Wednesday, 21 February 2007

On writing - advice from an Editor

Before anybody decides that they want to write a book, they must first ask themselves a very important, though perhaps obvious question: why do I want to write it?

The answers may not come to you as easily as you thought they might, so it is worth taking some time to think about it.

At heart, one needs to consider what will be involved in the writing process, and if seeking publication, in the marketing process; that is, what will having my work or story out there in the public domain mean to me and to others?

There are several reasons why you may want to write a book, or have your story told.
You may have what Juvenal called scribendi cacoethes; the itch to write. People enjoy writing stories, and the ones that seem strongest are more often than not personal stories reflecting an author’s experiences. A good non-fiction book has at its heart the unmistakable voice of the author.

When you decide that you want to write or tell your own story, you must then realise that this will mean revealing details about yourself. This may sound obvious, but it is important to understand. A personal account that does not tell the whole story, or leaves out important aspects of, say, a childhood, does not ring true.

This can be used to the author’s advantage, showing how early experiences helped to form the person whose voice the reader is now hearing, whose attitudes and reflections on life are now being shared.

As George Orwell noted in Why I Write: ‘I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development ... before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.’

Depending on the type of work you wish to produce, you also have to consider the style you are going to incorporate, and which suits your work best. Importantly, you have to like what you are writing and how you are writing it, and you have to work at it.

This is very important to remember. Nothing good comes easily. Writing and storytelling are crafts that need to be honed, worked on, practiced—just like any other. It is a mistake to think that writing a book, or sharing your life with an audience, is easy, and this false idea is why many people end up wanting to be authors, but not necessarily writers.

Samuel Johnson remarked that ‘What is written without effort is read without pleasure,’ but perhaps Alexander Pope said it best:
‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’

Another possible reason why one may want to write is a desire to inform and educate. Information is what makes the world go round, what makes us understand and cope with what we experience. Without it we would be inanimate objects incapable of emotion or reaction.

As Johnson said: ‘The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.’

This is not a fanciful idea from a bygone age. To bring things more up to date, John Wilson remarked that ‘Western civilisation needs good flows of information like it needs good flows of air to breathe.’

But what do we inform the reader of? That is where the writer comes in. Is there a unique point of view, a unique experience that would help to serve the general public by its being shared? If so, how best can you express it?
News lies in revealing truths previously unknown, in important facts and figures, in educating and informing us on how we live and how we should live. Good non-fiction is news that stays news.

For me, the best way to tell a story is to describe what is seen or witnessed or experienced, using the words that come to you at the time, bringing in emotion and thought to shape the story as part of a shared experience. News and non-fiction writing are subjective. What good are they if we don't know how a person who is immediately experiencing and reporting it is made to feel by events?

As John C. Merrill points out: ‘Man is subjective. He cannot escape from himself—nor should he attempt it. When he tries to be objective—a 'reflector' of his environment—he takes on a false nature; he becomes inauthentic.’
In other words, you must write from the heart.

With this, however, is the need to remain focused and fair. It is a plain fact that non-fiction should be accurate, fair and without bias. These criteria can easily be met by common sense.

Writers must not be afraid to discuss issues, topics and events that may be controversial. Non-fiction thrives on raising talking points. While staying subjective, it is also necessary to be able to talk about issues that do not necessarily reflect the writer’s own beliefs.

‘We should recognise that a willingness to do certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it any obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them,’ as Orwell said in Writer and Leviathan.

Whatever your reasons for writing or telling your story, or that of important events in our history and society, the author must be prepared to work and to delve into areas they may find difficult to explore. The old adage that every person has a book in them is true, but one must be prepared to work to uncover it, and must be prepared for what it means to have an audience scrutinise it.

If you are prepared, then pick up that pen, or dust down that keyboard, and get started. The end result may or may not be published or publishable, but in writing it you will have completed an act of creation, and that is why writing is an art form. That is what it is all about. Adam, Editor, Ireland