As I was scrolling through Twitter on Wednesday, I came across the news that it was National Writing Day. Various people were tweeting advice and enthusiastic messages over the course of the day, encouraging people to tell their own stories and find their own words. Some of them, though, seemed a bit like the authorial equivalent of fitness training: write every day, build it up over the week, don’t let it slip or let yourself off the hook, that sort of thing. Of course, different methods work for different people (working with students will teach you that very quickly, however ‘right’ you think your own ideas about work patterns are). So whilst I thought it would be nice to add something to the National Writing Day pool – albeit a few days late! – I’m not proposing to tell you what to do or how to do it. Just to offer a few thoughts.
I don’t write every day. At least, I don’t write ‘professionally’ every day – by which I mean programme notes, articles, CD notes, blog posts, book chapters or fiction. We pretty much all of us write every day, because we’re emailing, using social media, texting, updating shopping lists, typing out meeting agendas and minutes, and so on. But I’ve noticed that there are specific things in my writing that I like, and that I think need more work, and that I don’t like, and that have changed over time. Actually, this blog has been a good way of taking the time, once a week, to try to formulate my thoughts on paper on a particular subject. And to be clear about it, too: when I was a doctoral student, a lecturer told me that she could tell the difference between a new PhD candidate and one who had nearly finished solely by how clearly and concisely they could answer the question, ‘What is your research about?’. It’s true! Thoughts take time to coalesce of course, even once you’ve got the research findings in front of you. But that’s only the first part of the task – the second is to find a way to communicate it to others.
I mentioned the idea, above, of getting thoughts ‘on paper’. Most of us don’t actually do that any more; we get our thoughts on screen instead. There are lots of advantages to this, of course, not least that the chances of losing it forever are considerably lower than if all you have is a scribbled piece of paper. However, a lot of what a programme like Word allows you to do is cosmetic. You can change the font and the spacing, the colour and paragraph rules, the position of pictures and the number of columns in the grid. Of course you can edit as well… but you are editing something that already looks, format-wise, basically finished already. Rewriting substantially is much trickier (for me, anyway) to conceive once it’s on screen.
Writing on paper is brilliantly un-snazzy. You will almost certainly not write in a straight line across the page. Some of it might only be semi-legible. You can stick paragraph and line breaks wherever you like, write around corners, dot words all over the paper, use fifteen different pens or a stubby old pencil, high-quality cartridge paper or the back of an envelope. It can be a mess – an impermanent, have-a-go, not-sure-what-it-is-yet pile of muddled thoughts. Sometimes that can be a hundred times more valuable than a slick typed document. Particularly when you’re getting things in order. (Greatest secret of my PhD research? The Early Learning Centre bath crayons. I wrote all over the mirror in my bedroom and drew little dotty lines between connected ideas, and then wiped it all off again with a damp cloth. It was incredibly helpful. Sort of like the chalk calculations on the window of A Beautiful Mind but in rainbow colours.)
Last but not least, I read stuff out loud. All the time. At least once a week, I’d say. Sometimes this is because what I’ve written is a script of sorts, for a public lecture or a radio show or a pre-concert talk, and I want to make sure it makes sense. Sometimes it’s to make sure I can actually pronounce all the names of the performers, composers and others I’m talking about. Sometimes the thing is not actually to be read aloud at all: it’s a book chapter, say, or an article. But if you don’t read it out loud, you’re never going to find that embarrassing typo (or at least, not until after you’ve sent it to the editor). As ever, I recommend either sending it to a friend to read, or reading it out loud to a sympathetic soft toy, as the best ways of finding the mistakes and checking it makes sense. Because actually, that’s what this whole thing is really about, right? When we write, we are trying to communicate with others. We need to find the point we’re trying to make, the subtleties of its rendering, the right words and tone and inflection to hit the recipient of our words as we wish. Every time you write something, from an email to a novel, there’s a chance to at least think about that. Enjoy that. Explore it. Have fun.