Little effect after much labour

Oh to be a professional writer! Who wouldnt want to be paid to loll in the shade of a tree and stare at urns? No wonder so many people are desperate to join us in our literary pursuits.

But hang on a minute. That tree-shade-lolling, urn-staring existence doesn’t actually sound very much like my experience of being a writer at all – and I’m fairly sure I’m not alone in that opinion. In fact, ask any professional writer what the definition of ‘professional writer’ is and they’ll likely tell you it’s someone who doesn’t very much like writing.

How come? Well, because writing is darned hard work. In fact, the art of writing well isn’t about writing at all – it’s about editing. It’s that process of polishing a piece of prose until it’s fit for human consumption. I’m reminded of Jane Austen (who should, after all, know) and her description of her work as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour’.

Browse some of the more spurious blogs and websites about writing and you’d think this approach died long before that dreadful Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. Some of the tips I’ve read include: ‘treat yourself to some nice paper and a good pen’, ‘say to yourself “I’m a writer”‘ and ‘visualise yourself in the act of writing’.

Try them out. And then just write. And rewrite. And rewrite again. Don’t stop until your deadline hits or your copy couldn’t get any better, whichever is the earlier.

It’s what I do – and it works. I never send a client a piece of work without printing it out at least twice and reading the copy aloud to myself (you can probably understand at this point why it’s easier for me to work from home). Reading my copy out loud allows me to iron out any syntactic knots, lose any unnecessary waffle, smooth out the inevitable non-sequiturs of a first draft, and ensure that the rhythm is as pleasing to the ear as it can be. (What? You thought only poetry had rhythm? Oh dear, I feel another blog entry coming on.)

I cheered with recognition when I read a recent interview in the Financial Times with leading academic Richard Dawkins, a best-selling author who finds this process of honing a piece of prose extremely satisfying.

“I enjoy the perfecting, titivating stages more than the blank screen at the beginning,” he tells the paper. “I do a lot of cutting and editing – it is gratifying to find something I can cut without losing the cadences of the passage.”

Dawkins is also lucky enough to be married to an actress who reads his prose out for him. ‘Hearing my own words coming from another voice is very revealing,’ he says. ‘If she has trouble finding the right emphasis, then I know I have to make a change.’

Whatever your views on Dawkins’ infamous god-bashing, you’ve got to admit he knows a thing or two about the written word. And why do I have a particular soft spot for him? Because I know he’d understand that it’s not urns and trees that prevent me from updating this blog as regularly as I should.

2 Responses to “Little effect after much labour”

  1. AlamedaGirl says:

    Let’s keep in mind that professional writers are not all alike. There are the hardworking Capricorns who slog away at perfection. And there are the creative Piscean sorts who lean toward sloth rather than slog. It’s a bright and sunny day in my island nation and for me it began with a walk to my local coffee shop for a read of the WSJ and a chat with friends. Midday I’m heading to a restaurant at the marina where I’m dining with new clients (who are picking up the tab). Later this afternoon I’m walking a friend’s dog along the beach. This evening I’m heading out with friends to review a new theatre/bikerbar/tattoo parlor for a local magazine I write for. I’m hoping to squeeze in a bit of work somewhere along the way.

  2. clare says:

    Goodness! What’s your hourly rate? I always thought it was we Capricorns who were supposed to be good with money, but I clearly need to charge more!

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