On Writing

I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss something of ‘the writing process'; readers often ask me to talk more on this topic. Boiled down, I believe the overriding question is: what works for me? When sitting at my desk preparing to write, what do I aim to achieve; what do I try to avoid?

While I’m happy to discuss these things, to share all I know, please understand doing so makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable. Writers tend not to discuss ‘the process’ merely because it’s a deeply personal thing – it is something elusive and indistinct, something more mist than substance. What works for one writer may not work for another. That noted, ‘the process’ that works for all writers will come with time. The art of any craft – writing, barrel making, it matters not – is only ever mastered by continual practice, by ongoing experience, by our making mistakes… and then correcting those mistakes.

Typically, the giants of literature have tended to shy away from discussing their work, saying their books should speak for themselves – writers should write books, not talk about writing books – that sort of thing. Their choice, I suppose, but I do know that given the opportunity I would love to ask a thousand questions of Dickens,  HemingwayOrwellSteinbeckJerome and Adams – a hundred others.

I’m a realist, I know my own writing will never match the works of these great names mentioned above – they are goals to aim for. I admire them deeply, I read them often, and I always try to learn from them. That is the key – to always reach out to be better.

Personally, I write because it brings me pleasure. I enjoy it. That’s exceedingly important. Also, be aware that my own writing skills are entirely self-taught – no university degree hangs in my study. In terms of language and literature, my two highest academic achievements are an O-Level from high school, and an A-Level from Sheffield University. I wish it were otherwise but Life is a slippery fish.

But here’s something I know to be true: a student graduating with a degree in any given subject does not indicate that same student holds any genuine worthwhile affinity with that subject. The study of music does not make a musician. The study of art does not make an artist. Only a deep-rooted passionate love of any particular craft can do this. Given any free moment, given any possibility whatsoever, a musician will always play music; an artist will always begin to sketch – and a writer will always sit down to write. They are drawn to do this through desire – and desire is not something that can be taught in a classroom.

In saying this, please understand I hold no desire to diminish the tremendous merit and worth of education, not a bit of it, I firmly believe in the value of college education – I’m merely suggesting that holding a certificate of education ought not instill any erroneous sense of ability within a student – only their own post-college achievements, their own ongoing contributions to the field will indicate their true ability, their true affinity with the subject. In essence then (and in our particular case) writers write because they must.

Each and every day, I work to improve, forever striving to better my sensitivity, to sharpen my observation. And although it sounds cloyingly cliché, I genuinely do learn something with every page I write. Thankfully, this unending commitment has paid dividends, I know the quality of my writing has improved over the years. Yours will too, providing you never stop trying.

Writing is a solitary business. By their very nature, most writers are introverted souls – and they are extremely protective of what they do. Writers, remember, are people who voluntarily lock themselves away for hours/days/weeks/months at a time. And they love to do so. During this period of self-imposed incarceration writers care about one thing only: their manuscript. The ever needy manuscript. It demands continual attention, it must be constantly loved and nurtured and cared for. The events of real life – time spent away from the manuscript – is something tolerated… but it is not enjoyed.

The first thing to keep in mind – and it may sound glaringly obvious to say this – but you cannot hope to be any sort of worthwhile writer if you don’t read. You must read. Lots. You must read to study differing styles, to learn from the greats. Look at how the best writers in the world have structured their work. Look at the length of their sentences; look at the words they use. Moreover, look at the ideas and thoughts they convey to the reader without the use of words. A good writer can merely hint at certain ideas, they don’t actually need to voice them. As Orwell said: “Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader.” This is essential. Readers are the writer’s friends – treat them with due respect. Show your readers the route you’re taking, they’ll understand where you’re leading them, and they’ll happily travel the road with you.

Second: Observation. A little earlier I mentioned that I’m always trying to be more observant. Having an eye for detail proves useful during my TV work. It helps me to notice the race-to-race changes made to the build specification of the race cars, for example. In terms of writing, however, I believe good observation is paramount: The writer at the dinner party is easy to spot: he is the grumpy-looking guest not saying anything but is, secretly, having a thoroughly good time. A writer will sit and watch, taking everything in: the smells from the kitchen, the oak burning in the grate; the creaks and sounds of the house itself; pondering the relationships between the others in the party, their body language, the sparkle of the eyes.

Observation is key because it is the job of the writer to explain the detail of the thing, no matter what that thing might be. In terms of relatively recent fiction, one of the most outstanding exponents of descriptive writing has to be J.K. Rowling. The attention to detail included in her descriptions of Hogwarts, for example, is wonderfully impressive. Every staircase, every corridor, every hidden door, every painting, every tapestry and suit of armour we are shown is aged and coloured with its own unique patina – everything is given its own precise place in her imaginary world.

Some members of the intelligentsia, leading lights of modern literature, openly scoff at her work, dismissing it out of hand. Kids’ stories. They might never admit to it publicly but I strongly suspect their derogatory comments stem from their throbbing egos having turned a vivid emerald green, this owing to Rowling’s lasting success – that and her whopping financial worth as a result of her impressive efforts. As the great military philosopher, sergeant Hulka, so succinctly stated: “Lighten-up, Francis.”

Third: Rehearse your lines… If I’m announcing a race on TV, my words are spoken aloud, once, and they are gone, out there. I have but one chance at correctly conveying whatever it is I’m trying to say. Whether talking on the telly or holding a conversation with the milkman, speaking aloud can be a frustrating business. Inevitably, when people talk face-to-face, they will use the wrong words or get confused or forget to say something or wish they had said some things in a different order. On the other hand, when I’m talking via written text, there is absolutely no need to rush. I can afford to relax, to think carefully before saying anything to the reader. The joy of writing is that I can rehearse my lines over and over until I’m completely happy with what I want to say.

What I’m alluding to here is editing, of course. For me, editing is a near permanent state of affairs. I will write a paragraph, walk away from the keyboard, have a coffee, return and change what I’ve written. What I had originally penned might not have been thoroughly dreadful but it was merely the first coat of paint. That same paragraph might be rewritten many more times, too. As an example, I can tell you that this paragraph, the one you’re reading right now, has taken me forty-three minutes to write and, in that time, I have deleted and rewritten about seventy-five percent of it. But that’s perfectly okay. It’s all part of the process. A writer editing his work is no different to an artist working on a canvas, brushstroke upon brushstroke until slowly the picture begins to take shape and form.

By the way, writers never really finish their manuscripts, they merely stop working on them. Usually, this is because their agent or publisher is banging on the door, uttering unnerving demonic curses with references to contracts and deadlines and printing schedules. I like Douglas Adams’ evaluation of deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Very good. And if you’re Douglas Adams you can get away with such a blasé approach. For the rest of us poor working saps it’s a case of ‘time’s up, pens down, hand it in.’

Next, the writer must always share his thoughts with the reader. Share. Never preach. This is something else I learned from reading Orwell. Again, your readers are your friends. We wouldn’t force our views and experiences on our friends, rather we want to share them with our friends. So it is with writing. The writer should talk with a reader in exactly the same way that two friends talk over coffee, or over a beer in a pub. We’re just chatting, that’s all it is: ‘Hey, this happened to me the other day and I want to share it with you…’ Just chatting. Friend to friend. No big deal. Breathe. Relax.

Finally, writers needs to find their own particular written ‘voice’. Many writers really struggle with this. Simply, they are showing off, trying too hard, trying to impress, trying to sound sophisticated. The key is this: Write exactly as you would talk. Talk naturally. Write naturally. Again, all we’re doing is chatting; there’s no need to flood the page with “ten dollar words,” as Hemingway once said. If an author wouldn’t use certain words or phrases in live conversation, then those same words or phrases have no place in written conversation – the voice on the page.

For some strange reason, however, when penning their pearls of wisdom, some writers deem it necessary to put on a baffling pseudo-highbrow voice. It sounds dreadful, like an awful, affected phone-voice used by pompous characters in a sitcom. It’s a voice both stilted and totally unnatural. It should never be used. Never. Simply, be yourself.

Writing is not an opportunity for authors to make themselves appear cultured or supremely clever. Writing is an opportunity for authors to share their hopes and fears, to discuss the events of their past, to ponder what might be in the future. Writers should never pretend to be something they are not – pretension is the easiest feint in the world to spot. Recall that sage advice from Mr. Orwell: Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader. Quite right.

Other than being somewhat knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject at hand, a writer need only be calm. All else will follow. All a writer is doing is talking with a friend in a comfortable environment, chatting via the pages of a book. What could be more pleasant, more relaxing than that?

In conclusion then, writing is an extremely personal experience. We can be taught the basics, given the tools, but we must then be left alone to get on with it – to make our mistakes and to learn from them. And there are many, many mistakes to make, too. But, just occasionally, we will produce something of which we can be satisfied. And, when that happens, well, there is no other feeling in the world quite like it.

Should you be starting out on a writing project of your own, then I wish you all the very best. I sincerely hope it brings you enjoyment and much satisfaction. Good luck!

Gosh, I feel like we’ve really bonded over these last few paragraphs, don’t you? Whose round is it?