Twelve things my flute teacher taught me about writing

As many a writer will tell you, words and music are very similar. Here’s what learning the flute has taught me about being a writer.

1. Most of the time, it’s not fun
Want to know my definition of a professional writer? It’s someone who finds writing really, really, really hard.

Only amateurs write for fun or – heaven help us – to relax. Because finding the perfect way to say something takes a lot of effort.

Ditto with practising an instrument: if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right and you’ll never progress.

With both writing and music, the pleasure comes from the breakthroughs that follow the brain ache.

2. Little and often is best
As any musician will tell you, ten minutes of practice every day is much more effective – not to mention less daunting – than two hours once a week.

The same goes for getting into your writing groove. And with both writing and music, as you gain stamina and competence, you tend to find that those ten minutes become twenty, then thirty and beyond.

3. Getting started is the hardest part
Most days I dread practising – and I have to force myself to pick up my flute. So I tell myself that today I’ll just blow a few long notes to keep my lips in shape. Invariably, once I’ve warmed up, the challenge is putting the instrument down.

It’s the same with writing – force yourself to jot down those first few words and you might find yourself unable to stop.

4. Once is not enough
You wouldn’t expect the first time you play something to be your best attempt, would you? Well, guess what? It’s the same with writing: why would you stop at your first draft?

Writers, like musicians, go back and work on the details – often again and again. Having to iron out the hiccups isn’t a sign of failure – it’s an essential part of the process.

5. You have to seek out privacy
I feel very inhibited if I think a neighbour can hear my musical mistakes. But more mortifying still is the idea of writing with someone standing over my shoulder. Even professionals need the space to come up with a rubbish first attempt.

6. The experts know the difference between crap and an off day
When I was preparing for my Grade 4 exam, my flute teacher told me that a trained examiner can distinguish between mistakes that stem from nerves and mistakes that stem from poor preparation.

At first, I found it hard to believe that my incompetence could be judged so acutely – until I thought about my own field.

Despite the frequently spleeny nature of my blog, I’m much more forgiving of, say, dodgy spelling and wayward punctuation than many of my peers. Typos and misplaced apostrophes may just be a sign of a writer in a rush.

Pretentious gobbledegook, on the other hand, is a symptom of a much less fixable problem: a writer one suspects is trying to hide the fact they don’t understand the topic any more than their poor, befuddled reader.

7. Keep it simple, for your audience’s sake
A simple piece of music played well is much kinder to the ears than a complex piece that’s just slightly beyond the ability of the player.

Ditto with writing. Striving after a faux-academic style in the hope of impressing your reader risks exposing the very lack of competence you’re keen to hide. Keep it simple and your audience will thank you.

8. It’s OK to break the rules – if you know why you’re breaking them
I recently read that all great musicians spend the first ten years learning to play in time and the next ten years learning to play out of time.

Slowing or speeding up the strict tempo of a piece is known as rubato when it’s done by people who’ve mastered music enough to use the technique expressively. It’s known as a mistake when done by me.

But if I’ve split an infinitive or started a sentence with “and”, there’s a very good reason for it. And you don’t need to immediately correct me.

9. Don’t fall into the gaps
It sounds counterintuitive, but often a musician will tell you that the silences are just as important (if not more so) than the notes – because they create the structure and the feeling of anticipation that make music pleasurable.

Playing in a band quickly teaches you to respect the power of the silences: you really don’t want to be the person responsible for that rogue bird chirrup in an otherwise perfect rendition of Grieg’s Morning Mood. It’s what one conductor I knew called “falling into the gaps”.

As a writer, too, you should respect the power of the gaps.

Be liberal with the full stop and use your paragraph return key often. It will help your audience make sense of your words.

10. Don’t underestimate the importance of rhythm.
I’ve lost count of the number times my teacher or a conductor has said: “Don’t worry about the notes, just get the rhythm right”.

That’s because if I play a wrong note, you might not notice – in fact, if it’s far enough from the correct note it might even sound like harmony.

But if I come in half a beat too early, you’ll immediately wince, because the pulse is fundamental.

Similarly, I can forgive poor spelling, but I can’t forgive the clunky rhythms of so much bad business writing and bureaucratese.

Typos in a well-written document are easy to fix. Ploughing through noun-heavy phrases such as “Risk Management Framework Implementation” and “specialty communications infrastructure services” makes my eyes bleed.

As I’m sure that last sentence just did for you.

11. End on a long note
Ever noticed how musical phrases often end on a long note? A classic example is the “da da da dumm” of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Take a tip from Ludwig and next time you’re listing things, put the longest element last.

Which versions of these famous lists sound better?

Life, the pursuit of happiness and liberty
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

Friends, countrymen, Romans
Friends, Romans, countrymen

And while we’re in Rome, notice how the English translation of veni, vidi, vici compensates for the lack of alliteration and end-rhyme with a rhythm that conveys finality through a long note: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Somehow, I arrived, I observed, I triumphed just doesn’t have the same ring.

12. You’ve got to put in the hours
I recently read that whatever your chosen field – music, football, knitting – it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in it to a professional level.

The good news is that I’ve clocked up enough hours to warrant earning a living from writing.

The even better news is that if I practise my flute for an hour every day for the rest of my life, then by my 69th birthday I’ll be able to supplement my pension with regular gigs at the Royal Albert Hall.

Are you putting in the necessary number of hours?

10 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clare Lynch, Ben Holliday, Stratton Craig, Kelly Nicholls, Angie Nikoleychuk and others. Angie Nikoleychuk said: Nice angle. Diff from mine RT @goodcopybadcopy: What music can teach you about writing […]

  2. Richmonde says:

    “Typos in a well-written document are easy to fix. Ploughing through noun-heavy phrases such as “Risk Management Framework Implementation” and “specialty communications infrastructure services” makes my eyes bleed.”

    Avoiding stuff like this can lead to “THE implementation OF THE framework THAT manages risk” and worse – endless that and which clauses inside commas (no dashes or brackets).

  3. Clare Lynch says:

    I think the way to avoid phrases like “Risk Management Framework Implementation” and “specialty communications infrastructure services” is to completely rethink what you’re trying to say.

    How about introducing a verb to the proceedings – eg, “we’ve started managing our risk”? My conductor is always talking about keeping the music moving forward. In writing, that’s what verbs do.

    As for “specialty communications infrastructure services”, it’s so abstract as to be meaningless. Are they talking about mobile phones? Calligraphy? Something else?

  4. I just posted my latest blog yesterday which is not unrelated to this post.

  5. Brad Shorr says:

    Clare, It’s so heartening to hear you say writing is hard work. Every time I start a project, I’m overcome by a sense of impending doom. When I finish a project, I need a vacation. Everything in between is kind of a blur, fun but definitely not relaxing.

  6. Bill Harper says:

    You’ve done it again Clare–I’ve got sore neck muscles from nodding in agreement so much.

    But there’s a gotcha when you start talking about “rhythm”. Some people think that means “a steady beat”, which is usually the last thing you want. Nothing worse than a bunch of sentences with the same number of syllables. After a while they begin to sound like a broken record.

    (Wow. I wonder how long that phrase will stick around in the age of CDs and MP3s? *grin*)

    So yes, rhythm is important. But so is variety.


  7. Clare Lynch says:

    Bill, you’re absolutely right to point out the difference between rhythm and beat – dum-dee-dumness is definitely to be avoided when writing!

    It’s all about writing with your ears. For example, like the best melodies, some of the best straplines combine repetition with variety to create something memorable but not boring: No FT, no comment; The future’s bright. The future’s Orange; Think globally, act locally etc.

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Brad, I hereby declare you a card-carrying member of the writing classes!

  9. Steve says:

    Enjoyable as ever. But can we stop quoting Gladwell’s 10,000 hours as some kind of Golden Rule? It’s a rule of thumb at best. Shorthand for ‘do the hard work’. There’s nothing magical about 10,000 hours, it’s a nice round number is all.

    What a deeply depressing thought that you need to work 3 hours a day for ten years to truly master something. ‘Keep at it young apprentice …only another 9.5 years to go.’ Surely better to burn bright and make some mistakes in public?

  10. Clare Lynch says:

    Steve, I didn’t know that was a Gladwellism – I recalled it from a great book called “This is Your Brain on Music”. Had I known, I would have put a disclaimer on the reference – I find Gladwell’s work trite and in need of footnotes.

    As for making mistakes in public, I have to disagree. If I so much as tweet a typo, my cheeks are burning with shame for days. Shudder.

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