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Writing as a way of thinking

17 Aug
photo by Bahman Farzad

photo by Bahman Farzad

A common ailment among beginner writers is a kind of control freakish micromanaging. What I mean by that is they write a paragraph and hone and tweak and fiddle with it until they are happy with it and only then, when they are exhausted and unsure of how this will marry up with the next paragraph, they finally and painfully let it go and move on.

This leads to a lot of dispirited writers, who are gradually over time although they might not know it unconsciously teaching themselves to mistrust their judgement, spoil their free flow of ideas and ultimately lose their way.

It’s like this: imagine you are painting the Mona Lisa. You start at the top left corner and start to paint. With only a scant idea of what the finished painting is going to look like on a totally blank canvas, you begin to paint it perfectly inch after inch, the background, the landscape in the distance, the trees and rocks, the top of Mona’s hair and so on left to right. You stay on each square inch until its perfect before moving on.

It’s less like the actual act of painting and more like printing it with an inkjet.

How can you know what is to come until you get there? How can you be sure the painting will be well composed if you are ignoring overall shape and focussing so intently on each individual detail as you go?

But this is what writers do to themselves, they try and write the book perfectly first time. They slave over paragraphs and read and reread them in a search for perfection. They read the paragraphs so much they become entrenched and fixed in their minds. They become set in stone.

So no wonder the writing goes off the rails. With everything nailed down, with everything set in stone, there is no room for flexibility of thought. Instead of getting their thoughts down roughly and quickly, they slave over each word. Once done each paragraph is impossible to edit, pare down or cut. It’s become a rehearsed reality, a fixed point in space.

You ask them and they say, it’s not right. The words are not coming easily and they are exhausted. You say you have to work in passes, write the first draft and put it away, coming back to it fresh for passes for sense and flow and editing. But they want to get the book done and they think that writing it perfectly first time will save time.

It won’t. I will destroy their ability to edit the words. It will make it take longer because there is no time limit on how much they can fuss over small details. It will probably dissuade them from finishing the book at all.

The first draft should be a single pass. Write fast and get it all down without editing or fussing over details or refining anything. Then put each page or chapter aside and DON’T READ IT. This takes enormous amounts of discipline, but it is essential. Write the next one put it aside and DON’T READ IT.

Just belt it down, get the words out of your brain and onto the page. If you’ve thought about what you are going to write then this should be easy. Just blurt them out, dash it down as fast as you can type. Don’t stop to correct yourself, don’t pause to think. Write in bursts, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hours, whatever you feel comfortable with. But have a limit.

Don’t write for 6 hours straight. You will warp your brain and end up typing rubbish. Write for two or three hours a day perhaps broken into one hour sessions. The quality of what you write will be higher and you’ll crack through the word counts like a sprinter.

But surely you need to apply some kind of quality control to what you’re writing or it will just be all rubbish. Not so, as you need to trust your ability to write down the thoughts in your head. You need to get used to letting those words flow out of your brain onto the page without editing.

It’s then and ONLY then will you see sparks of your own creative genius begin to appear in what your write.

Besides if you waste time fussing over a paragraph only to cut the whole section later on once you read the whole book, what’s the point of being that fussy? You wasted time.

Only once you finish the entire book, then you can read it. But don’t just read it for enjoyment, or to bask in your wonderfulness. Read it as an editor. First you must read it for sense and to map out the beats or pace. Are bits too long, or short, or have you made a mistake? Sort that out on a second pass.

Then you can do other passes, a read through from start to finish, taking in the book as a whole, to see how it reads, check spelling, grammar and facts.

If you work in passes and resist the temptation to micromanage each word, you will find writing a much more enjoyable and fluid experience. Work smarter, not harder.

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12 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2013 in Creative Genius

 

12 responses to “Writing as a way of thinking

  1. BluebirdNC

    September 14, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Thanks. I needed this. I, over time, fell into this habit that you describe, to the point of almost paralysis. I’m now going to heed your advice.

     
    • Phil South

      October 13, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      You’re very welcome. :)

       
  2. Warwick Armstrong

    November 6, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Good advice there, Phil. I’m a retired academic writing the history of my family and their emigration from Britain to New Zealand in the 19th century. As a trained historian, I’m linking the family saga with broad social,economic and political changes in Britain and New Zealand. This is the context that explains their reasons for doing what they did. After years writing as an academic, though, the big challenge is to loosen up and break free of tight academic prose. And over-editing! It’s akin to a complete retraining of my approach.

     
    • Phil South

      November 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Hey Warwick, thanks for stopping by. Writing for a living, no matter what the subject or style, is good practise for writing creatively, so you’ve got a lot of hours under your belt, like a good airline pilot. In many ways you have a head start on people who don’t have the motor skills of writing so clearly etched on their nervous system :) being able to do the mechanics of writing without thinking about it too hard is a gift!

      Best of luck with your family history, sounds fascinating.

      warmest regards

      Phil

       
  3. Warwick Armstrong

    November 7, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Yes, you’re right on the hours spent, Phil. But that, as I said, also brings constraints. What makes a useful academic paper is not what will usually appeal to a broader public. It is the task of throwing off the shackles of up-tight academic styles that is the greatest challenge. R
    Relax and enjoy is something I’m working on now. I try to think of present writing as composing a letter to a friend or family member. It’s not easy to cast aside all those years, but it’s worth the effort – and I do so enjoy putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard. Good to talk to you.

    Best wishes

    Warwick

     
    • Phil South

      November 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      I think the trick is to think in terms of telling a story rather than relating events, otherwise known as plot. The why is more interesting than the what and how. And where possible add sensual detail, sights sounds smells etc paint a picture with words. People can help but have empathy for a story they can see In their minds. Good talking to you too. Good luck and any questions just have at it my friend. Phil

       
      • Warwick Armstrong

        November 10, 2013 at 4:35 pm

        I couldn’t agree more, Phil. I’ve been reading a lot of novels recently – retirement is great for that – and have chosen a lot from the 19th century (when my family left Britain). Some, like Middlemarch (800pp) are wonderful on detail and also dwell on personal relationships and offer fascinating descriptions of places. The other source of word painting comprises of paintings, lithographs etc. It’s a delight to be branching out. (I did a five year art course as well and that has brought bonuses, too – this may be of help to tigers, as well). Regards, Warwick.

         
      • Phil South

        November 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm

        Sound like you have a good handle on things. If you need any advice as you get deeper in, be sure to let me know. Meditation is a good route, sitting and turning over situations in your mind helps to tease out the drama, imagery and emotion of any situation. :)

         
  4. Warwick Armstrong

    November 11, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Thanks Phil. I’ll be sure to get back to you should mountains present themselves. The sitting back and cogitating/meditating is good advice. Trying to understand my great grandparents in the absence of letters, but with remembered comments from my grandmother is always productive. Even if it’s me and not them responding at times. All the best.

    Warwick

     
    • Phil South

      November 11, 2013 at 11:08 am

      Indeed thinking is writing. After that it’s just typing :) Documentary evidence is all very nice but phrases like “I get the impression from what I hear that she was . . . ” is better entertainment :)

       
  5. Warwick Armstrong

    November 11, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Agreed on the first point, Phil. And the second is very good advice; it brings the writer into the story – and for old academic hands that takes a determined effort at change from third person writing (to maintain scientific objectivity, you know. (When what we really know is that objectivity is rarely achievable among us human beings.)

     
    • Phil South

      November 11, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Haha yes, it is a fight sometimes, fortunately for me my journalistic career was all about what I thought rather than what, where, why, who and when, so creative writing is less of a stretch. It’s hard to change styles at the best of times especially when the usual style is so ingrained. But learning a new style is easy once you unclench. Your subconscious mind knows how to do it, you just have to let it do it’s work. Once you get the pipe uncorked, the problem then is how to stop it. :)

       

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