Writing: Here Comes The Hard Part

Reading & Writing

You’ll notice this week all the posts are about writing. That’s because I have been chained to my desk (a former Franco voting desk covered in ink stains and hundreds of bits of paper) trying to produce an idea from thin air.

If there’s one element that confounds would-be writers it’s this; the making-things-up-from-nothing bit. Now, you’re expecting me to tell you that there are no quick fixes and you have to put in the hours. But I do have a piece of advice for you that may work for you.

Let’s go back a moment to the pre-internet world. I started writing on a typewriter, then worked my way through Golfball, IBM Selectric, Brother and BBC Wordstar before falling gratefully at the feet of Apple. During that time I completely changed the way I worked. In the earliest stages of transferring thought to type, you had to complete the thought in your mind before transcribing it. Think of writing a postcard – you need to plan what you’ll put because there’s only room for three sentences.

Gradually though, this changed as computing took away the need for editing to be prearranged by the brain. We’ve now reached a point where the transcription part is instinctive – yet many writers have not fully adapted. They think and plan and then transcribe when that order should be rearranged to Plan – Transcribe – Think.

So, you have a vague idea of what you want to write. Get it onto the screen by imagining you’re writing a postcard. Its clumsiness and incompleteness will horrify you. Now start working on it.

You can flesh out your on-screen postcard’s worth of material in length and style, and keep adding and fleshing out. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and one never wholly works without the other. It’s a technique I used yesterday when I had to write a synopsis for a novel. I set it down and bit by bit turned the whole idea over until it made sense. Today I’ll do that again. By tonight it will be twelve pages long.

Ideas don’t come from air – they’re worked out.

7 comments on “Writing: Here Comes The Hard Part”

  1. Eliz Amber says:

    The great and much-lamented Douglas Adams was an early adopter of technology and observed that by the late 90s, he simply couldn’t write without his computer at all. This was partly because his handwriting had declined to the point that he could no longer read it. I’ve noticed a similar problem – these days, when I have to write something others will have to read, I often print because my cursive is a mess.

    I hadn’t thought about it before – I simply chalked it up to disuse, but you’re on to something here about the way the writing-thinking process has changed. We’ve become so used to simply getting the idea on the screen, and then rewording, that we’ve lost the ability to think first, and then write. (Which is not necessarily so much a ‘loss’ as an observation. Indeed, you might say that it’s a testament to the brain’s ability to adapt.)

  2. Brooke says:

    The “new” process also affects critical reading and scholarship– I can no longer return to an author’s original versions to discover and marvel at the evolution and choices made toward the finished product.

  3. SteveB says:

    Victor Hugo just stoodnaked in the cellar on whatever channel island it was, till he’d written his day’s allotment. Hence entire chapters made of newspaper headlines and the like I guess!!

  4. SteveB says:

    Ps like the postcard illus.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    That was a fascinating process and contrasts interestingly with the opposite version in which you get a rough idea and then write and write until you get to the end. The final process is pruning the whole thing down to something with a reasonable shape. I like yours.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Douglas Adams also had to be locked in a room over a weekend, and plied with black coffee to ensure he finished a script he was working on, as he was wont to find anything to do other than write to a deadline.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Why is it so difficult for authors to complete what they’ve chosen as a career? I know that painters and other artists don’t enjoy working to order so is it connected to that?

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