Monday, December 05, 2011

So you want to be a writer part 2

Note to readers: This is the second of a three part series exploring my desire to become a writer. You will find first post here, the next post here

In my last post I said that one of the reasons why my desire to be a writer moved into the background lay in the fact that I was, in any case, writing all the time even if much of that writing was purely professional. That thought marks the starting theme for this post.

All writing has to be fitted to purpose and, increasingly, the medium used. Apart from some rather bad poetry, my initial writing was at school or university and had to meet the canons laid down for such writing. Even in the early days, my writing was reasonably good. I was, after all, taught by the same teachers who taught and inspired Alex Buzo.

My academic writing was much diminished after I left Armidale for the first time, but even so it continued. By the time I returned to Armidale to complete my PhD thesis, I had done one thesis (my master's qualifying), three journal articles plus a chapter in a book.

My exposure to Canberra changed my writing style. More precisely, it added to it. It seems hard to believe today just how much emphasis was placed on good writing. This wasn't universally true, but it was at places like the Public Service Board and Treasury.

On the Administrative Trainee Program we had entire longish training sessions devoted to effective writing. Ernest Gowers was then king. The focus in Gowers' work and the style manuals that emerged was on clarity and fitness for purpose. Later, the Public Service style manuals would become clogged with requirements intended to avoid offence and to comply with what was perceived as acceptable forms of expression. We really didn't have to worry about that beyond a few simple guidelines and common sense.

In Treasury, one of my key bosses was Chris Sharah. I have written of his influence before. An English honours graduate from Sydney university, Chris meticulously red-penned my drafts, explaining with care just what I had to do to improve. I shortened my sentences and paragraphs always trying to achieve what was called the instant read test: clarity such that a quick skim would give the key messages.

Later I learned to dictate. All our secretaries had shorthand. Some people were actually scared of this, of being able to dictate in a way that did not require constant stops and rework. From my viewpoint, it was a blessing. In two one hour session I could dispose of an entire day's correspondence, leaving me time to think, to prepare longer pieces, to work with others and especially staff. in all this, I learned to write first drafts that were close to final. This was a necessary requirement for the work that I did.

My return to university to work on my PhD thesis affected my writing. Now free from the constraints of official writing, I rediscovered punctuation including the semi-colon, the use of longer paragraphs. I was now trying to write material that was not only clear, but also interesting. During this period I discovered writing as a craft, the careful balancing of words to achieve specific effects. I became addicted.   

After I left the Commonwealth Public Service to work as a consultant my writing broadened further: articles, presentations, manuals, training courses, press releases and PR material were all grist to my mill. Much of this I had done before, but it was the constant variation that was now important. At this stage I first became aware of what I was to call the pernicious effects of the computer.

If you are using pen and paper or dictating, if what you write then has to be be typed, edited or processed by others, you learn to accommodate later stages in the process. The computer dictated a different process: write what you like because you can then edit on the machine. The problem from my perspective lay in the way this encouraged laziness. Instead of planning what you might say and then writing, now you wrote and then corrected.

My problem as an editor, and a fair bit of my work was actually editing writing done by others before the work went to the client, lay in the time question. I found that I spent more time editing than it would have taken me to rewrite the piece from scratch. To a substantial degree, the apparent time savings yielded by computer process automation were more than offset by the later time costs.

Let me take a a simple and apparently trivial example. You can write percentage as % or per cent. It doesn't matter. The important thing is consistency. This holds regardless of the equipment used. However, I found that computer based writing actually encouraged inconsistency, adding to editing time. In the end, I also found myself letting material through that I knew could be done better because of time constraints. Understandably, clients would not pay for editing time. 

I accept that there is a balance question here. Things don't have to be perfect in a literary sense, they just have to be understandable in the context of their purpose. And yet, if you cannot achieve clarity and consistency you risk misunderstanding on the other side.

In all this writing and editing, I never once classified my self as a writer: I would have regarded this as pretentious; writing was a means to an end. The dividing line came when I started blogging.

My initial blogging focus was purely professional. I wanted to use the blogs to generate income from my professional work. Increasingly, I found myself writing for the sake of writing. I had things to say, but I also just wanted to interest. In the end, I decided that writing was what I wanted to do in this last stage of my life. The long but partially submerged itch had developed into a fully blown disease.

In my next post, the last in this series, I will describe the confusions and conflicts that resulted.           

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