Writing scares us: creating original prose and sending it out into the world is up there with public speaking as one of the biggest adult anxieties.
Outside the familiarity of emails, messaging and forms the prospect of getting down our ideas, beliefs and hidden weaknesses can paralyse even the most determined writer when confronted with empty pad or winking cursor.
As Covid19 shut down more intuitive outlets for social and professional expression, the written word is more powerful than ever if we want to move our opinions and projects beyond shares on social media. How can we break this block?
Let’s rewind, back to when writing wasn’t a choice. The ability to write fluently is something we consistently impress on children as a necessary life skill. Almost as soon as we can hold a crayon, teachers and other motivated adults encourage us to write, describe and comment creatively.
As school careers reach their conclusion, the task of writing under time pressure is one of the key yardsticks for grades to unlock employment or further education opportunities. Exams are feared, but when cancelled or disrupted (as we’ve seen this summer) the pain of lost potential is felt more keenly.
In a knowledge economy, getting to grips with this challenge pays off. As veterans of humanities degrees, my wife and I agree the ability to swiftly execute a series of written arguments ‘on the record’ is probably the most useful skill we learned at college.
When combined with the trick of being able to conduct research in a consistent, analytical way, one skill starts to feed the other, which produces that delicious feeling we get when the mist clears and we start to find our rhythm.
Timing and flow are two of the key things Stephen King looks at in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and the approach to his 60-plus novels and 200 short stories, which have sold more than 350 million copies.
In King’s books, characters always drive the plot, not the other way around, and he’s not shy to criticise the formulaic output of Dan Brown and others. As humans and writers, we’re afflicted with ‘shiny thing syndrome’ which causes us to collect and jam in concepts and details where they don’t belong.
This exhausts the reader, so the creative act King enjoys most is editing everything which isn’t part of the character and just impedes the story. Taking a break between writing and editing helps this process, as do long walks and the critical input of an ‘ideal reader’ (in this case King’s wife).
In On Writing King gives an enlightening tour of his ‘CV’ (how he learned to use failure and rejection as fuel), the link between reading and writing (do lots more of both, even if it’s bad) and the nuts and bolts of grammar, what he calls the ‘tool box’.
It’s true that this can all be found elsewhere, and it did stir memories of my own grammatical schooling in the 1980’s. What made this stuff relevant to me now was King’s focus on keeping things simple especially concerning adverbs and when it comes to vocabulary:
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
Both King and I play rock music, and in so doing I’ve learned (the hard way) what sounds great in the practice room often fails to connect with a live audience, usually because it’s too busy — less is most definitely more.
So pick one thing and run with it. If we take a single idea we encounter verbally each week (bearing in mind we speak at least 7,000 words every day) and which stimulates us, and test its ‘legs’ by getting it down in the clearest possible way, it helps train our written plus our verbal muscles.
Finally, if King’s other advice (write daily, create a regular physical space) seems like much of the ‘content coaching’ available on Medium, Linkedin and elsewhere he finally surprises me with an account of a near-death experience which managed to shock, excite and move me more than I thought possible in the space of 2,000 words.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll read all of King’s other books, but in this memoir he showed me where writing can take us if we get in shape, then surrender to the updrafts…