On Writing: A few tips from a writer of pure fiction
I’m a writer with five novels published, and a severe clichéd block about the next one. Professional writing is a petri dish of paranoia and in these past months of low productivity, the self-loathing and pointlessness has been billowing and blooming.
One source of comfort is that from September 2017, I’ll have a part-time job to distract me from the terrors of the blank page as well as to raise my lamentable income. Earlier this year, I successfully applied for a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship1, which is a scheme sending published writers to work two days a week with individual students in partner universities.
Students can self-refer, the tutorials are one-to-one, and the results aren’t measured or data-driven. It is, in other words, a blissful island of independent learning within the modern education system. The RLF has unusually healthy coffers thanks to a bequest from AA Milne and Winnie the Pooh – I like to think my getting the job is payback for having to teach my children repeatedly that, no, it’s not spelt “hunny”.
While there are many creative writing courses, writing as a form of efficient and effective communication is little taught. According to the RLF’s research, this is an issue in our universities. Students are arriving with excellent A’ level results, yet unable to write a clear, well-paragraphed argument. Basics – introduction, body, and conclusion – are often missing. The RLF sets out to help those at undergraduate level, so that the situation doesn’t continue into postgraduate or professional life. Their advice on essay writing is spot-on for academic writing at any stage – from GSCEs to PhDs. 2
The lack of clarity when reading some students’ essays can make one feel all curmudgeonly and middle-aged, harrumphing that kids these days with their phones and Facebook are too lazy to write. But ironically, I think we all use the written word more now than ever before, and so to be able to use it well is vital. I lived in Madrid from 1994 to 1997, a pivotal moment in time that we now know was the dying days of the pre-Internet world. I worked for English magazine but I had a group of Spanish friends and a monolingual boyfriend named Miguel. I spoke Spanish each and every day, but I never, ever wrote a word of it, bar the odd official form that needed filling.
Had I been living there one or two decades’ later, how different this would have been. I’d have been texting and Whatsapping my boyfriend, posting comments on Instagram and Facebook, and emailing friends occasionally. I’m not suggesting that I’d have been using the Spanish of Cervantes, but I would have had to write in such a way that my messages were clear.
And I’d have loved it. The world divides into those that prefer to speak and those that prefer to write. I had assumed that everyone found it far easier to order thoughts into paragraphs than to say them out loud, but there are many that find the act of writing as terrifying as I do public speaking.
If some are naturally fluent in the language of the page, are we able to teach the ability to present large chunks of information in a cogent form to those that don’t have an aptitude? I believe so and feel frustrated that some students aren’t being given the simple tools that could make their lives so much easier and more successful, both at university and beyond.
To confirm my belief that anyone can be taught to write well, I’ve been aided in having two guinea pigs at home who couldn’t be more perfect had they been designed in a laboratory rather than the womb. My ten-year-old daughter reads almost nothing yet has an instinctive grasp of how to write, amusing herself by producing her own stories and articles. Aged five, she wrote that a group of bunnies “worked for food and played for fun”. She just has it.
At the same age, her older brother was the opposite. Despite voraciously reading the classics, he was unable to write more than a line or two. His head and hand froze and he was in danger of underselling himself. To help him, I developed tick-box and acronym-laden crib sheets to go over before writing any piece. It seems abhorrent to reduce the art of writing to a list of ingredients and instructions, like a bad bolognaise recipe, but for him it proved transformative. Having a rigid structure freed him to become creative, since he no longer had to worry about how to write, concentrating instead on what to write.
It sounds patronising to suggest that adult students might need to recite PEE (“point, example/evidence, explanation”) 3 every time they get to their keyboard, but it won’t do any harm if they do. Nor if they sit with a pen and paper scribbling a plan with “introduction, paragraph 1, paragraph 2… conclusion” on it, and then putting these words in the relevant places next to the notes they’ve collected. The simple act of reading your written work out loud is one of the best editing tricks there is. Even a student reminding him or herself not to write more than 150 words without thinking about paragraph length will immediately make any report or dissertation more readable.4
As well as novels, I write features for national newspapers and magazines. I read and I re-read, I scrupulously write to length and to brief. Yet invariably it’s edited, sometimes heavily, by those who have commissioned the piece. I could get offended by this slashing and querying, but every time, without exception, I’ve marvelled at how much judicious and subtle editing has improved what I had hoped was beyond improvement. Students of all levels would do well to read and analyse a piece of journalism, such as the Guardian’s Long Read, to see how it compares to their own work.
Good writing is a map through a tangle of words. As your lecturer, research supervisor or thesis examiner is wading through, the least you can do is produce a pathway with pith and wit. This is as true for the writer of a doctorate as a primary-school SATs paper. And something that novelists, too, can all too easily forget.
4 This one, for example, is 116 words.
© Christina Hopkinson