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Drowning in Words – And Learning How to Swim

some advice for people who write at work

Drowning in Words – And Learning How to Swim

(c) Alan Hancock 2018

From Speech to Writing

If you work, the chances are that you will need to write. Whether it’s a report, a letter, or a job application, you want it to communicate effectively with a reader, you want to get a message across. And, let’s face it, the job of writing isn’t always easy. How often do we put off writing something important? I think we all know those moments when tidying the desk, checking the email, answering a phone call—just about anything is preferable to sitting down with a blank screen or page to start the work of writing.

Have you ever wondered why this might be so, when other aspects of language use pose no such problems whatsoever? Most of us can hold a conversation or send an informal email message without any sense of anxiety or dread. Yet the work of drafting something that needs to be well written can feel onerous, even overwhelming. And all too often we approach the task with less than positive thoughts.

A brief history of language: hard-wired for speech

If we take a moment to look at our history of language use as a species, and at how the mind organises both writing and speech, then we might have a better idea why writing is hard, and how we can make it easier. Humans have been speaking to one another for at least 100 000 years, maybe twice that long, or so the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. The evidence is in the fossil record, which shows how our ancestors’ jaws and mouths developed to facilitate speech.

When we look at the length of time humanity has been literate, the story is very different. While simple written language has been around since the time of the ancient Sumerians, around 5 000 years ago, writing skills have been the norm, rather than the exception, for a much shorter period. If I go back four or five generations in my family, I find very few individuals who could read, let alone write. In most Western societies widespread literacy was unknown before the Renaissance. So we have 100 000 years of talking, against say 500 years writing. You can guess which ability appears to be hard-wired into the human brain, and which we struggle to learn.

Tapping into spontaneity

Let’s take a look at what happens when we speak, and see if we can find any clues there as to how we might approach writing. When I am talking to a friend I don’t usually have the experience of planning the content and structure of what I’m going to say. It isn’t an effort. I have thoughts, and I find myself saying the words to express them: I seem to be making it up as I go along. This experience of intuitive language use is something that I believe we can apply to writing. In fact, many of the times when we find writing a chore, when we say we have writer’s block, we are short-circuiting this spontaneous flow, that we can tap into just as readily in writing as in speech.

We may have learned bad habits at school, trying to edit and write at the same time. We may be constantly checking the words on the page, even before they can be written, to see if they are good enough. We might be working so hard at planning and controlling our writing that our energy becomes stifled, and we lose touch with whatever inspired us in the first place. It’s like trying to drive with the hand-brake on, and it’s a sure fire recipe for making everything a hard slog. And, as we suspect, if the process of writing the first draft is tortuous and uninspired, then the task of reading the finished text might also prove uninspiring.

Writer’s block and how to be free of it

We suspect all this, we fear that our reader will be bored, and then we are stuck in a place where the chances are that we will write a first draft that is neither lively nor an effective expression of the ideas in our head. This is classic writer’s block, and it doesn’t have to be like this. There is another way of approaching a first draft that frees up intuitive process, the spontaneous flow of ideas and words that we can all access, whenever we want.

All we have to do is switch off the analytical, judgemental aspect of our writing ability, and allow the writing to happen, moment by moment. When we do this the results are often astounding – words appear on the page as if from nowhere, we write with fluency and energy, and come up with unexpected turns of phrase, lively and illuminating sentences. We discover the great truth of writing: it is not simply a process of finding words for what we know or want to say. It is, when we let it, a way of discovering what we know. By writing we find out just what it is we want to say – the process is not limited by aims, plans and judgements.

Inspiration, intellect, and the fear of failure

If this all sounds too easy, let’s just take a look at why most of us don’t write this way. We want to stay in control; we want to limit the risks of failure. And so we mistakenly shut down the very source of successful language use, and rely instead on intellect, analysis, and judgement – none of which can supply that magic flow of a first draft. As improvisation guru Keith Johnstone points out, unless you can accept that “inspiration isn’t intellectual, and you don’t have to be perfect”, you always get stuck writing your first draft. Of his own early attempts to write he says: “In the end I was reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and brought into line.” Does that ring any bells?

Unless you let go of judgement in the early stages of writing, you’ll never have anything much worth editing. Necessity may be the mother of invention, linguistic or other, but anxiety most certainly is not. The writer who can tackle their work this way, who can be seriously playful and playfully serious with words, is more likely to enjoy writing. This is certainly not the case if you’re feeling stressed, fearful, and stuck.

I’m not arguing here for a wholesale abandonment of intellectual process in writing – far from it. What I am advocating is an approach that puts intellect in the right place, gives it the job it can do best, ie editing and rewriting. The old maxim “write from the heart, edit from the head” sums up nicely the basic rule of what I call Freeflow writing. It’s not just my idea, and I can’t claim to be the first writing teacher to arrive at these conclusions. As we’ll see in the next instalment of this article, what I am proposing applies not just to so called ‘creative’ writing, but all writing. It’s all creative. It all comes, in the first place from inspiration, and the more we can free inspiration from judgement, the better.

The two writers and how they work

Author and ex-advertising copy writer Fay Weldon argues that each writer has what she calls an A and B personality, or aspect to their writing skill. The A is “creative, wilful, impetuous, sloppy, emotional”, and draws on these qualities to produce a first draft. The B aspect is “argumentative, self-righteous, cautious, rational, effective, perfectionist.” It is B who redrafts, or edits, the output of A.

While it is clear that some elements of A and B will operate simultaneously, it is useful to try to keep the two separate, at least in the early stages of writing. We can then avoid B interfering in the creative flow of A. Otherwise we may short-circuit creativity and shut down promising material before it can even appear on the page.

So how do we do this, how do we allow the words to flow when our intellect is always there with a quick judgement that stops us in our tracks? The answer is simple: you have to write faster than you can think. If that sounds strange, well it will probably feel strange the first time you try it. You may feel that you are letting the writing get out of control: good - let it run off wherever it wants. You may be anxious that you’re getting yourself into trouble, starting sentences you have no idea how to finish. Fine – getting into trouble can be a very constructive activity. Dr Anne Kerwin, an inspiring philosopher who teaches what she calls ‘Ignorance’ at an American medical school, puts it this way “If you never get lost, you may never get found.” And I think she’s right.

Putting it into practice: literature and business

If you are still wondering whether it really works, consider this: Charles Dickens, arguably the most successful novelist in the English language, wrote his novels under great pressure of time constraint. Each chapter was being published week by week in the London press. He simply didn’t have time to engage in the kind of planning, correcting and rewriting that many of us seem to think is necessary for a writer today. He stood in a room and dictated his work to a secretary. Later he read the draft through to make any corrections, then sent it off to the newspaper office for publication. Yet his stories remain some of the best known and most highly acclaimed in English literature.

The Russian author Tolstoy worked in the same way, dictating a novel in the morning and short stories in the afternoon. My experience tells me that we can all draw on the abilities and processes that these famous writers used. We can all write fluently and with ease, and enjoy the work of using the written word. It just takes a little guidance and practice to get out of old habits, to let go of attitudes and approaches to writing that simply don’t work. Some of us discover this for ourselves. For others it is a revelation when they are shown how to write in a more effective way.

Many of my students have discovered that by adopting the kind of approach I have outlined they have been able to write more efficiently in a range of situations, including the workplace. Whether in a first draft of a business letter or a short story, the ideas and language can flow easily, if you let them. As one student wrote after learning how to apply intuitive process to writing: “As a person who spends half his life sweating over stilted, dull, repetitive reports of facts and events that would bore the average accountant into a coma, it was a breath of fresh air to rediscover writing as a pleasure again.” It isn’t necessary to stare at a blank page; neither writer nor reader need suffer boredom.

Writing, editing and the limits of logic

The abilities and processes we call on when we set out to write are deeply complex, and not reducible to the operation of logic and analysis. We can all help ourselves by acknowledging this. Keep the work of writing a first draft separate from that of editing and rewriting, and your chances of success are raised. Sure, the work of rewriting a first draft can sometimes be hard going. Certainly it requires skill, patience, and persistence. But if you are trying to edit a first draft that is awkward, lifeless, and uninspiring, then your job is going to be that much harder, if not impossible.

Once a draft is there, we can sit back, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy the work of knocking it into shape. We can make a start on the writing tasks that the intellect does best – checking sentence structure and length, looking out for places where we have underwritten or overwritten, or making sure we have put the piece together in a way that a reader can follow. In my experience this is, relatively speaking, the easy part. At least I have something concrete to work with, not just a blank page and a feeling of frustration or anxiety.

Everything I have written in the last few years, including my PhD thesis on creativity (now published as an e-book ), was run off in first draft as a stream of unplanned and unpredictable language. I know it works: my own writing has been widely published, broadcast and performed. And I am confident when I tell others to give it a try. Forget the laborious planning, the constant corrections, the playing safe. Write a first draft fast and furious, and watch the page catch fire. It might not be neat and safe, it might not be what you originally had in mind, but, and this is the point, you will have something worth editing. Trust me. It works. There is no other way I am aware of.