Anyone can write, just like anyone can cook. As soon as you move from restaurants and ready meals to getting ingredients and mixing them in pans you can start thinking about getting a white uniform and people shouting “Yes chef!” to you across steam filled kitchens. Moving beyond shopping lists and one line Facebook updates means that you can start pondering putting “writer” on your business card and extracting killer quotes from unresponsive interviewees. Or then again, perhaps not, because of course the really important thing is what everyone else calls you.
If you are the only person that thinks you are the next Jamie Oliver then you might have a hard time getting folks to eat your food. And while the internet does provide a potential audience of billions, getting them all to come and read your web site will take more than just your idea of deathless prose. This means that you have to do the hard stuff, like practice and learning how to get better.
I’ve never dared call myself a writer; I’m more someone who throws a bunch of words at a blog post every day to see which ones stick. But today I went along to a Guardian Master class called “Writing with Colour” to find out a bit more about this writing business. There was actually another reason for going as well, the sessions were being given by writers who I’d long admired from afar, and I liked the idea of admiring them from a bit closer up.
There were about 80 or so of us on the course, which took place in the actual Guardian newspaper building in London. The sessions were all great. If you have a low opinion of journalists and editors then you should go along, just to find out how thoughtful and considered these folks are about what they do. I’m pretty sure that not all writers are like this, but these were folks who I’d be happy to listen to all day, which is just as well, because that is what we did.
A few of my thoughts from the sessions:
Read what you have written. Out loud. All the writers took evident pleasure in reading what they had put on the page. This is as confidence thing I reckon and darned good advice. Sometimes you might like what you hear. If you don’t like it, go back and change it until you do.
Be loyal to your work. This can mean a bit of internal wrangling as you seek permission to print that quote from a reluctant interviewee. It might mean you can’t be a totally nice person all the time. And it might mean dropping that wonderful sequence because it doesn’t add anything to the piece.
Always deliver what you were asked for. Someone asked Lucy Mangan what she did if her four o’clock deadline came along and she hadn’t thought of anything to write about. Her reply was brilliant. That. Does. Not. Happen. If you are a proper writer and you are asked to write something that’s what you do. You can wrestle with your inner demons about the content (and you should) after you have pressed the send button, but the important thing is if you are asked for 550 words you should deliver 550, along with a convincing pitch for why you should be allowed another 200 or so.
Always edit, and always cut. The editor is the person who makes things better and tighter, sometimes by cutting out what the writer thought of as the best bits. If we end up losing the traditions of print journalism I reckon the editor is the person we will miss the most. This probably means that writers will have to spend more time editing their own work. So try to do this.
Work at what you write. I was very pleased to find that nobody said that they found writing easy. Everyone said they had to work at it. Interviews take preparation and persistence in writing everything down. Features take research and rewriting. And the work doesn’t stop when the piece is finished, everyone valued re-visiting items and look at why they wrote what they wrote.
Seek out the colour. Work to find that killer fact, or interesting angle, which will give you a hook to hang your words on or will be quoted in the pub by your readers. If you are very lucky the colour will find you, but mostly you find it in the research you did, or the huge pile of notes that you made.
Last week I sent a jaunty tweet to the organisers saying how I was bringing along some crayons, as the subject was “Writing with colour”. I can imagine the sinking feeling in the stomach of the recipient, along the lines of “We’ve got a right one here….” Sorry about that.
Anyhoo, I found the whole affair really stimulating, and if you want to get tips about improving your writing style, and maybe meet a few heroes, then it is well worth the price of admission. And the lunch was good too.