Notes for emergencies

15th October 2015

I spent last Friday talking about archaeology, laser scanning, rotary ditchers, otters and fish (amongst other things). But, actually, the point wasn’t to talk about these things but to write about them. It was a writing workshop, and my ‘students’ were all people who get to do real things out in the real world. Still, even people with jobs like that are called back to their desks to write about what they do. So we worked our way through good writing and bad writing and came out with new ideas about what works and what doesn’t. And as the first coffee of the day turned into the last, all our writing became simpler, clearer and more alive – or, in other words, better.

Then, yesterday, back at my own desk, I boiled it all down to a few ‘notes for emergencies’, which they could keep to hand for when the words just wouldn’t come. So here, in case you’re interested too, is a shortened version of those notes.

Let it all out on paper. That’ll get rid of the blank page, which is the hardest bit, and you’ll have some raw material to work with.

Change your mindset. This could just be changing the typeface you’re using, or switching from typing to writing longhand, or going to sit in a café, or finding a corner of a wood to write in.

If you can’t remember what good writing should sound like, then read some bad writing.

Find someone to be your writing buddy. You can get them to read your stuff, and you can do the same for them.

Readers are, without exception, other humans. So write from one human to another. And write for each one of them, not for a crowd.

Simplicity and clarity are pretty reliable principles. Stick with them.

Look for a different approach: find the story behind the facts, or start from the end rather than the beginning, or pick a quote to use as a springboard, or latch onto a tiny detail and go from there.

Short sentences are helpful little things. Use them.

Print out what you’ve written. You’ll see it with fresh eyes.*


*I know that the last of these isn’t usually encouraged, but there’s something about laying out your words on paper which will remind you of what you’re really trying to say.