Rachel Knightley

No matter how many novels, plays, instruction manuals or poems you have on your writing CV, there are lessons about writing – some technical, others psychological – that benefit from regular rediscovery.

I teach creative writing from pre-school to post-retirement. No matter the age, background or experience of the writer, certain shared attitudes to our writing and ourselves regularly come to the surface. Most common is the wish to ‘get it right’ even though rationally we know that with any creative work, there is unlikely to be a single, definitive ‘right answer’. 

My catchphrase with writing and acting students is ‘there’s no such thing as a wrong answer’. However, there certainly are such things as good habits: concepts and qualities to which we can hold and test our writing, to challenge and reassure ourselves when needed.

This series offers ten ‘Touchstones’ for writing. Some are more technical than others (clarity, structure, rhythm); some more psychological (confidence, voice and message, state of readiness for inspiration). The Touchstones work for all genres, just as Green Ink Writers’ Gym sessions work for all genres. Each post will include a writing tip, exercise and example so you can experiment for yourself and see them in action.

Writing Touchstone 1: Clarity

The purpose of writing – at least, of published writing – is reading. Writing for pleasure is important and every writer needs to be writing for him- or herself first. But just as in life we translate thoughts into words, gestures, expressions and tones in order to communicate with another person, so our writing needs a certain level of ‘translation’ to bring the reader as close as possible to the emotions and information we want them to share. Establishing clarity as your number-one Touchstone gives a constant reminder of why we do what we do. As writers, we are here to communicate.

This means tough decisions. If a word or phrase is elegant and literary-sounding but less clear than a basic one, we must sacrifice beauty for clarity or the reader loses out. If it’s your first draft, fine – first drafts need to be got through and that’s painful enough, so if it helps not to think consciously about someone reading your writing then that is perfectly healthy. It stops being healthy at the editing stage. A word or phrase may be beautiful and/or time-appropriate and/or interesting but if it’s drawing attention to itself more than its propelling meaning and story, it needs to not be there. Writing that is more beautiful than it is clear is glorifying itself, not its theme or message: the language has become an end in itself rather than a conduit for meaning. The agent and publisher will spot that. Make sure you spot it before they do. Put your reader first. 

Clichés work the same as superfluous words: they dilute meaning. Sure, the reason they’re clichés is they are part of the human condition but as phrases or visual tropes they are familiar to the point of invisibility. Your individual style and use of language – saying what you want to say as specifically as you can – enhances and clarifies the experience. That’s your voice. You won’t find your voice unless you fight for it against the stock words and images.

I am not going to talk about spelling and punctuation, except to say they are your best friends. The better you know them, the greater your power and the richer your writing will be.

Clarity is saying what you mean and no more. Sure, different lengths of sentences are fashionable over time (currently getting shorter, in line with our attention spans) but a clear voice will always be distinctive and one writer’s clarity will never be the same as another’s. Open any page by Ian McEwan and lie it next to any page by Terry Pratchett. Every good writer has their own voice, and a clear voice from me will be different from yours – hence no writing course worth its salt will ever tell you here’s a definite recipe for success.

That said…

Technical writing tip

1. Keep Active.

The passive voice is not your friend.

At best it dilutes, e.g. “The chair was kicked over by me” instead of “I kicked the chair over.” 

At worst, it changes your meaning sneakily behind your back, e.g. “His eyes were opened.” A beautifully clear metaphor, unless what you actually meant was “He opened his eyes.”

2. Keep simple.

Avoid tautology: petite in size = petite, or just small. Green-coloured = green, or bottle-green, or lime-green. Be specific. Specific the opposite of boring.

3. Keep moving

Don’t dwell, stagnate, wallow or anything else a thesaurus might offer for “get boring”! Every sentence, every scene, should propel you whether ‘you’ are a novel or an article or anything in between. If you’re not doing that, the language has become an end in itself and we won’t admire it the way we will if it’s still as stylish (it will be) but propelling us on.

Clarity exercise: Happy/Unhappy Words

Think of a phobia or a strong dislike you have. One of my friends is so scared of dogs she avoids parks completely. Another friend’s throat closes up if she sees polystyrene. I am terrified of being locked in lifts and toilets. I try every lock over and over again before going in and even then always tell someone where I’m going.

Give your fear to a character in your current project, or a new character. Write about the feeling of that fear ten minutes; don’t let the pen stop moving (only edit once you’ve written it).

Now, instead of a phobia, give your character a passion. Be specific. Go on. Nobody’s going to read it right now and, even if they did, you’ve fictionalized it so you are doubly safe.

I bet you got the intention across, didn’t you? I bet the images were your own and not clichés. Well done. You meant it, so you said it in the best words in the best order then stopped. That’s clarity. 

Now step outside yourself. Here is a random list. They could be passions; they could be phobias. Enjoy making your characters very happy and very unhappy!

  • Pastry
  • Dogs
  • Photographs
  • Make-up
  • Aeroplanes
  • Buses
  • Cycling
  • Robots
  • Silence
  • Swimming
  • Fish
  • Music
  • Housework
  • Cooking
  • Dancing
  • Newspapers
  • Jewellery
  • Afternoon tea

Psychological writing tip

Write the scene you’re avoiding. Go on, you know what it is. Probably there’s more than one to choose from. There, it’s a draft on the page. Now you can edit it. Does it share your feelings or write around them? Are there twenty-pages of lead up? You can probably cut nineteen of them. Anyway, congratulations: waffle is often about hiding something we’re too afraid to write.

Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com