Tuesday, 7 February 2012

how to write

Readers of our Niger blog might be surprised to know that I feel a certain amount of writer's block at the moment. (On closer inspection, you might realise why I've suddenly converted to photo blogging!) It is, however, with some sense of irony that I've realised in the past couple of days that despite now being in a post for the year where writing is a key tenet, my recent attempts are feeling less than satisfying.

I would show some examples to illustrate this, but then you might lose the impression that I'm a literary genius, and we can't have that.

In my mild angst (you can only be so angst-y when the daily temperature is thirty degrees warmer than your body is used to) I have sought relief at a oft-visited source - the delightful blog Letters of Note, which daily publishes a piece of correspondance that is... well, noteworthy. A recent highlight which I tweeted a few days back was this wondrous reply from the American author E.B. White - he of Charlotte's Web and The Elements of Style fame - on behalf of his dog to the ASPCA. Joyful stuff.

Anyway, I discovered yesterday that the curator, Shaun Usher, recently also opened Lists of Note, which is exactly what it sounds like. And recently, there have been two posts on the subject of writing - both of which I'm quoting below, with no credit taken at all.

First was the great Henry Miller's 11 Commandments:

Work on one thing at a time until finished.
Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring."
Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
When you can't create you can work.
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

This morning, whilst relocating the Miller post, I noticed that today's post is also about writing. Manhattan advertising overlord David Ogilvy sent a memo in 1982 to his employees:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing*. Read it three times.
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
6. Check your quotations.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
10. If you want ACTION, don't write. Go and tell the guy what you want.


*Writing That Works, by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson


Back to work, I guess. I have ideas and half-scribbled notes for several articles that all four readers of this particular parish may be interested in, but even though I now have (more) time - being in sub-saharan Africa, without a direct phone line - the block has so far struck hard. However, the above inspiration has maybe loosened a few cogs, even if only for a little while...

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