Thursday, June 13, 2013


I've enjoyed writing since I was a small boy. At school I remember writing Dr Who stories on old computer paper from my Dad's work. I also wrote a series of Goon Show-like parodies of Star Trek which seemed to go down well with folk at my school. Later on writing became a central part of my job when I worked at the Open University, writing science courses. I learned a huge amount doing that, especially from the diligent and patient science editors that would pore over my work, and sit with me, talking me through their comments sentence by sentence.

These editors made sure the writing was clear, correct in grammar and free of typos whilst also taking care not to disturb the style of writing. This surprised me because the text books we wrote involved several authors and I expected part of an editor's job was to pull it together and bring more consistency of style between chapters (writing style, not font sizes etc which was strictly controlled). I distinctly remember how one of them explained his role to me: "We do not want to make the book homogenized. Students generally like a change of tone and change of pace. Besides, you can't edit those things anyway."

It was gruelling at times. I remember being sat in one editor's office as she patiently explained when I should use 'which' rather than 'that', e.g. "This is the train which takes you to Newcastle." versus "This is the train that takes you to Newcastle." Which one is correct, dear reader?*

But, there's no other way to learn other than to write and rewrite and seek reactions from readers, then write something else and revise, and so on. I find it very hard to progress a piece of writing working by myself. Very often it would start well enough but then I would get stuck during the revisions, often abandoning the piece. So I consciously decided to write my first drafts with more care, rationalising that if I could do that, then I'd have less revising to do. But this made matters worse. My writing now slowed to a snail's pace crawl, was thoroughly unenjoyable and the turgid result could not be rectified by any amount of disciplined editing because the style and tone were compromised. Had I stopped to think about it back then, I might have realised that that's exactly what the editor at the OU had meant.

So, for many years I hardly wrote at all. It was even a welcome relief when the rise of mobile phones and twitter meant that emails became shorter and more sloppy: I could spend less time trying to write them well, or so I thought for a while.

But I missed writing. I wanted to return to it, even though it seemed like a futile waste of my time. I had ideas that needed expressed, but repressed them because I couldn't think how to get them out. After writing nothing for years, the urge strengthened sufficiently for me to bang out a few short stories, but I didn't feel happy enough with them to let others read them. And I was slow. One story took me more than two years to complete.

I remember sitting in my car outside a supermarket listening to BBC Radio 4. The author Frederick Forsyth was being questioned about how he wrote. To my surprise he typically wrote six pages a day, but stressed that it was very important to get into the discipline of writing every day. That didn't seem like a lot to me. What did he do for the rest of the day? Presumably gathering the experiences and knowledge that gave him something to write about.

I investigated the habits of other authors and I found many did something similar. One author, I forget who, had a strict rule of writing only two pages per day and never any more. But, as Forsyth had also emphasised, even at this rate you can yield a novel-length work in a few months.

The details of how authors work varies tremendously, but I'm not aware of one that advocates binge writing. Little and often yet disciplined and regular was the recurring advice. Approaches to revising vary greatly, but most recommended that you should not aim for perfection on a first draft.

Then I happened across, which encourages people to produce 50,000 words from scratch in the month of November (continuing an existing work is not allowed). At first I was skeptical. Isn't this just going to produce 50,000 words of drivel and probably verbose drivel at that, so as to produce the requisite 1667 words per day?

The answer is sometimes, perhaps even in most cases. But that's missing the point. What it achieves is to encourage a person to write with discipline and work towards a goal. In my case it helped prove to myself that even with two children, a day job and many other calls on my time, I could get those 1667 words out almost every day.

The quality of my writing varied tremendously of course, with some days being awful, most days being OK and a few being good. But I realised it didn't matter. As long as I was relaxed when I wrote so that my writing was natural rather than forced, what I produced was generally acceptable in that it expressed my ideas well enough so that someone else might understand them. It took me another year to get the word count to 80,000 and since then seven months have elapsed during which I have performed two editing passes over the whole thing. It's still not finished. On the second editing pass I decided to add several new sections and remove a few that weren't working. Once I've done that, I hope, it'll be ready to be read by someone else.

It's certainly the case that my writing has improved over this time and with it I'm probably being more economical with words, though I still struggle with repetition (She did that... she did this) and banishing superfluous words, especially adverbs (He just stood there, impassively). I'm also somewhat blind to typos and rely on others to help me find them. But I'm realising that staying relaxed and writing a little too much and editing out is better, for me at least, than trying to write precisely under conscious invigiliation. Also, most readers, at least ones who are not authors, will skate over pointless adverbs and other minor flaws as long they want to know what happens next.

If I had to summarise it in one pithy phrase, then I'd settle for "be as simple as possible, but no simpler".

You can read some of my writing here at

*That one. :)