Saturday, 18 September 2010

Developing writing skills

Oscar Wilde ... “What is the difference between literature and journalism? Journalism is unreadable, and literature is never read”

Patrick Comerford

Every month, I write a column in two diocesan magazines that runs to 1,800 words. Most time they are the same, but sometimes I tweak them, and occasionally they have some major changes in them.

For most people, it looks like 3,600 words, and over a year that amounts to 43,200 words. When people ask me how I manage to write that much every week, I tend to respond either it takes more to write a book each year, or with some dismissive asides about insomnia and being able to sit up all night writing.

Well, for most people it does seem like a lot.

Then, on top of that, there’s perhaps a sermon or reflection on average each week, no matter how short or long.

And then, sometimes, they say things: “It must come easily to you after all those years working as a journalist.”

Well, let me share with you two trade secrets of a writer:

Firstly, it doesn’t come easy, ever.

Secondly, having worked as a journalist for thirty years does not necessarily mean I am capable of writing well in other styles and genres. Oscar Wilde once said: “What is the difference between literature and journalism? Journalism is unreadable, and literature is never read.”

The task of writing

Although Rebecca West once claimed “journalism is the ability to meet the challenge of filling space,” some of my colleagues in The Irish Times were sub-editors but also well-known, critically acclaimed writers, regarded not as mere novelists but as key figures in modern literature.

TS Eliot rightly recognised: “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”

And one of those colleagues gave me good early advice. He gave me two valuable tips: he got up early, and wrote for a set time, let’s say, two hours every morning. And he set himself a target: write 500 words a day.

Now, his books did not amount to 182,500 words a year. His average for a book was somewhere around 70,000 words. He admits that some of what he wrote each morning was thrash, only worth pulping. I remember writing my first book in 1984 on an old-fashioned, heavy typewriter. And so many pages ended up crumpled on the floor of my study.

But I wrote each day, and set time aside each day, even if all I started with was: “The quick brown fox jumped over the fence”, even if, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, I was sometimes reduced to typing nonsense sentences again and again “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

One of the most difficult tasks when sitting down to write, is actually sitting down … to write.

And when you have sat down, the task of writing does not include getting up to make a cup of coffee, knocking on the next door to ask someone about last weekend or the weekend ahead, checking on your email or your Facebook page. Would you do that when you are praying?

Sit down, call up a blank screen on your laptop or PC, key in the title of your essay and assignment, go to the next line, your name, go to the next line, and key in the word “Introduction.” Believe you me, you have got past the first difficult hurdle.

Try to set aside a time each day when you can write, and set yourself a target, a manageable target, for what you would like to write each day.

If you leave every assignment until the week before it’s due, none is going to be written properly.

If you start now, then you will be comfortably pleased, and physically comfortable, with what you produce.

Don’t write everything

There are two dangers to avoid, particularly when you have a limit on the number of words in an assignment. So: don’t pad it out; and don’t squeeze it all in.

You know what it’s like when a writer has entertained herself with her own recollections and her own ability to be clever. How often have you found yourself skipping parts of a book?

The American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard says: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Sometimes I just write too much because I’m not focussed and disciplined enough. More focus, more discipline would allow me to say all the things I want to say. Sometimes less actually means more, less verbiage on my part allows the reader to grasp more of my ideas.

Sometimes we just pack too much in, trying to show that we have paid attention, trying to show what we have learned. And then we become thieves, stealing more space surreptitiously, by cramming more detail into the footnotes.

Sometimes we pad things out because we’re not focussed enough, not directed, because we allow ourselves to ramble all over the place. As a journalist I found it was more difficult to write a story in 300 words than in 1,000 words. I remember one prima donna demanding more words to write a report, claiming: “I can’t explain it in less.”

“If you can’t explain it in less,” the page editor retorted, “how can I believe you really understand it?”

Writing within the limit you are given is an important discipline in writing. Blaise Pascal once wrote to a friend: “I have made this letter longer only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” It takes discipline to confine yourself to what you ought to say.

But padding it out to reach the required length is also an indication of a lack of discipline, and poor research.

Try to remember how many times you have listened to a sermon, and found yourself wondering why some of those boring, personal asides were dropped in while the sermon was being written?

Was it because he had to speak for 10 or 12 minutes, and didn’t have enough ideas?

Don’t pad it out

John Ruskin once gave the advice: “Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

On the other hand, your first rector, hopefully, is going to advise you: “Don’t pack all your good sermons into one.”

If you have good ideas that you don’t want to lose, open a file where you can hold and keep them … for the future.

At an extreme level, journalists in the Sun were advised by their news editors: “Make it short. Make it snappy. Make it up.”

But there is a germ of truth in that. Say it simply, say it sweetly, and say it quickly. Use space for your ideas. Don’t use unnecessary adjectives and superlatives as a way of reaching a required length.

Mark Twain dealt with this problem by advising: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Be structured

The Red Queen advises Alice: “Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop”

The Red Queen advises Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop.” The secret of good story-telling remains paying attention to three details: a good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

As Maria advised the children in The Sound of Music:

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi


Well, we’re all good at the beginning. We can set out the task we have to do. It’s like school exams: we were all good at writing our names down.

But then we find ourselves all over the place in the middle, and run out of time at the end. Plan how much space you need for each part of your essay. Don’t leave it to chance and find you have only 50 or 100, or even 200 words for your summaries and conclusions. They tell me what you have not only learned, but assimilated and can apply. Don’t tell me you’ve learned little or nothing.

Be careful with punctuation

I hope you all know about the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynn Truss. She describes it as the “zero tolerance approach to punctuation.” The book takes its title from this joke on bad punctuation:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Do you all know about the grocer’s apostrophe?

[Discussion]

Do you all know the difference between it’s and its?

There’s also a wonderful Facebook page called: ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’ or, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ Punctuation saves lives.

Watch your sentences

And even if you are good at punctuation, don’t use too many dashes and brackets.

A good idea, when you have written something, is to read it out loud, to yourself or, preferably, to someone else. That way, you share ideas, you learn collaboration, but your colleague actually hears what you wrote, not what you think you have written.

If it’s difficult for you to read out loud, then it’s difficult for me to read when it lands on my desk.

And if you lose your train of thought as you wrestle with dashes and brackets – and you know what you intended to write, how much more difficult is it going to be for me?

Write simply, write clearly, write with your own voice.

Watch your words

Anglo-Saxon words are always better that French or Latin words. You are more likely to understand them, and to tell me precisely what you mean, and they are easier to spell.

To repeat Ruskin’s advice: “Say all you have to say … in the plainest possible words, or he will certainly misunderstand them.”

Don’t rely on spell-check. Spell-check can’t tell the difference between their, there, they’re, and, if you speak like Jackie Healy Rae, th(e) hair, t(he) heir, the air, and dare. Here, hear, ’ere … Spell-check doesn’t understand you.

Watch your sources

Wikipedia is not a valid source, as far as I am concerned. Katie and I once found ourselves in laughter when someone had edited a Wikipedia page on, I think, the Apostle Philip, saying his father was a plasterer, and he was time traveller who had guested on Dr Who.

Reward yourself at the end

Give up each writing task while you’re still feeling good. If you end each writing task only when you’re frustrated, flustered or exhausted, you’ll hate getting back to your laptop the next assigned time. Then reward yourself. Give yourself that shot of coffee or that chocolate biscuit … not in the middle, but at the end, when you’ve finished. Then the next time you know there’s a prize at the end, and that it’s worth sticking to. Psychologically … it works.

Read what others write

Finally, read what others write, see how they do it and learn from them.

Share your writing skills with others, learn from how they map out assignments, deal with difficult phrases, clauses and sentences, notice how they express themselves. And don’t be afraid to ask why they wrote things that way.

And read for pleasure.

Read newspapers … Karl Barth said the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If I don’t know how the world thinks, how can I address its needs in the light of the Gospel?

Read poetry … John Donne and TS Eliot teach me a lot about how to use theological categories in crisp, sharp writing.

Read novels … Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox are theologians who write as novelists; the are academically sound when it comes to theology and church history, pastorally they are so insightful, as writers they truly know how to tell a story.

Read theology – for fun … Janet Soskice is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge, but her most recent book, Sisters of Sinai (Vintage, 2010), has all the fun and pace of a novel. It’s theology, church history and biblical studies all in one. And if reading theology can be fun, then writing it should be fun too. And it should be. You’ll be writing theology for the test of your life, for sermons, for parish notes, for book reviews, for communicating the Good News.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a workshop with Dr Katie Heffelfinger on “Developing Writing Skills” for Year I and Year II students on the MTh course on Saturday 18 September 2010