So often, in a long piece of writing, there are paragraphs that refuse to flow. When you read them aloud, you stumble. If you’re busy and stressed, the temptation is to pretend the paragraph is fine. Resist temptation! Go through the paragraph underlining the words (usually nouns, verbs and short phrases) that form the subject of the paragraph, i.e. words that MUST be included. Leave out fillers and connectors. Take the underlined words and either type them out of order on a rough sheet, or print them out, cut them up and shuffle them. Leave your desk for half an hour, or, if you’re up against a deadline, work on a different part of the thesis/essay/report. Return to the shuffled words. Ask yourself ‘what’s the point I’m trying to make with these words?’ Rewrite, adding only enough extra words for the paragraph to make sense. Read it aloud again, and with luck, this little trick will have smoothed out the ruts.
The hardest thing for writers is to read our own work and gauge how it comes across. One effective way is to examine the first sentences of your paragraphs. Are they mostly descriptive? Do they often start with someone else’s idea, or perhaps an accumulator such as ‘furthermore’ or ‘also’; or do they contain an argument or a pivot, such as ‘however’, ‘on the other hand’, and so on?
Writing with mainly descriptive openings can read like a list, while too many accumulators suggests a lack of nuance. Too much use of others’ work sounds derivative and too many in-your-face arguments turn your piece into a polemic, or a rant. Often, the very best writing starts with an argument, followed by evidence, followed by scrutiny and doubt; then affirmation by another source, then significance. Those rules work well within paragraphs; they also work well on a larger scale, so that groups of paragraphs follow those structural rules too. And it’s easy to see how your writing comes across if you analyse those first lines: they are a dead giveaway to your writing behaviour.
In brilliant spring sunshine, twenty years to the day he died, I found myself in George Mackay Brown’s beloved Stromness delivering writing workshops to PhD students from the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design and Innovation (InDI). I’d previously delivered workshops at InDI’s Creative Campus at Forres. What a pleasure to get to Orkney, and what a boon to hit Mackay Brown’s anniversary, providing as it did a perfect opportunity to illustrate how the cleansing techniques of poetry can, to great effect, focus and sharpen academic writing.
And not just academic writing. I read poetry to sharpen my own novel writing, particularly at the slicing and cutting stage. Sharing this working practice in workshops is, I find, a great way of opening up conversations about writing, and for discovering what activities will best help any particular group. When, for example, I reveal how I might lose as many as 40,000 words between a first draft and a finished novel, and that this is all part of the process, a group’s initial horror morphs into new respect for the central editing role of the delete button.
Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim the delete button as my best friend as I move from writing novels set in the past – I dislike the straitjacket category ‘historical novel’ – to a novel set in the 1980s. Moving is hard. Firstly, I’m more at home in the 1780s or even the 1280s than in a decade through which I actually lived. Secondly, it’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly what I’m writing about. I don’t mean the plot. That’s the easy bit. I mean identifying the fundamental core of the book. In the struggle to locate that core, I write and delete in equal measure, which, whilst frustrating, is a useful daily reminder that whether novelist, poet, tenured academic or student, poor writing always stems from muddled thinking. George Mackay Brown didn’t write on a computer so was unacquainted with the delete button. He did, though, scrupulously edit. How lovely to share his clarity and vision under wide skies in Stromness!