By And Large: Getting Work Done Whichever Way The Wind Blows

by Randy Murray on October 16, 2013

“By and large” is another one of those nautical terms that has found its way into our common speech. It’s also one of those phrases that may not mean what you think it means.

In sailing terms, it’s difficult to sail well both by the wind—wind coming in at an angle to the ship,with sails angled to catch it—and large, with a following wind pushing directly over your stern. You certainly can’t do both at once, and some types of ships were better at one than the other, while a few sail handily under either condition.

When people use the phrase in common language, they use it with a shrug, as if saying, “pretty much,” or “generally” or “usually.” For example, the sentence, “By and large I get my work done on time” means “I usually get my work done on time.”

I’m OK with the general usage, but I’m fascinated by the original meaning. As a writer I find words and phrases fascinating, and as my editor Penny will tell you, I can get hung up on them.

By and large. Not generally, not pretty much. As a writer I can write well both with a deadline, and without the structure one provides. I can write well both by and large. That’s an entirely different meaning, but it’s lost if you don’t know the source of the phrase.

I believe that professional writers need to be able to write well both by and large. Like me, they can’t wait for inspiration, sitting idly by for just the right wind. We need to be able to make progress whichever way the wind blows. Creative writers can do the same thing by writing every day. The habit, the process, the ritual of writing every day carries them through the doldrums. And for the business pros like me, it’s the knowledge that I can push out a good first draft on any subject and then make it better when the creative wind is more favorable.

It’s a rare ship that sails well both by and large, but it’s a great quality to find. Writers have to find those qualities in themselves or develop them or they’ll find it difficult to get where they want to go.


The By And Large: Getting Work Done Whichever Way The Wind Blows by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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