My train reading has shifted to Paul Kavanagh and Peter Kuch (editors) Conversations: Interviews with Australian Writers (Collins/Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1991). The book features interviews with thirteen Australian writers on the art of writing including Vincent Buckley, Shirley Hazzard, Elizabeth Jolley, A D Hope and Les Murray.
While I am only part way through the book, it has made me reflect on my own writing. I write a lot, many thousands of words each week. Some of that is work related, more on the blogs or the Express column. Then there is the background writing that goes on all the time, the notes etc. Then, sometimes, there are the bigger pieces that may take many weeks to write such as the two book chapters I wrote last year.
By its nature, much of my writing is effectively first draft. There is very little for review or modification beyond the sometimes ineffective quick checks. This has its advantages. I have acquired speed skills in both research and writing. Here I struggle to remember the young Jim who regarded a 1,200 word essay as a major piece of work, something to be struggled with!
The skills I have learned are transferable. There is an art to both faster writing and research that can be taught, for they are actually simple skills. It is when you drop below this level, when you move from writing to very good writing, that things become really complicated. This is the type of writing where it can take hours to get just that right sentence.
Reading the descriptions of the writing experience, I found myself nodding my head. There are times when it just won’t come, when the lines on the paper are crossed out, the paper crumpled and thrown away. I suspect that most of us use pen and paper when dealing with this type of problem. It’s just easier than trying to work on the screen where you have to worry about the technology as well.
Then, too, most seem to sound the words in their heads. Does this sound right? Is it clear? Will it grab?
With official or business English, a different test applies, that of the skim. Will the reader get the gist with a quick skim before they go that meeting? Here clarity of message is important rather than the enjoyment that comes from the language or indeed the story.
Human minds developed in an oral culture where the sound was central to the story. We are still like that when it comes to reading for pleasure or even to learn. We sound important things in our minds because that aids understanding or enjoyment.
The best sentences make us pause to enjoy or think. They lead us into the next part of the story. They stick in our mind. Those are the sentences that are so hard to write.