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Advice for Writers

Posted on: Tuesday, 16 October 2012

It is Book Week at school, people. Cue my moaning on Twitter about having to find a literature-related fancy dress costume for Friday (I'm toying with plaits and a sign hanging around my neck reading THIS GIRL TELLS LIES). 

I could get a bit evangelical here, but I won't - suffice to say that it's a real pleasure to work in a school that sincerely values reading as opposed to to tagging it onto the bottom of a whole-school agenda to satiate an Ofsted inspector who's been told to look out for some literacy. Oo, a poster with a book on it! In a room that used to be a library but is now full of computers! Ahem. 

Liz Lochhead was the surprise guest speaker today for Key Stage 5 students. Needless to say they were studious and thoughtful and appreciative and asked some intelligent questions.

One boy who asked if she'd written her poetry with the intention of twenty students in a classroom somewhere poring over every detail of it. "Och, no!" she said. "I didn't write it to mek you suffer!" Cue laughter. But then she said, "I wrote it because some people might like it. Some people won't. And you have to find something that you like in whatever you're studying and enjoy. Within the constraints of exam board requirements and all that crap." Cue more laughter. 

She read some of her poems and talked about them. She started with Bairnsang and the male patriarchy in Literature ("The way it had to be said/was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.") and finished on patriarchy, too, with Men Talk ("Women natter, women nag/women niggle niggle niggle") - which I didn't realise she'd written after reading a book by Dale Spender.

And I was in heaven. And she signed my book (nerd). 

And then she gave out some advice for writers. It's reproduced below. 

This woman speaks the truth. Enjoy. 


All the good advice about writing is very simple.

So straightforward it's all been said before, but it's probably worth reminding ourselves of. I know I have to tell myself all this, and I have to do this every time I get going on something new.

1. Write what really interests you, not what you think you ought to be interested in.

2. The old five senses. See it, touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it. Turn yourself into it, said Ted Hughes, and the words will look after themselves. Well, certainly I have to turn all my censors, inhibitors and ego, and false sense of myself as a writer, and certainly any attempts at cleverness off - in the first draft at least.

See, it's only when you read back what you have written down, tasting and testing the words as words and sounds you can see where you have captured a bit of life in the language, an image, a wee detail - and that won't necessarily be in the bit that felt like it flowed or had the fancy words, but often in the bit that you struggled over and in the end, och, just put down what would have to do for now....

3. Throw away all the bits that don't have bits of life in them, keep these surprisingly honest and vivid bits, the bits that, to tell the truth, surprised you - mibbe by their simplicity - and start again with them.

4. Don't explain. You don't have to give the reasons for going there or the co-ordinates on a map. Consider cutting off the beginning and the end paragraph or stanza of what you have written - and do this once you think it's finished and cut down to the bone already. No 'vamping till ready', no summing up. Just trust your reader to be right there with you in the middle of the place you are writing about. Get in, get out and don't linger said Raymond Carver. 

5. Don't try and describe your feelings. An emotion named is an emotion obliterated from any text. Stick to those five sound senses, stick to objects and actions, what's done, what's said. Get this right and all the feeling in the world will be in this. 

6. It's all in the details, in the particular. Small things. Plain words, probably, But which ones? Ah, I said the advice was simple, I didn't say it was easy...

7. Enjoy yourself. Struggle with not enjoying yourself until you begin to, very much. 

(If I can't, or won't, it's usually because I'm not obeying Rule Number One.) 


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