyle
“Duty” — I know, I know, it’s a sort of old-fashioned word, one that sounds out of tune with our times. According to my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, it has two major meanings: 1) “a moral or legal obligation;” and 2) “a task required as part of one’s job.“ It’s origin: an old French word meaning “owed.”
What’s does all this have to do with writing? To my mind, just this:
First, writers, we have an obligation both to ourselves and our potential readers to do the work we’ve been called on to do. We owe it to ourselves and those who might enjoy and benefit from knowing what we have to say about whatever subject we’re passionate about.
And second, we have a task ahead that’s required of us as part of our job. For both you and me, the task that’s in front of us today can take many forms.
It might be pushing a story that we’re working on forward.
It might be researching a topic so we can build it into an article.
It might be rewriting a lackluster chapter to give it a shot of Adrenalin.
It might be taking a look at a tricky paragraph from a clarity angle.
Whatever we should be doing today, the point is we know what we should be doing. We know what our nearest duty is — the very task, however tough or time-consuming, that we should be tackling.
Now writing a novel or story or play can seem daunting, even overwhelming. It’s a big job, a complex job. But if we break it down into specific jobs, it seems so much more doable, doesn’t it. And most of the time, it’s easy to identify the nearest duty we need to focus on. And once we do that, Thomas tells us, the “second duty will already have become clearer” — we’ll know the next step we should take.
So, let’s keep it simple. Let’s break down the writing job at hand and find the nearest duty we owe it to ourselves to do. And let’s do it. And then the next job will jump out at us. And step by step, we’ll get where we need to go. Write on!