Some Advice on Being a Writer (part one)

by Victoria Madden

As a child you write without thought or conscious effort, only concerned with getting the lovely stream of words onto the page to be read again later; your own book of stories, your own little world.  It is only as you get older that the comparisons begin – you want to write like that book you have just read or that author you admire.  Writing becomes less of a pleasure and more of an agonised striving towards some out-of-reach standard; the well-meaning comments of others inducing a self-consciousness of failure that can paralyse the creative impulse.

My English essays were a constant argument between my tutor who, naturally enough, wanted to see some work, however badly I thought I’d expressed it and myself: in despairing agony, in the best traditions of Wordsworth et al, that it fell so far short of what I wanted to say and furious refusal to have my abilities as a writer judged only on what I’d managed to produce by his bourgeois deadlines.  Needless to say, I did not get a good degree.

It was only when I started applying for jobs that I first realised writing took other forms.  My early attempts were blush-making passages of purple prose describing my youthful dreams of working in such and such an area and, unsurprisingly, I didn’t get a single interview. After years of struggling I saw a friend’s covering letter for a job application and had a major epiphany.  Lyrical phrases were out, hitting the required keywords was in.  I started getting interviews everytime.  I got so good at it I even ended up being interviewed for a job I was completely unsuited for; and pushed a colleague’s virtues instead when I realised this halfway through the proceedings. (Er, no, I have absolutely no experience of triple level bookkeeping; I would probably turn to Jane with something like that.  She’s simply marvellous with accountancy.  Unlike me.)

Working in the areas of Marketing and Fundraising I began to learn about writing as a craft rather than a creative Act in the high Romantic vein.  I was taught how to write press releases, magazine articles, promotional literature, newsletters: I was sent on courses that deconstructed these and showed me how to construct them in turn.  I learnt how to synthesise information and write condensed reports for people too busy to read the originals;  to analyse an argument in favour of some proposed departmental action and write a rebuttal; to spot an error or typo in any text (a very irritating skill this); I even had some general legal training.  I learnt how to recognise effective language and good writing, as a form in itself, rather than my previous training in Literature.

Eventually I ended up in a job where I was analysing and commenting on academic funding proposals, and suggesting ways in which they could be improved.  I was working with some of the finest minds in the country, international experts in their field, with numerous well-received monographs and journal articles behind them.  What the funding bodies principally cared about, however, was whether they could express their need for £50,000 to go and study medieval manuscripts in a French archive in a way that was comprehensible to people outside their immediate field and would look good in the annual report of Exciting Things We Have Funded.  In 2,000 words or less.

This taught me to be completely objective about a piece of writing, and Writing in general, and I can now (after many years) look at my own work in the same way.  From the sum of my experiences, I would say that the main stumbling-blocks for the aspiring writer are the too-close identification of what they’ve written, with their own sense of self; and their perception of their inability to reach some high standard or emulate some admired author.

The goal of writing is to find your own voice; and then use it to express your own points of view on this world which most of us are stumbling through bemused.  Writing is a conversation with an unseen audience, to which they, and you, can return again and again.  If you’re not enjoying that conversation, you can hardly expect them to.

Part Two