Musings on the Nature of Writing by Neil McGowan


I’m just coming to the end of a week off work – got to use my annual leave up somehow, and my parents were up from England. As usual, they booked a small cottage near us, in the grounds of Cockenzie House, and despite the weather being chilly at best, we had a great time catching up and just generally relaxing (and drinking copious amounts of gin, but that’s another story).

They’re away back to Yorkshire now, and it’s back to work for me by the time this post goes live, but it got me thinking about writing in a couple of ways: is it imperative to write every day, and if so, what, exactly, is the definition of writing? Big questions, but I thought it might be interesting to explore them in this blog post (albeit in a very small way).

Writing every day is something you will hear again and again from many sources. I’ve heard it from other writers; I’ve read it in magazine articles and how-to books; I’ve listened to interviews where it invariably comes up. For years, I used to beat myself up if I didn’t get something down on paper every day. But is it necessary?

I’m not convinced it is. Over the last few years, I’ve realised that, for me, this isn’t particularly helpful. My normal process when writing is to reread the last page or so to get a feel for where I left the story. This usually brings back all the details I have stored in my head and allows me to get straight into the story. But forcing myself to put something down on paper has often meant I spend time editing what was written the day before so it makes some sort of coherent sense. Characters seem wooden on the page; dialogue often sounds stilted, and I find the time taken to fix these problems has a double impact: it makes it harder for me to get my head back into the story, and it eats into the time I have available. Working full-time, plus all the other fun stuff that makes up domestic life, means I can usually carve out between two and three hours of free time of an evening for writing. Using half of this time to fix the previous night’s work seems both daft and a waste of, well, time.

About five years ago, we went on holiday. The kids were still quite young so we stayed in Scotland, went to a charming campsite on the west coast, a place called Wemyss Bay. From a writing perspective, I’d just finished the first draft of a novel, so I was expecting to take a week or so off before starting the next book. My laptop and all other bits and pieces of writing paraphernalia were left at home.

My resolve didn’t last long. We arrived a wee bit early, so went for a coffee whilst we waited to check in. The coffee shop overlooked the water to Bute, but I was most intrigued by an elderly gentleman sitting alone and having a drink. There was something in the way the waitress paid extra attention to him that fired my imagination. By the time we checked in, I had the first part of a story in my head.

I had to wait for the next evening – during the day I bought a pen and notebook – before I could make a start on writing it down. I’ve fond memories of scribbling away whilst the bingo was on in the entertainment hall.

I probably only had three nights out of the seven when I got a chance to write, that week. But when I got home, I found the first draft was remarkably clean, and the rest of the story followed over the course of another week or so. I didn’t force it; rather, I let it come naturally and wrote when the next scene was clear in my head.

I’ve followed this method ever since, working out the scene and writing it when ready, and it’s made a big difference. I rarely go more than three or four days without getting the urge to write, and when I do, it’s pretty much the full two or three hours. The words seem to flow and it’s unusual for me to get stuck.

The second part of this was defining writing. I used to think that writing meant putting words on paper, either handwritten or typed, but now I’m not so sure. A friend of mine writes poetry, and he does most of his writing when he goes for a walk, recording his thoughts and ideas into a little dictaphone. There is (I assume; I’ve never asked) some tidying up when said notes get transcribed onto paper, but it’s an interesting way of working. I’ve also read of authors who write by using speech recognition software. The question I’m asking myself is this: when I’m assembling snippets of conversation and ideas for scenes into a coherent narrative in my head, is that real writing? As time goes on, I’m increasingly convinced it is.


Umberto Tosi said…
I also discovered holes in the old saw that a writer must "write" every day. It depends on how one defines "writing." If writing means only words on paper - particularly narrative passages, then I found myself editing a lot of junk the next day - words I put on paper just to satisfy the requirement of "writing." But words on paper (or screen) are only part of the process of creating any written work Expanding the definition of "writing' to mean giving space for ideas to form and flesh out, plus building context, then writing "every day" becomes easier -- and more productive. So I've discovered.
Peter Leyland said…
That's a really good post Neil which set me off on a train of thought. I don't write every day and certainly not the fictional flows that you talk about so eloquently here. For some reason it made me think about an exhibition I went to at the British Library with my grandson; then I thought about the bardic telling of stories and the eventual setting them down to share; finally, I thought about our need to interpret imaginative ideas in the form of print in order to help ourselves and others to see the world more clearly. Thanks.
If you force yourself to write every day, it will eventually become a chore and that will show? After 20 years of this, I'm convinced most of the real work happens when NOT writing... walking, shopping, cycling, 'daydreaming'. Maybe some of it even happens when I'm asleep, too, since I can sometimes wake up and immediately write a whole scene that has been bothering me.

There is a lot more to 'writing' than the first draft, though... editing, redrafting, proof reading, etc are all tasks that can be scheduled for daily work, and probably should be if we ever want to finish anything!

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