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Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Rehab for writers: An 11-step programme




1. FEEL FREE TO ASSUME: Every time you pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard, assume you don’t know anything; assume that it’s your first encounter with those 26 letters; that you have to seduce and persuade stubborn verbs, adjectives, nouns, adverbs… to your will…

2. READ – EVERYTHING – NOVELS, NON-FICTION (ESPECIALLY BY/ABOUT OTHER WRITERS); NEWSPAPERS; MAGAZINES; TRY TO AVOID BLOGS – by the look of it, most of these people self-edit. If you’re young and impressionable, you probably won’t be able to distinguish the tripe from the triumphs, so these people are probably the worst role models. I’m a blogger myself and I would hardly prescribe my personal ramblings as a master’s class in writing… It’s meant to be an outlet, a kind of finger exercise – take it as no more than that…

3. EDIT: not just your own work, but constantly be aware of language around you – how can it be said more meaningfully, elegantly, concisely, less ambiguously? Fortunately or not, a large part of my career has consisted of paring down language, doing my darndest to make sure that copy sings… Clunky sentences rile me – whether at work or driving along the highway. Take this billboard along a particular road in Johannesburg. I think it says something like:

INTRODUCING THE NEW KING OF DRAUGHT BEER… With limited time to draw a reader’s attention, why not chop it down to: THE NEW KING OF BEER… Pay attention to newspaper headlines – how would you have written them to be clearer, punchier, cut-to-the-chase?

4. SEEK COUNSEL: Talk to more seasoned wordsmiths. Learn from them. What are their tips? What works for them, what doesn’t? Like any basic education, you may disagree with them but understand and explain WHY…

5. WRITE – for pleasure, journal, explore, blog, listen (I’ve even taken to adopting turns of phrases from radio from radio/TV bulletins – not original descriptions, of course; simply clever, succinct ways of defining events or concepts).

6. FREE YOUR SENSES… Especially for creative writing – a tip I picked up from a writer friend Khadija Heeger: When you’re describing a piece of music, for example, try saying what it looks like; what colours does it conjure up in your mind? Is it bright, dark, is it purple, or wispy as a cloud? When you’re describing a sight, compare it to a taste. For example: The air tasted bitter, like an old coin.

7. MAKE IT PERSONAL – Over the years I’ve read about various writerly routines and quirks. For example, Maya Angelou holes up in a hotel with a deck of cards, a bottle of sherry, a dictionary and a thesaurus… Toni Cade Bambara used to love writing on scraps of paper – including the strip found in pantihose… I prefer to write in pencil…

8. SWEAT – It’s just not worth it if you’re not perspiring a little… ‘Writing and reading mean being aware of the writer’s notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability.’ – Toni Morrison

9. LEARN THE RULES BEFORE YOU BREAK THEM: Don’t be too dismissive of grammar sticklers (like yours truly). How can you be a carpenter without knowing how to use a hammer and nail? The same applies to basic grammar. Would it kill you to learn the difference between a colon and a semi-colon? Look at it this way: once you’re armed with this knowledge, you’re in a better position to wrangle with vets like me – why you should start a sentence with ‘and’, for example…

10. IMAGINATION – Please feel free to use it. Avoid clichés wherever possible. It’s stimulating to think of a fresh way of describing something – at least consider it. Don’t overdo it. But original writing will always enhance a story, challenge/entertain the reader and do greater justice to the subject.

11. PUNCTUATION – Write so that you don’t need punctuation. Notice how effortlessly the following sentence flows: “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.”

That sentence is 42 words long – about twice the traditional print journalism recommendation – but uses only two commas; yet it makes perfect sense. I would imagine that every word and image was carefully selected – not just what the author wanted to say but the emotion she wanted to evoke; for that you need to understand both literal meaning and something more subtextual, like rhythm. You need to edit thoughtfully, sometimes over and over, until you achieve that. (extract from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

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